When we talk about using innovative technologies and processes to address the climate crisis, we often think of specific tools or products that could be implemented within our urban areas. These innovations are often applied at a relatively small scale, such as within buildings to improve energy efficiency or innovative Internet of Things (IoT) technologies across cities to speed up the flow of traffic to reduce congestion. Although useful, for cities to progress towards net zero by 2030 or even 2040, the scale of innovation required needs to match this significant ambition.
This is where ‘systems innovation’ comes into play; it provides an approach and toolkit for cities that have declared a climate emergency but are struggling with the ‘how’ to deliver transformative climate targets. Systems innovation seeks to build the learning required to generate pathways for radical transformation in cities and regions. It reflects the experience of authorities internationally that more holistic approaches are required – beyond the boundaries of a single organisation or individual infrastructure and technology fixes – to deliver a zero-carbon society. It recognises that cities are complex systems with a dynamic network of interactions, on which different levers of change operate. And that innovation portfolios are required across these different levers of change – from governance and new financial models to new technology and social behaviours – to test, at scale, and learn what works best in specific social, cultural, and economic conditions to deliver rapid change.
Systems innovation for net zero necessitates cities taking calculated risks, from new governance mechanisms and financial models to applying emerging technologies, shifting away from the cautious, business-as-usual approach which undermines net zero aspirations. This at a time of huge pressure recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and after a decade of city authority being impacted by budget cuts. This takes political leadership and a clear vision of the intended outcomes.
Systems innovation: where are the opportunities?
Urban areas are intensely creative, capable of embracing rapid rates of change and mobilising extraordinary amounts of ingenuity and resources – and many are already rising to this climate challenge. But, as long as these efforts offer siloed and disconnected solutions to urban challenges, we will not achieve the pace and scale of change needed. The net zero, climate-resilient cities we urgently need can only be achieved through collaboration across sectors and levers of change, coupled with the adoption of an orchestrated, portfolio approach to systems innovation. For example, we need to leverage the links and interdependencies across food, health, mobility, resilience, and green spaces; and across water, waste, energy, buildings, jobs, and social behaviours, to name a few. This systemic approach will require new models of governance, a willingness to experiment with different solutions, and an inclusive politics that works with communities and novel solution providers.
Experience from EIT Climate KIC’s Healthy Clean Cities programme, working with 15 leading cities across Europe, uncovered a suite of levers broadly categorised into:
- Agency: what policy and regulatory levers control what in each urban area?
- Access to finance: who pays and how?
- Citizen engagement and social behaviours: how do we embed change?
- New technologies: how do we electrify everything? How do we manage data?
- Skills: who has the capacity and capabilities we need?
- Market-making: how can we build economic benefit from the local green economy?
Typically, challenges facing a town or city – for example how to initiate a large-scale retrofit residential retrofit programme – cuts across multiple levers of change and involves multiple organisations and multi-level governance. Solving these persistent, deep-rooted challenges requires a coordinated programme of testing interventions on different levers of change simultaneously. It will usually require rethinking standard financial models, with renewed focus on blending public with private investment to scale the solutions; it will require new skills in the ‘missing middle’ able to work between public and private sectors; it will require new forms of citizen engagement; and it will require clear thinking about the opportunity afforded by new technologies and data driven innovation.
Our top three recommendations for Future Ready cities embedding innovation within their town or city system.
EIT Climate-KIC has been selected to manage the Net Zero Cities platform which underpins the European Union’s (EU) Cities Mission, aiming to support 100 European cities to reach net zero by 2030. This builds on the learning of the ‘Healthy Clean Cities’ Deep Demonstrations. Learnings from this programme suggest three practical building blocks that underpin delivery of ambitious targets in cities.
Prioritising quality of life and wellbeing, through improving the places in which individuals and communities work and play, consistent with net zero and resilience aspirations. It demands a focus not only on climate issues and carbon emissions, but also on other elements that matter, such as health, wellbeing, jobs, skills, homes, green spaces. It usefully pulls together a wide range of services and infrastructure in a place. While there is much support for the notion of well-served neighbourhoods, naturally expressed differently in urban, peri-urban, and rural communities, it is apparent that the data, services, and infrastructure are not yet of the required quality to deliver effective outcomes. This is an area ripe for innovation.
2. An investment mindset and new financial models
The transformation required is on a scale and speed that cannot be achieved with public sector funding alone, particularly when constrained by annual budgets. It demands a 10 to 15-year vision for the city and individual communities within the city. And it demands an understanding of the models and overall blend of public and private investment required, identifying the ‘annuity’ or co-benefits that accrue from the investment, from public goods such as community health and wellbeing to commercial returns from local energy generation and savings or electric vehicle (EV) charging.
3. Civic legitimacy
The third is civic legitimacy. The scale of the changes being planned cannot be done “to communities”, they have to be done “with communities”. This does not mean that it will be easy: changing habits and common assumptions will always be contested. But rethinking models of governance, with citizen assemblies, coalitions of community and local business interests, and clarity on the opportunities and trade-offs, are a necessary step to empowering communities in cities to deliver change.