Building Sustainable Cities – and Societies – through Collaboration

Sustainability Treehouse Exhibition

Society is described by Aristotle as two or more people pursuing a common goal. A society could therefore be an elevator –even if none of the occupants talks to each other! We enter, we nod, sometimes say hello, press our desired floor and look at our smartphone, contemplate our watch or adjust our briefcase until we are awaken from our reverie by the elevator chime, the door opening or someone entering or exiting our walled ecosystem.

Cities are like elevators. They have a common goal as well as people passing in and out of them. They require technology to function and use resources to reach shared goals. They receive people from all walks of life and representatives of every industry sector imaginable. Elevators and cities are systems in movement; buzzing and chiming every passing second. But despite, or because of, the noise their members are missing valuable opportunities to talk to each other…

Building sustainable cities requires collaboration. Not just collaboration between public and private sectors but also collaboration with and between consumers and citizens. A public private partnership (PPP) is a concept used globally (and usually quite successfully) to help solve infrastructure problems relating to things such as water and energy, ports and roads through both public and private participation. But I think it’s time to look at the consumer or user more closely when we talk about building sustainable cities.

We are living in an age where collaborative consumption is becoming the norm: examples range from the popular accommodation web platform “Airbnb” to crowdfunding projects and ideas through “Kickstarter” or “SeedInvest”. We crowdsource design, suppliers and scientific solutions. Consumers and businesses have found their own ways to collaborate and there’s much more innovative problem solving in the pipeline.

This is where the future of our cities lies; sharing physical and virtual spaces to come up with innovative and workable solutions to our cities’ most pressing issues. We don’t need to be elevators – each going our own way with very little conversation – when we can learn through collaboration; opening up “two way streets” for dialogue and problem solving leading to sustainable city growth.

One of the main questions that arose during the Peter Drucker Global Forum in November 2013 in Vienna, Austria was the role of leadership in complex – and increasingly collaborative – times. With collaboration, where do leaders fit in? If and when we crowdsource our cities’ problems, who leads the charge?

One of the characteristics of modern cities – a modern public – is the potential to create and identify leaders from the very platforms used for problem solving. Anyone can start collaborating but it takes someone to lead and implement the ideas that those platforms or networks generate. In other words, we need someone – whether from government, business or community – to defend, promote, adapt and use the idea for the benefit of the city. Someone to say: “here is an example that works – what comes next?”

If we want to build sustainable cities we need to tap into the knowledge networks that already exist and leaders will emerge. It’s not enough to just design, build and operate or to elect the officials to make strategic decisions for us; while some of us might be happy with the status quo the reality is that the status quo is not sustainable. Forums, networks, industrial clusters, special economic zones – as well as the communities, businesses, governments and individuals that support them – are the platforms for building collaborative and sustainable cities and societies.

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This post was written in response to Masdar’s 2014 Engage Blogging Contest: Smart Cities & Sustainable Development. You can vote for my story above – or another one you feel best answers the question: “How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?” on Masdar’s web site: http://www.masdar.ae/engage

My bio: Esther Clark is a Contributor to Forbes Mexico and America Economia magazines on leadership and strategy. She is the founder of Hipona Consulting where she currently leads Strategy and Business Development. She is a 2013 Peter Drucker Global Challenge Winner and blogs about business, leadership, branding, social entrepreneurship, knowledge networks and Latin America.

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