It takes a fair amount of courage to be the first to do something, but cities and other government agencies that adopted a more pioneering attitude have made tremendous progress in reducing environmental impact and driving economic growth.
Four such leaders shared tips for mustering that courage at the Smart Cities Week conference in Washington, D.C.
Disruption provides opportunity
Leaders find opportunities in times of change. The fall of the Berlin Wall provided the formerly divided city an opportunity to reinvent itself. Karin Teichmann, head of the Berlin Partner Network, says the city saw that change as an opportunity for “innovation and experimentation.”
One tool for the reinvention is a 3D digital model of Berlin. It’s the only German city that has such a model. Each building in the model has a photo realistic façade. Services, businesses and housing are all plotted in detail on the map. The model even shows where the wall once stood.
The geographical information in a visual format helps people see the possibilities and impacts of proposals, allowing them to make better, more effective decisions. Development of the model required extensive investment, but the city now enjoys sustained economic growth that outpaces other cities and its tourism figures shatter records each year.
Don’t make excuses, make changes
In Redmond, Washington, a severe blast of winter weather prompted the city to completely rethink the way that it communicates with residents and businesses during times of emergency. Both groups were frustrated that they couldn’t get accurate, timely information on road conditions and when power would be restored.
“All emergencies are local for the people who experience it and they are looking to city hall to fix it,” said Jane Christenson, Redmond’s deputy city administrator. “We are figuring out solutions to problems because there is no alternative. If we don’t fix it, the mayor is out of office.”
The city developed Redmond Ready, a cloud-based portal that provides key information in 40 languages, providing a level of service from the city that’s more like what residents are accustomed to receiving from online retailers.
What do people want?
To make any change, cities must look at it from the perspective of the people they serve -- especially if it appears the change won’t be popular. That’s the approach the city of Antwerp used when it overhauled its garbage collection service.
Residents were used to leaving their garbage on their doorsteps. Haulers would walk to their front doors to collect it. The city, however, wanted to move to a more efficient model where the garbage was only collected when it needed to be collected. That meant residents would have to drop their waste off in more central locations where sensors were installed.
The city developed messaging that explained how much more convenient the new system really is for citizens. They don’t have to wait for their designated day to put out their trash; they can get rid of it at any time. And if they go on vacation, they don’t have to worry about calling anyone to cancel their service.
“You have to focus on what is positive for them,” said Luc de Rooms, project manager for Underground Waste Containers in the city of Antwerp. “There are a few people who like to try new things, but most people don’t. You have to find the people who are with you.”
Be a leader
The Port of San Diego, like many agencies in California, was under a state mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Solutions to such mandates are rarely easy, but the port made progress by getting its partners to understand and accept the pressure it was under, then working together to visualize and commit to a sustainable future.
“The hardest part is getting people’s attention,” said Bob Nelson, commissioner of the Port of San Diego. “There’s got to be a force that rocks the boat. And that has to happen at a leadership level.”