09 Feb 2011  Working Papers

Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or the Shape of the Future?

Executive Summary — Among the issues looming large in the twenty-first century is a rapid rise in the number of people living in cities and a rapidly growing awareness of our threat to the Earth's environment. In response to both, a number of major corporations and various government bodies have teamed up to explore the idea of "ecocities" —urban communities ideally designed around the idea of environmental sustainability. This paper explores the idea by looking at several ecocities in progress in China, Abu Dhabi, South Korea, Finland, and Portugal. Research by professors Robert G. Eccles and Amy C. Edmondson, doctoral candidate Tiona Zuzul, and HBS research assistant Annissa Alusi. Key concepts include:

  • About 90 percent of urban growth worldwide occurs in developing countries, which are projected to triple their existing base of urban areas between 2000 and 2030.
  • The World Bank plans to team up with government, NGO, and private-sector organizations to help the development of nascent-stage ecocities.
  • The ecocities in progress rely heavily on "smart infrastructure," or the use of centralized computer systems to manage urban systems such as the electric grid and city bus traffic patterns. Both Cisco Systems and IBM are heavily involved in the technological aspects of these initiatives.
  • Financing is a huge challenge for ecocities, which typically require investment capital upwards of $35 billion. So far, the projects have relied on both public- and private-sector involvement, and all eight of the profiled ecocities are planning on eventual real-estate revenue to help offset the cost of development, although the degree to which they do varies according to the economic model of the project.


Author Abstract

Two trends are likely to define the 21st century: threats to the sustainability of the natural environment and dramatic increases in urbanization. This paper reviews the goals, business models, and partnerships involved in eight early "ecocity" projects to begin to identify success factors in this emerging industry. Ecocities, for the most part, are viewed as a means of mitigating threats to the natural environment while creating urban living capacity by combining low carbon and resource-efficient development with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to better manage complex urban systems.

Paper Information

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    • Gunasekar
    • Promoter (startup), Methiodlabs Services Private limited

    Unfortunately the approach to these projects are still old fashioned architect-contractor-engineering approach. I see a threat in these ecocities that it leaves a number of managerial, social, cultural, human behavior aspects to Partnerships with different types of bodies/NGOs. I would however start building such projects focussed on people and the communities and will assess the needs and then match each need with social, mangerial, design and technology aspects before designing the project. I would definitely not go for a uniformly designed city but would focus on smaller communities and make them self sufficient and sustainable proviing linkages only to those needs that cannot be met locally.

    • Eric McNulty
    • Leadership & Sustainability Catalyst, Richer Earth

    The paper presents an excellent overview of some of the major initiatives around eco-cities (or "technotopias" as I call them as they tend to rely on technology to drive key activities and attract residents and businesses). The most imporant point, however, comes toward the end: while many of these projects operate on a "if we build it they will come" model, there is much less consideration of "who will come and why."

    There seems to be a lack of understanding (by the project leaders, not the authors) that the social and economic lives of cities are inseparable. There is much talk of business models, but much less of community models. Will these cities welcome the poor as well as the affluent? Will they embrace the challenge of solving social problems or simply ignore them in hopes that they can be relegated to legacy cities?

    The developer-centric model is one cause of the problems in many exisiting cities. Specialized business, residential, and shopping districts may be efficient for developers but they are horribly inefficient for those whose urban experience includes working, living, and shopping. For urban dwellers, these are intergrated aspects of their lives not discreet activities.

    There is great detail in the paper of those organizations invovled in funding, designing, and building these cities. I'd like to see something about the citizens who will inhabit them and the processes for getting their input into the design process. Perhaps that can be the subject of another paper.