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The Next Economy
Cities and Corporations:
How Do They Intersect on Sustainability?

What can cities do contribute to the sustainability revolution? A whole lot, according to a workshop today, opening morning of SB ’15, featuring Gil Friend, CSO of the City of Palo Alto, and Chris Guenther, Director of Research at think tank SustainAbility.

The three-hour presentation and breakout discussion focused on leveraging municipal and corporate partnerships to advance sustainability goals around issues such as climate, water, utilities and mobility.

Friend set the stage for the conversation by discussing the origins of city settlement and their centrality in human exchange and experimentation throughout history. As cultural centers, providers of local services and information, and platforms for community organizing, cities can be hubs for innovation and sustainability solutions testing. “We envision the city as a living being, as an ecosystem,” he said.

Friend described the sustainability initiatives he works on in Palo Alto, which include an emphasis on electrification, mobility, water, ecosystem services, and exploratory finance initiatives such as carbon pricing. He underscored the importance of educating the public and receiving feedback, streamlining regulatory frameworks such as permitting processes, and innovating policy to provide incentives for corporate partnerships.

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Guenther provided examples of notable corporate experiments with city sustainability, including Ford’s Smart Mobility Plan, JPMorgan’s $100 million investment in Detroit’s economic recovery, and Novo Nordisk’s Cities Changing Diabetes campaign.

What are some of the challenges to effective public-private partnership? Guenther noted the difference in scale between cities and global corporations, differing priorities, regulations that potentially frustrate innovation, disconnect between hype and early results, and questions on how money and costs are shared.

As Friend emphasized, we must keep striving for sustainable urban solutions despite these challenges. “The choices are stark. We create the world we live by the choices we make,” he said.

And considering that 54 percent of the world population live in urban centers (and the UN projects it will grow 66 percent by 2050), cities will be a critical actor in the decisions shaping the future.

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