Sustainable Urban Development Summit hosted by Stanford Engineering: Center for Sustainable Development & Global Competitiveness

On Saturday, January 19th, I attended the Sustainable Urban Development Summit hosted by Stanford Engineering: Center for Sustainable Development & Global Competitiveness in collaboration with the International Towns Federation.

TL;DR: The lenses changed from Macro to Micro — with a majority focus on micro — specifically, on how towns can be the key for tackling climate change. Sustainable development happens one city at a time. The overall theme that emerged was:

Think Big, Start Small

The conversation of starting small focused on “villages” and smaller towns, but then dove even deeper into the idea of “people focused” design. And how focusing on people and increasing their individual well-being through cities, having a citizen centric vision, was key. People are at the core of sustainable urban development. We need to focus on lessening inequality, and increasing individual living standards. We need to empower citizens to release their creativity, and shape city services that ultimately contribute to sustainability and increased quality of life.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” -Jane Jacobs

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Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd was an impressive and charismatic man who has us laughing, although we’re talking about dire themes, and switched between Chinese and English effortlessly.

“Whatever politicians say, the planet doesn’t lie, it tells the truth.”

  • We will begin to start seeing Mega Cities — 20+ million people, and in lieu of this growth — perhaps there’s another approach to sustainability — the development of smaller towns instead of Mega Cities. Smaller towns can be more resilient, adapt and contribute to the larger community. It’s about scaling the principles of sustainable development and making it a reality for humankind, around the world. It’s not longer an “optional extra”, it’s core!
  • It’s Important to bring the reality of climate change into global negotiations.
  • Resilient people mean a resilient planet. They weren’t just talking about planetary boundaries. We share a biosphere with plants and animals that need to be considered. We are a human family and as such need common aspirations — and to live up to them.
  • Science has been talking about Climate Change for decades — your opinion is not greater than scientific fact. Fox News: “Climate change denying broadcasting unit”
  • If every country kept their promises in the Paris agreement it would still only hit 1/3 of what’s needed to be done. And we all know, most countries haven’t. We’ve seen what happens in an unrestrained economic development where environmental standards are absent. (i.e. Beijing). Despite the national government’s failings — smaller cities are committing to fulfilling their Paris Agreement pledge.
  • We need to shift focus, resources and empowerment to the proper management of towns. We must properly design them so they can provide proper services, or people will leave [to the city]. Urban design is critical in making small towns (not cities) a desirable place to be.

Resources

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George Papandreou

We can learn from Plato and Aristotle on how to create sustainability:

(1) Agra is a Greek word that means: Marketplace — a place where you can debate ideas (policies). Look at short term politics vs. wider needs of society (the market forces). (2) Inequality: A strong middle class is important. (3) Education:

Good education increases our capacity to imagine.

(4) Participation: Having “active citizens”, where the future of the town is owned by the people. We need peoples diplomacy and cooperation. We need to learn from each other, especially when we have similar problems.

Our towns have to be made by, and about, ourselves.

(5) Peloponnesian War: Avoid a repeat! We need more cooperation from the global powers than animosity.

Notes

  • It’s projected that 20% of the global GDP will be on “climate repair”. We can bring that down to about ~1% if we act now.

Small towns are unique, and allow us to experiment on what sustainable towns can look like

  • Politics is from the Greek word: Polis, which means cities. City states where people are empowered to imagine changes and new capacities. Small towns can revive and reimagine a creative collective view of the future.

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Thomas Ridge

What an incredible man! He also received the Bronze Star in Vietnam.

Notes

  • He recalled a time when he washed his car on Sunday, only to have to rewash it on Monday because of all the emissions from the steel plant next to his town in Pennsylvania.
  • Who decides what the priorities are? This is a hairy question.
  • 63% of Americans live in urban communities on about ~4% of land.
  • There are [digital] inequalities. We need to make sure that tech is embedded in the community and doesn’t exacerbate inequality. We need inclusive digital solutions.
  • We need smart schools where there are digital tools for everyone to participate.

Want smart cities? We need smart schools.

We are at a digital inflection point.

  • 50% of people have access to the internet and we have 4.3 billion internet users.

We need to envision a future that connects and catches the talent of individuals.

  • We have the power to reach and connect with new markets and economic opportunities.
  • Technology can help to increase living standards. We need to apply technologies to improve our quality of life.
  • In 2019 there was $4 trillion of e-commerce

We need economic and environmental transformation of cities through:

  • Federal, state and local cooperation
  • A citizen centric vision. Citizens need to shape city services and have opportunities to engage with scientists — as well as become “citizen scientists”. The goal of the city should be to provide pathways to all citizens and equitable access
  • Not ignoring small and rural communities in smart city discussions

3 Challenges

  1. Commit to share global mission
  2. We need to be creators — not just receptors of learning — to amplify and enhance fundamental human capabilities
  3. Technology gives us the power to “act, engage, and create a new age of citizenship”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” -Jane Jacobs

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Steven Chu

Steven is a Professor of Physics at Stanford and co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics

  • Evolution was actually coined in the early 1900’s to explain the changes in form of horse drawn carriages to automobiles (not Darwin)
  • In NYC there was about 3–4 million pounds of horse manure a day to manage

Notes

  • Producing more young people [workers] to support an aging population… does this sound familiar? It matches that of a [pyramid] ponzi scheme! Population growth is a ponzi scheme. In addition to accepting the stabilization and decline of population, the world needs a different measure of “wealth”.
  • As long as we use GDP as the measure of a country’s wealth, we will see the continued increased production and consumption of stuff. → A better definition of “wealth” would include quality of health in old age, low levels of stress, enhanced connections to family and friends.
  • With emerging tech, junky versions always come out first — entrepreneurial knock offs. Through economies of scale — new tech will decrease in price over time.
  • Agriculture is an extreme form of geo-engineering! Maize was bred from a wild grain called teosinte. Teosinte is so unlike modern corn that originally botanists didn’t think the two were even related. An ear of teosinte is only about three inches long, with just five to twelve kernels. Compare that to the corn we eat today, which can have over five-hundred kernels!
  • Of all of the biomass in the world: 96% of (mammal mass) biomass are us and the animals we eat. Farm-bred turkeys are so breast heavy they cannot mate.
  • Plant based protein is a new technology — and although more expensive now, through the economies of scale, will decrease over time. They also have the same hemoglobin molecules (myocin) as meat to give it the blood taste.
  • As long as personal vehicles remain the predominant mode of transportation, urban mobility will remain an unsolved problem. (In US average 1 car/person) We need to plan right of ways for light rail and other means of FAST and inexpensive mass transit.

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Marcus Feldman

Marc is a cultural evolution expert.

Notes

  • We need to have a micro vs. macro perspective on urbanization. We have to consider and think about the individual humans and how they cope.
  • He worked on an anti-poverty relocation and settlement program where they took people who are at risk and in extreme poverty, and moved them to areas to re-establish a life. They then monitored their well being:

We want to see an increase on well-being and a decrease on environmental dependence.

  • An important measurement is how dependent people are on the environment: “ecosystem services” aka natural sources — air, water, land.
  • We need to avoid inequality as much as we can.
  • There are always inadvertent consequences that need to be considered — we need to do a deep dive in behavioral analysis of individual people using behavioral economics. For example: the favoritism of a boy in China’s one child policy and how the 2 child policy had little effect to cultural changes. The culture already changed and people don’t want 2 children [paired with other factors such as women’s empowerment]. This could have been better predicted.

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Forum I: Sustainable Energy Provision and Natural Environment

  • We need a new paradigm, the grid is not designed or optimized for modern demands and use. Distributed economic centers are an important factor for transit and electricity infrastructure. We need to consider local microgrids and local generation — this creates stability and resilience vs. needing transmission lines. (i.e. Singapore’s lines are buried and more resilient)

Our current electricity architecture is a 120 year old relic of Tesla and Edison.

  • The electric pole is a real estate money scheme to allow other wires to be put on it.
  • We are seeing a pop growth of 8–10% / year that is mostly unplanned in our cities.
  • GDP was proposed in 1934 after the Great Depression — they warned against the use of GDP to measure the welfare of people. It doesn’t paint the whole picture and there was discussions on the usage of the Human Development Index (HDI) instead.
  • Instead of Mega Cities we need to develop local economies and deploy with the right incentives.
  • We have an aggregation carbon challenge — our current rate of emission is 40 gigatons / yr. Photosynthesis is currently our biggest absorption.
  • There is giant opportunity to absorb carbon through agriculture and to convert waste to energy.
  • The panel gave their 30 second opinions on what they’d like to see in a smart city of the future: Human centric, social equity, distributed systems (avoiding massive infrastructure issues), increase human development index locally, climate resilience.
  • Copenhagen currently has 8 recycling directions — average in america is 2 (paper, plastic)
  • Waste management is not sustainable — most of the time trash is just burned. There is sa big opportunity in the waste market b/c GDP is currently tied to items consumed.

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Forum II: Sustainable and Smart Technologies at City Scales

Cities use a Markovian model based on past performance.

  • They’re missing underlying fundamentals — with climate change, past trends don’t apply because it’s based on an assumption of steady climate — and we now have a reality of variable climate patterns.
  • Autonomous is graded in a level from 1–5. Currently we’re at ~2, where level 5 is fully autonomous. Autonomous cars are not just about “replacing a human”.

Just because you remove humans from the driver’s seat, doesn’t remove human error.

  • There are biases in AI and discriminatory behavior in systems. There are moral and ethical decisions to make, with deep implications.
  • We need happier cities → not smart cities
  • Tech is a means to the end, not the end to itself — it needs to be focused on addressing quality of life issues.
  • Having data is not everything — we need to understand the value of the data and the insights, actions and loop that is needed to get insights.

Resilience is when a system is subjected to [extreme or slow] change and its’ ability, and resources, to rebuild itself within a reasonable amount of time.

  • To decode the human genome cost $3 billion, now it’s ~$1k. A 3D MRI scanner costs ~$3 million now but is moving to $0.5 million, and you may find it in your local Walgreens soon!
  • On why Silicon Valley hasn’t successfully been replicated elsewhere (i.e. globally): If you rely on public money, you won’t take risks. A very small number of startups succeed — that’s not failure. People prefer working in Silicon Valley and can afford to take the risk of working for a startup that may fail, because of the benefit of being surrounded by other opportunities. There is also a culture of sharing and volunteerism — when folks pass on opportunities and encourage growth you find leveling up.
  • You can’t respond to the current problem or pain point — you have to solve for the problem on the 2–5 year horizon now.

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Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.