Rebuilding Our World With Sustainable Cities (& What This Means for Businesses)

Sustainable Cities

Agent *reader*, I call upon you today as we’re at a time of crisis. Humans have annihilated 83% of all wild animals and are disrupting a natural climate balance, throwing us into a projected future that is 4.1 – 4.8°C (39.38 – 40.64 °F) warmer.

It’s our duty, as citizens, business owners, and employees to change the narrative for our children’s lives; to kickstart a transition into a more sustainable future, one that enriches biodiversity and a balanced climate. And for this, we turn our attention to sustainable cities.

According to the World Health Organization, the global world population living in urban areas is expected to increase to 66% by 2050, making cities a perfect place to transform society and support biodiversity and a balanced climate.

In this Process Street article, we’ll become time-travelers, zipping into the future to assess two separate predicted scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: The continuation of human activity as normal.
  • Scenario 2: Transforming into a more sustainable future, starting with our cities.

Today, we meet at a crossroad, where our future could go two ways. We’ll explore these two separate scenarios, before addressing the role of sustainable cities in creating a more desirable world. We’ll look at how businesses must adapt to survive in a future that is carbon-neutral with rich biodiversity.

After all, who wouldn’t want such a future? 🌻

Seat belts on, time-machine ignited, to the future here we come! 🕔🚀🕤

What are sustainable cities?

Sustainable cities
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Sustainable cities are urban areas designed to acknowledge economic, societal, and environmental needs for design and development. The aim is to produce a resilient society for existing populations – that is, a society able to withstand the negative effects of climate change – without compromising the ability of future populations to experience the same.

There is the expectation of America to start addressing climate to the world stage” – Paul Allen, Interviewed by Jane Courtnell

Cities account for 75% of resource use, 60-80% of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and 50% of global waste. Also, the urban population is expected to grow to 66% worldwide by 2050. These problems we see in cities today will be severely exacerbated if we don’t act now. Once more, for the same reason, these issues make cities ideal places for test hubs. In a relatively small area you can test innovative ideas, and quickly grasp if it’s worth scaling up.

Taking the majority of resource use and supporting an extensive human population makes cities the perfect hub to transition into a more sustainable future.

This is important as we face two wicked problems. Wicked problems are defined as issues that are interconnected, have many feedback loops – meaning improvements in one area can degrade another area – and require cross-sector collaboration. The wicked problems we face today are:

  1. Our climate crisis.
  2. Our biodiversity crisis.

These issues are complex and ingrained into society.

Both are unique.

Both are linked.

Both root from the same cause – unsustainable human activity.

Targeting urban areas with sustainable development, innovation, and advancement, could alter the trajectory of our future. How we act now governs the state of our world handed down for generations to come.

“We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” – Barack Obama, Globalo

Our future, scenario 1

Trigger warning: Some may find the below video upsetting. This video demonstrates the impact of unsustainable human activity on our natural world.

1937: The world population is 2.3 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 280 Parts Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 66%.

1954: The world population is 2.7 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 310 Parts Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 64%.

1960: The world population is 3.0 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 315 Parts Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 62%.

1978: The world population is 4.3 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 335 Part Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 55%.

1997: The world population is 5.9 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 360 Parts Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 46%.

2020: The world population is 7.8 billion. Carbon in the atmosphere is 415 Parts Per Million. The remaining wilderness is 35%.

2030

What will our world look like in 2030 under the current trajectory of human activity?

Amazon rainforest - Sustainable cities
Deforestation of the Amazon. Source.

2030

  • The Amazon rainforest will be cut down to a point where it’ll no longer produce enough moisture, degrading the habitat into a dry savannah. This will bring catastrophic species loss and alter the water cycle on a global level. The substitution of the rainforests to savannah-like habitat is called dieback.
  • The arctic will become ice-free in the summer during the decade 2030-2040. Removing this ice-cap means less of the sun’s energy will be reflected out into space, increasing the speed of global warming.

2040

  • Great expanses of permafrost are projected to thaw in the north by 2040, releasing methane. This greenhouse gas is far more potent than carbon dioxide and will accelerate the rate of climate change dramatically.

2050

  • The ocean will continue to heat and become more acidic, killing coral reefs. Under current human activity, coral reefs are predicted to be gone by 2050.
  • Fish populations will crash. Scientists predict the collapse of seafood fisheries by 2050

2080

  • Pollinating insects will significantly decline, negatively impacting the agricultural industry.
  • The weather will become increasingly unpredictable, and extreme in 2080.

2100

  • By 2100 global food production will enter a crisis as soils become exhausted with over-use.
  • Our planet becomes 4°C (39.2°F) warmer making large parts of the earth uninhabitable.
  • A sixth mass extinction event is happening.

Under the current trajectory of human activity, and within the span of the next life-time, human security and stability will be lost.

Our future, scenario 2

Sustainable cities
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To restore stability to our planet, we must restore biodiversity.

We must re-wild the world, and with that our cities – which is simpler than you might think. Doing so will only benefit ourselves, and future generations to come.

How can we do that?

Looking around the world we can already see sustainable development in action, with the creation of sustainable cities well underway. These cities, the businesses, and the people they support represent the future, an alternative future to the one previously laid out.

Let’s take a look at notable sustainable city examples. To do this, we’ll put the time-machine aside and remain in the present day, as the developments I’m about to show you are prototypes of a future we can have.

Our future cities are sustainable

Our future cities are sustainable cities. They’re cities that have been created using the concept of carbon neutrality, green infrastructure, and climate resilience.

While exploring these futuristic cities, we’ll be considering what this new city design will mean for businesses. Process Street has drawn the below conclusions following extensive research during Gothenburg’s Green Week conference, October 2020, Urban Greening in the post-COVID era.

Vancouver city, Canada

Sustainable cities
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Vancouver is rated the 3rd greenest city in the world, it’s seen a 35% increase in green jobs since 2010, and is home to 23% of Canada’s CleanTech companies.

The city has an ambitious climate plan, to switch to run entirely on renewable energy. To achieve this, the city needs to work with a broad range of stakeholders. As such, 35,000 residents and 180 organizations took part in writing the urban greening and sustainable city action plan.

In this plan, there was a range of new policy initiatives such as communal city farms, waste recovery, green technology, reduced water use, and an increase in green jobs.

Key takeaways and opportunities for business:

  • Collaborate: The cities of the future require collaboration and involvement from businesses, to work with the city and its residents, to plan, innovate, and create a more sustainable urban model.
  • Stay ahead of the curve: To stay ahead in the market, businesses must understand consumer needs. Communities of Vancouver City are engaged and want to be involved in the creation of more sustainable cities. Thinking ahead of the curve, businesses must adapt to respond to this societal shift underway, whereby individuals are increasingly aware of their environmental footprint.

Columbia City, Missouri U.S.

Sustainable cities
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Columbia city’s Green Business Program incentivizes businesses to transform and adopt a more sustainable business model.

For instance, businesses are given financial encouragement to improve energy efficiency. The city pays 1/2 of a business’s energy audit, and once this audit is completed, repays up to $12,500 for the energy improvements needed.

In doing so, Columbia re-defines how organizations are valued, supporting greener corporations.

During Gothenburg’s Green Week conference, October 2020, it was stated that urban greening attracts and rewards companies with strong green aspirations, entrepreneurs, and innovative thinkers.

Lean tech startups, digital solutions, and green technologies will move in and disrupt the market as we transition into a new age of sustainable and green cities.

Key takeaways and opportunities for business:

  • Re-value businesses: A traditional business model, one that values organizations based on profit alone, is becoming obsolete. We need to rethink how businesses are valued and transform our organizations to make a strong sustainable stance.
  • Be innovators. Think differently to disrupt the classic business model and develop one that works in an alternative, sustainable future. Ask the question, where will your business be in 2050 under current sustainability ambitions?

Zero Carbon Britain

Zero Carbon Britain - Sustainable cities
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This example isn’t looking at 1 city per see, we’re looking at developments happening on a country-wide level, which will impact every city in the UK. We interviewed Paul Allen, knowledge and outreach coordinator for Zero Carbon Britain. Here’s what we found out.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) is an initiative to socially and physically transform the UK, and its cities, to meet the 1.5°C (34.7°F) to 2°C (35.6°F) IPCC warming targets.

Taking ZCB’s Rising to the Climate Emergency Report, I’ve summarized key takeaways, which aim to power-down the energy we use, and power-up urban areas with alternative, clean-energy sources.

Powering-down: Examples of powering-down ambitions include: Retrofitting homes and buildings with better insulation (pg. 42), and supporting a behavioral shift to switch to a plant-based diet (55g of beef protein releases 5.372 KgCO2e compared to 0.006 KgC02e released for 55g of nut and seed protein) (pg. 88).

Powering-up: New estimations for the levelized cost of electricity, published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), shows renewables to be cheaper today than previously expected in 2016. On this note, the Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019, reported more than 1/2 of renewable capacity achieved lower power costs relative to the cheapest new coal plants. ZCB plans to power-up and use 100% renewable energy to sustain cities, homes, and livelihoods (pg. 55).

“Energy payback from wind farm investments is 6-9 months, and for offshore wind, the payback is ~1 year” – Paul Allen, Interviewed by Jane Courtnell

Paul Allen, knowledge and outreach coordinator for ZCB, states the importance of connecting cities across the UK via public transport for achieving a Zero Carbon Britain. Moving away from the ZCB report, we’ll look at what developments the UK is undertaking to support the regime.

Britain’s High Speed 2 railway (HS2) has been designed with this in mind, linking major cities, Birmingham, London, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. On completion, the project is marketed to emit 17x less carbon for long-distance travel relative to the equivalent flight journey, and 7x less carbon relative to the equivalent car journey. However, concerns have been raised as the track runs through ancient woodland, putting natural habitats at risk – which seems counterproductive.

This situation highlights the interconnectedness and complexity of our climate and biodiversity crises. This isn’t to say development must cease, but rather this complexity must be appreciated, with all problems addressed with a solution.

Building on this, during HS2 development, efforts have been made to minimize the impact of construction on biodiversity. For instance, every single tree is checked for wildlife, with trees housing mice and bats sectioned off and removed with care. Once more, topsoil from ancient woodland is taken to re-plant these woodlands elsewhere. However, trees haven’t been growing as predicted, causing difficulties in re-establishing the habitats.

Notable efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact of HS2, but questions of how environmentally-friendly this project is, to be marketed as a ZCB solution, remain.

Key takeaways and opportunities for business:

  • Power-up and power-down: Building sustainable cities requires powering-down the use of carbon, and powering-up renewable energy use.
  • Appreciate the complexity: To develop sustainable cities, we’re dealing with complex problems. For example, a development to reduce carbon-use may reduce biodiversity in a given area, which could deem a given progression counter-intuitive.
  • Be aware of greenwash: It’s important to critically access every new project and initiative to ensure sustainability claims match reality – greenwash needs to be identified.

Sustainable cities: Key takeaways for corporate sustainability

Taking examples from across the globe, the above represent sustainable development in action. Vancouver city, Columbia city, and cities across the UK under ZCB initiatives represent our future.

Next, we’ll consider sustainable cities under the business lens, to determine how businesses should adjust and be complementary to sustainable city developments.

What is corporate sustainability?

Corporate sustainability is balancing the economic, social, and environmental needs of a business, to achieve long-term business success.

Constructing sustainable cities will alter the landscape that businesses operate in. This will pose both opportunities and challenges for cities. Or, if you like, opportunities disguised as challenges. Businesses must therefore adapt and adjust their operations to prosper in this changing world. That is, businesses must achieve corporate sustainability.

At Process Street we advise you to implement ISO 14000 standards, to manage your organization’s environmental impact through an Environmental Management System. For more information on ISO 14000 standards, plus access to our free checklist resources, read: What is ISO 14000? EMS Basics & Implementation (Environmental Management).

Process Street is a Business Process Management software, giving you a no-code means of managing your business operations. In this instance, we provide you with free access to our corporate sustainability checklists, which have been designed based on ISO 14000 recommendations. I’ve listed these checklists below, simply click on the links to get started for free:

In addition to this, from the above sustainable city examples, I’ve summarized 7 key takeaways for businesses to achieve corporate sustainability. In this next section, we’ll look at these seven takeaways in more detail, to help you incorporate the advice given.

Corporate sustainability tip #1: Collaborate 💬

Building sustainable cities for our future requires collaboration between multiple stakeholders. This includes businesses.

To exemplify the collaboration needed, consider the following example.

UPS – the world’s biggest logistic company – faced restrictions in Hamburg city, Germany, when authorities announced plans to restrict vehicle movement. This ban came as a drive to reduce Hamburg’s carbon footprint. However, rather than imposing the ban, the city asked businesses for alternative solutions regarding in-city transportation.

Through involvement and collaboration, UPS prospered under these new restrictions. The company worked with Hamburg city and created storage containers to act as mobile warehouses, with packages being delivered using electric bikes or on foot.

To help you collaborate and drive a strong social responsibility for your organization, use our ISO 26000 Social Responsibility Performance Assessment Checklist, which guides you through ISO best practices.

Corporate sustainability tip #2: Stay ahead of the curve 📈

Thinking ahead of the curve, businesses must respond to the societal shift underway, whereby consumers are thinking more about their environmental impact.

A survey by Accenture found 72% of consumers choose to purchase eco-friendly products, with 82% stating they’re expecting to make more environmentally friendly purchases in the next 5 years.

This consumer want will motor sustainable development in cities, and alter the playing field for businesses. The organizations that don’t acknowledge this consumer need and adapt as such, will not survive long-term.

Let’s take a look at the fashion industry for instance. According to a new report, the U.S. second-hand clothing market is projected to more than triple in value over the next 10 years – increasing from $28 billion in 2019 to $80 billion in 2029. Once more, in 2019, second-hand clothing expanded 21 times faster than conventional apparel retail. Supporting a more sustainable circular economy, second-hand clothing sales will have the backing of sustainable city initiatives. If fashion-lines don’t adapt and respond, could this be the end of conventional and unsustainable fashion brands?

Corporate sustainability tip #3: Re-value businesses 🧑‍🤝‍🧑🌎💰

Many organizations today are built around the traditional business model, introduced by Milton Friedman in the 1970s. Friedman stated that the sole purpose of business was to maximize profits, with no social or environmental responsibility. Business is business, and a business’s responsibility is to its shareholders.

The issue is that this traditional business model is insular and isolating for a given organization. As a Biology graduate, I often like to draw similarities between Biology and Business. One phenomenon within Biology is that no organism can prosper indefinitely if surrounding organisms also do not thrive. How can a business thrive if society and the environment on which it depends upon, don’t?

From the 1960s and the 1970s, issues connecting businesses with the environment grew to become broader and more complex. The 1987 Brundtland report brought environmental and societal facets into the spotlight for business, defining the concept of sustainable development as:

Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs” – The Federal Office for Spatial Development ARE, 1987: Brundtland Report

We’re already seeing shifts in how organizations are valued. For instance, the World Economic Forum’s global 100 rates businesses against revenue and key metrics of sustainability, such as carbon footprint and genre diversity. Top-rated organizations include Tesla and Swedish bank Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB. Already business tycoons, by adopting a more sustainable business model these organizations are only set to prosper into the future under sustainable city developments.

Corporate sustainability tip #4: Be innovators 🔬

The McKinsey Global Institute states that disruptive development is an advancement that’ll transform life, business, and the global economy. These developments will shake-up the status-quo, making it obsolete.

To give you an example, we’ll take a look at Process Street’s business model. Process Street is run entirely by a remote team. This novel approach to business saves money and is also more sustainable. For instance, with remote-based work, the concept of a holiday is re-defined – you take your work with you on your adventure. Short-stays and the associated flight-emissions are reduced, individuals can limit yearly flights but stay at a given location for months-on-end. Travel is reduced further with the absence of commuting to work.
Once more, there is no need for a physical office space, reducing associated emissions, and habitat destruction. Answering the question, where will your business be in 2050 under current sustainability ambitions? At Process Street, we envisage more remote-based work, supporting sustainable city developments.

Corporate sustainability tip #5: Power-up and power-down 🌞💨🌊

Coming back to the term, disruptive development, renewable energy is potentially classed as a disruptive technology. As fossil fuel reserves run dry, oil and gas prices are only set to rise. Sustainable cities and businesses must power-up using renewable energy supplies.

Powering-up the use of renewables doesn’t require a substantial investment on your part. You can switch to a renewable energy supplier. We have listed out top 10 renewable energy supplier below:

When it comes to powering-down your business, we’re talking about improving energy efficiency and conservation. For more information on how to do this, read: Your Quick Guide to Energy Management for Sustainability and Reduced Business Costs.

Corporate sustainability tip #6: Appreciate the complexity 🤔

Issues associated with our biodiversity and climate crises are complex. As previously mentioned, they’re wicked problems. Businesses must appreciate this complexity and build sustainable solutions that match.

We saw how HS2 can potentially support greener cities via creating slicker city-to-city connections to reduce car and flight travel (and their associated C02 emissions). But we also saw how HS2 development requires demolishment of ancient woodlands and other natural habitats that support Britain’s biodiversity. Both the climate and biodiversity crises need to be considered in tandem if we’re to build truly sustainable cities and businesses. The answer isn’t to shy-away from development, but to address issue complexity and combat each problem presented. This means no half-measures.

To learn more about the complexity of problems facing our environment, read: Corporate Sustainability: Using System Thinking to Solve a Global Crisis

Corporate sustainability tip #7: Avoid greenwash 💰

Greenwashing defines an imbalance between the claims a company makes regarding its sustainability efforts, and the actual time and money spent minimizing their environmental impact.

Greenwash is used as a marketing strategy, to deceive the ecologically conscious consumer. It’s easy to market a given business initiative as sustainable, but reality has to match these claims for alignment with sustainable city developments. False claims will be exposed and condemned in our sustainable world.

To learn more about greenwashing, read: Greenwashing: What It Is and How to Stop It (Free Template). In this article, you’ll find our BSR Greenwash Prevention Checklist, which I’ve embedded below.

Click here to access our BSR Greenwash Prevention Checklist!

Building sustainable cities needs support from our businesses, so let’s act

We’re facing the collapse of the living world. A world from which we built our civilization, and a world that we’re completely reliant on.

No one wants this to happen.

We can’t afford for it to happen.

But there is hope. Through innovation and advancement, we can draw up solutions, to live more sustainably and at balance with the natural world. Cities house the majority of the human population giving us a good place to begin the transition into a more sustainable future.

Building sustainable cities needs business support, and businesses will need the support of cities to operate more sustainably. I’m confident that we’re able to draw from human wisdom and complete human development for a greener future. A future that supports our businesses, society, and the rich and wonderful that we inherited.

Imagine that…

Go on, I dare you.

How do you think your business will fare in our future sustainable cities? How is your business developing to become more sustainable? Please comment below as we’d love to hear from you. Who knows, you may even get featured in an upcoming article!

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Jane Courtnell

Hi there, I am a Junior Content Writer at Process Street. I graduated in Biology, specializing in Environmental Science at Imperial College London. During my degree, I developed an enthusiasm for writing to communicate environmental issues. I continued my studies at Imperial College's Business School, and with this, my writing progressed looking at sustainability in a business sense. When I am not writing I enjoy being in the mountains, running and rock climbing. Follow me at @JaneCourtnell.


6 Comments

Great post thanks for sharing this valuable piece of information with us all. As we all are aware of the fact that as we keep on going at the current pace we might exhaust our resources. Sustainable cities is a great step towards curing the resources.
It feels great to see that you’re enlightening your audiences with such great posts.
Nice work keep enlightening your readers with such content in the future as well.

Hey that is a pretty inspiring article. Has given me some ideas and even motivation to reposition our small company as an enviornmentally-better solution for our customers (on top of all the other benefits we already offer). Maybe even encourage our customers to do the same and get the ecological snowball rolling faster and bigger.

Hi Anthony,

Thank you very much for your comment, I’m very happy to hear it 🙂

I think with a collective effort we can make a difference, and build a better and greener world. Please keep us updated on your efforts, and any changes you have made – however big or small :).

All the best,

Jane


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