November 24, 2021
People write and sing about wanting to change the world. It’s a great idea and has appeared in more TV commercials and Instagram posts than anyone can count. And while it certainly is aspirational, we aren’t all that sure it is inspirational because practically it places the accountability for action out of the reach of most of us. We end up leaving it to the leaders of the G7 or the big thinkers who fly into Davos on private jets to change the world. But as we have all too often seen, including very recently at the COP26 Climate Change Summit, the world doesn’t change.
Here is different approach: Change cities and you will change the world! It’s more hopeful and realistic at the same time. If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it is that nation states and large organizations are becoming too brittle and polarized to really drive innovation and positive change at the global or even national level. Many of the major countries around the world are so dogmatic and divided that all they can offer the future of our planet is gridlock or worse. But when we contrast that with the flexibility of the innovation economy, we find that cities, rather than countries, are the geographic centres and engines of invention. Places like San Francisco, Austin and the “Toronto/Waterloo corridor” are the new drivers of GDP, and the new ideas for commerce and climate.
To illustrate the point, in June of 2017 President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; a perfect example of a global power blocking progress. However, one year later there were 12 major U.S. cities that defied his decree and increased their actionable commitments to the Paris pact. Two years after that a new government was elected and the U.S. returned to the commitment of the Paris Agreement. Twelve cities were on the front line of changing the world.
Cities have this ability and power due to scale. Even the largest cities contain some level intimacy, partially due to neighbourhoods and shared public spaces that enable people who hold opposite points of view, to still have faces and names. Common ground can lead to collaboration, new ideas and even common sense. Cities nurture and grow our humanity giving us the spirit of resilience needed to overcome the obstacles in our future.
Yes, cities have their problems such as affordable housing, social inclusion and lack of leadership, but they are the best laboratory for changing the world for the better…so long as we build them in a way that protects and nurtures the human spirit.