‘State of the Art’ Sustainable Innovation & Design

Part of the ‘Towards Sustainable Product Design’ series of conferences

20th International Conference
9th-10th November 2015
University for the Creative Arts
KT18 5BE

Sustainable Innovation 2014: Key Lessons

Cities and Regions as Catalysts for Smart and Sustainable Innovation

Martin Charter, Director, The Centre for Sustainable Design @ UCA

  1. Urbanisation: 70% of the world’s population are predicted to move to urban areas by 2050 and this will mean that we will see the rise of more powerful city-states or city-regions. As a result of the increased density of populations, cities may increasingly become hot-beds for sustainability problems. However, if people, networks, technology, information (‘big data’) and innovation are engaged, mobilised and marshalled appropriately, cities have the potential to become platforms and catalysts for new resource efficient and low carbon solutions. However, what will this shift mean for regions and rural cities outside of cities and large towns?
  2. Similarities: cities and regions face similar sustainability challenges but each situation will be different due to unique issues related to population, history, geography, economy and politics. While one city or region can learn from the activities of another, effective policies and interventions must be specific. The need for specificity is particularly important for city and regional policy makers, compared with the more general requirements that international and national policymakers must consider.
  3. Green Economy: the concepts of ‘green growth’ and ‘green economy’ is percolating down to policymakers in cities and regions but are detached from most citizen’s daily lives. Some cities e.g. Copenhagen in Denmark and regions like the province of Trento in Italy are taking leadership and implementing new solutions, while many of the cities and regions that set radical CO2 reduction goals in the 2000s have not achieved their targets because of financial cut-backs post 2008. Maybe the impetus to achieve their targets will return, as political and economic confidence returns, and new models and experience arise, over the next few years.
  4. Socio-technical systems: cities and regions need to be thought of, in terms, of both social and technical systems, ignoring people and just focusing purely on technological solutions may create ‘places and spaces’ that people simply don’t want to live or work in. This issue is now starting to be highlighted in international initiatives and reports. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report from Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change includes for the first time a specific chapter on Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Spatial Planning.
  5. Smartness: the concept of smart cities and regions has emerged over the last decade. Smart city development has perhaps, started as a series of technological experiments focused on more efficient use of information (‘big data’) and energy (and resulting CO2 reduction) through the development new smarter and more connected infrastructure and systems. However, smart city thinking is now evolving to explore other aspects such as waste reduction, efficient water use, sustainable mobility, etc. Smarter and more sustainable (economic, environmental and social) approaches to cities and regions will incorporate novel approaches that more effectively engage and incorporate people, partnerships, technology and innovation.
  6. Social: working with people (citizens and communities) on ‘the street’ is a key part of the behavioural change required to reduce environmental impact, as illustrated by Copenhagen’s use of temporary events to build and re-build, more resilient, low carbon and resource efficient communities
  7. Community: communities in cities and regions can be physical, virtual and online. How can we bring the ‘sense of community’, often associated with small islands (that have clearly defined boundaries), to cities and regions to build more cohesive, robust and sustainable communities, learning from existing initiatives e.g. Bornholm ‘Bright Green Island’ in Denmark.
  8. Top-down: leaders want to be winners and may have a vision or may need help in constructing it, but will need courage to make decisions that enable radical change, if they want to be re-elected. The city of Palo Alto has set audacious CO2 reduction goals and is establishing an open, ‘green’ learning and innovation culture to enable this. For example, the city is has recently re-engineered bureaucratic processes to cut the authorisation period for solar photovoltaic permits from notionally 1 year to 1 day. Change will require new thinking and re-thinking. This is illustrated by the City of Copenhagen move to a culture of saying ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’.
  9. Bottom-up: new ‘grassroots innovation’ is emerging in a number of urban areas focused on ‘making, modifying and fixing’ driven by a new ‘do it’ spirit, increased access to information and ideas, new tools e.g. 3D printing and the growth of ‘places and spaces’ (e.g. Makerspaces, Hackerspaces and Repair Cafes) that are enabling increased experimentation and the potential for more decentralised and circular manufacturing. Does this herald a movement of radical innovation from the periphery to the mainstream?
  10. Stretching: at the ‘top’, there is a push at the policy level towards new thinking on systemic eco-innovation as incremental approaches have not driven significant change while at the ‘bottom’ a wave ‘grassroots innovation’ is emerging driven by a number of factors. But, there appears to be a vacuum of activity the ‘middle’ that is stifling change and how we bridge that gap will become an increasingly important issue.

© Martin Charter 2014

Sustainable Innovation 2015 click for more information


For more information on Sustainable Innovation 2015   please contact:

Professor Martin Charter
The Centre for Sustainable Design ®
University for the Creative Arts
Farnham Campus
Tel: + 44 (0) 1252 892772
Fax: + 44 (0) 1252 892747

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