Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or the Shape of the Future?

by Annissa Alusi, Robert G. Eccles, Amy C. Edmondson & Tiona Zuzul

Overview — 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.

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