Can city mayors lead the way on sustainable development?

15/05/2015 / Kaj

On a recent trip to San Francisco and Austin, Texas, I found myself accompanied by two potential agents of change – Benjamin Barber book If Mayors Ruled the World and a newly appointed Swedish city mayor, Niklas Nordström. The former has the power to inspire and empower local politicians who wish to take on big challenges. The latter – who has recently taken charge in the Luleå – is exactly the type of mayor who has the power to lead change.

The ability of cities to shape national strategies should not be underestimated – they can help address up to two-thirds of a country’s policy issues. For instance, one of the more influential city networks, the C-40 Group, is on track to reduce its members’ carbon dioxide emissions by 248 million tonnes by 2020 – equivalent to the total greenhouse gas emissions of Portugal and Argentina combined.

This is just one example of how global problems can be addressed with local solutions, or ‘glocalism’. Apply this logic to other international challenges– such as conflict, integration, economic inequality and disease epidemics – and you see how, with the right partnerships, cities can provide an alternative to the traditional channels of global governance.

Seeing Nordström assume the role of foreign minister as he enters the mayoral office in Austin is a sign of how the new global landscape is evolving. It’s moving fast. But then so is Austin. The Texan capital is now an emerging hub of IT and innovation, home to some of America’s most vibrant creative sectors. Here, the governor has even appointed a senior official whose sole function is to ensure that the city remains a leading hub for the country’s music industry.

While Luleå, in the north of Sweden, may be smaller than Austin, it is also a growth area, though it has historically relied more traditional industries like steel and mining in nearby Kiruna. Here too, there is now a vibrant music scene, with concerts held in igloos and musical instruments made of ice proving to be viable selling points for the city. Once deeply rooted in iron and steel, Luleå is also now home a world-leading, climate-neutral cluster of data centers, used by tech giants such as Facebook.

Greenpeace publicly welcomed Facebook’s investment because of the the Swedish operation’s use of renewable energy. This success marks is another way in which Luleå has emerged into a new economic era. River hydropower is now a significant resource and even traditionally ‘dirty’ industries are cleaning up, with steel facilities contributing their surplus energy to the district heating system, keeping neighborhoods warm at the lowest prices in the country.

When I ask Nordström about his views on the city’s role and global focus, he immediately explains that doing nothing is irresponsible and leads to stagnation and non-sustainable community development. “We have now signed a first ‘letter of intent’ with Austin and my employees feel a greater commitment to being part of building a global partnership like this,” he explains.

Later that week, the mayor and Luleå’s head of business and economy, Matz Engman, visit Tesla’s manufacturing plant in Freemont, just outside San Francisco. While bicycles, coffee areas and computers may be expected features of Facebook’s headquarters (which the pair visited earlier in the day), finding them in a car factory is something of a surprise. But this industry is also changing rapidly, with Tesla at the forefront.

Having bought the factory from Toyota for USD43mil, the company then received a USD50mil investment from the Japanese car giant. Not a bad deal for the electric vehicle manufacturer, which currently sells about 1,000 cars a week, up from 600 at the beginning of 2014. Tesla’s customers are found mainly in the USA and Norway and while its share of world car sales may be modest for now, there will soon be huge interest in its concept, argues Nordström: “We see our work in Luleå as having to learn from developments in the new areas where IT really start to change our lives.”

Over in Silicon Valley, an evening gathering at Nordic Innovation House brings together a number of the figures participating in ‘Will Mayors Rule the World?’, the opening event of Almedalen Week (a series of important political forums, seminars and debates held every June in Sweden).

One of them is James Ehrlich, who is on the verge of taking his idea of Regentvillages – residential areas that generate their own energy supply – from plan to reality. By developing new technologies that integrate families’ and their neighborhood’s interests, from healthcare and garbage to water water supply and other essential support services, Ehrlich’s sustainable housing concept is as much about social lives as it is building materials. Substantial support from Stanford University has been crucial and numerous international organizations are now involved in developing the project.

Ehrlich is currently in discussion with a number of cities in Denmark, Malaysia, Sweden, China, India and Indonesia. Interest in his idea could lead to more meetings with senior municipal politicians, as he may offer cities of all sizes a way to meet the challenges arising from migration and rapid urbanization. Ehrlich is already in dialogue with mayor Nordström and hopes to use Almedalen Week as a chance to engage with other city-level politicians in attendance.

The opportunity to meet mayors at Almedalen is also of interest to James Hanusa, a leading figure in San Francisco’s new technological and social development. Although best know as innovation manager for the annual Burning Man festival, Hanusa has also participated in projects involving residents, politicians and officials in the interactive, ‘smart’ urban developments in San Francisco.

These are just some of the innovators using new technology more systematically to build smart cities. Many of the analysts I speak with in Silicon Valley argue that using large data sets to better understand human behavior can help treat economic, social and environmental issues simultaneously when planning an urban environment. This holistic, cross-sector approach offers new planning tools for building cities that are better integrated and sustainable.

It seems fitting that sustainable urban innovation is occurring in a city with such a fluid population. And what would San Francisco be without its immigrants? Over 40 percent of city’s inhabitants (and just over 30 percent of Austin’s) come from abroad. The resulting diversity has arguably driven the area’s ongoing transformation, something for us to think about when we talk of immigration in Europe.

Luleå’s mayor, Niklas Nordström, says he sees several important links between the development of Norrbotten (the region his city is located in) and the talks happening at Silicon Valley’s Nordic Innovation House. He takes the stage in a discussion with Anne Lidgard of Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency manager in Silicon Valley.

Kiruna, in the north, they are moving the whole city and building a new ‘sustainable city’. The mining industry has undermined the city’s location [with the relocation prompted by the expanding mine] – a unique situation. With the skills here in Silicon Valley and Stanford University, both Kiruna and Luleå gain new insights into the construction and development of sustainable cities,” he tells the attendees.

There are several components of these, Nordström argues, including technological development and integration of planning, construction and operation. Sustainable cities are also about the growth of local political activities by eroding sector boundaries and streamlining everyday work in the municipality. But what is particularly inspiring is that, with the help of new technologies, they can develop democracy and allow both officials and citizens of new ways to have a direct impact.

But with so many competing interests, surely there is also political tension here?

“For parties, I see this as a great opportunity to revitalize the party work and Almedalen is just the place to bring this type of discussion,” says Nordström. “And remember. We mayors are pragmatic and community builders with local ties. This perspective makes us the key actors to work with the challenges that communities around the world are facing. Although national governments negotiating in Paris later this year [at the UN Climate Change Conference] will not agree on a common international climate agreement, we will.”

Mayors will continue our global network and deliver solutions to climate change. This is important and we can thus show the way in which international cooperation should be conducted. But we must act strongly and consistently.

Already in the 18th of june a 24 hours hackathon, called a http://http://www.climate-kic.org/climathon/# involving citizens in cities to come up with innovative solutions for discussion in Almedalen. In Almedalen the Mayors will discuss an action plan in front of The UN Climate meeting in Paris in December.

Take part of the preparation and secure a seat in Almedalen at http://www.willmayorsruletheworld.se

Kaj Embrén

 

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