In 2013, Boyan Slat began to question the large volumes of plastic accumulating in our oceans and why no one was doing anything to clean it up. At 16 years old, he began research into potential solutions to effectively recover and remove it

Why Cities Are Leading The Way In Sustainability

Why is there a focus on cities and urban areas in the fight for an environmentally sustainable world?


As of 2007, more people now live in cities than in rural areas. This has profound consequences for how cities function and on the lives of the people that call the city home. The world’s population is expected to peak at 10 billion people around 2050, from the current 7 billion. Almost all future urban growth will come from Asia and Africa, while growth of cities in North America, Europe and Latin America has virtually come to a standstill.

Cities are in the business of attracting companies, industry, tourists, conventions and sporting events. Cities compete with one another for market share just like McDonalds and Burger King, Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay, or Manchester United and Barcelona. Cities aim to become more efficient places to operate and live, more healthy urban environments for its inhabitants to improve their quality of life in order to attract the brightest minds and opportunities for learning and innovation. Tackling problems such as congestion, bad air quality, lack of physical activity, and waste management can help reduce health costs, lower carbon emissions, and capture methane. These also offer a critical co-benefit – climate change mitigation. One of the key reasons why cities are seen as key to improving sustainability is because by tackling the problems outlined, they are pushing sustainability forward by mitigating climate change.

Cities can be places of bulging populations with an insatiable desire to accumulate things, as well as be massive waste creators. Well designed cities are compact and efficient, providing a better way of life for humans and the planet.

Within the international climate change negotiations arena managed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cities have increasingly been looked at as the saving grace to reduce global greenhouse gases. This is due to the ineffectiveness of current global negotiations. Essentially much of the action to mitigate and adapt to global warming has, and will increasingly, be performed by cities and not national governments. Two key reasons for this are that cities can act without going through the cumbersome climate negotiations process of reaching consensus, and secondly the competition between cities is driving climate performance.

Strong leadership and a clear vision are absolutely critical to create the necessary networks, forums and discussions between levels of local government and the private sector, in order for cities and companies to understand, engage and leverage the best of each other, often through public-private partnerships. City-level government needs to provide the infrastructure and climate for collaboration and private company-led innovation. Private companies are key players in helping cities reduce carbon emissions and create sustainable development. Companies providing innovative solutions in urban planning and biomimicry, energy and water efficiency, transport, waste solutions, industrial process design and cleaner production are key to a city’s sustainable future.

Sustainability and innovation may look different in cities with different average incomes, lifestyles and cultures. For instance in Cape Town, the Kuyasa project provided low-cost, efficient energy services and thermal comfort to individual low-income households as a means of improving the quality of life for the poor in a manner compatible with the city’s commitment to reducing reliance on coal-fired electricity. Compared to countries like Germany which provide a feed-in tariff allowing households who have purchased solar systems for their homes a way of exporting excess energy into the grid and getting paid to do so. Both examples show different ways of reducing emissions through private-public cooperation in different contexts.


How are cities driving innovation and collaboration?

Cities are using a mix of urban and spatial density planning, energy efficiency and renewable energy production, waste minimisation and zero waste targets, public transport and non-motorised transport policies, green building, urban food systems, and water efficiency.

These are two examples of city led innovation.

The Innovation Hub, located in Tshwane, South Africa, is Southern Africa’s first internationally accredited Science and Technology Park. It is run by a subsidiary of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency and was established to promote socio-economic development and competiveness of the province through innovation. It provides a unique space for value added services for hi-tech entrepreneurs, emerging and established companies, researchers and funders or venture capitalists to meet, network and innovate.

Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park is an industrial symbiosis network located in Kalundborg, Denmark. It consists of nine companies who collaborate to use each other’s by-products and shared resources. Industrial symbiosis can be defined as the exchange of materials or waste streams between companies, so that one company’s waste becomes another company’s raw materials. At Kalundborg Symbiosis, public and private companies buy and sell waste from each other in a closed cycle of industrial production. A variety of by products are traded, such as steam, ash, gas, heat, sludge, and others that can be physically transported from one company to another.

Blog by: Adam Green

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