My journey to provide and scale support to city regions to meet Global Goals by 2030
In 2008 I was working in Arup, heading up their global planning business with a world class team of transport, environmental, urban and policy and economics experts. Before that I had worked in infrastructure design and delivery, particularly Public Private Partnerships, around the World and I was also an adviser to the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone on his Sustainable Development Commission and so I was very aware of the challenges of achieving improved city resilience.
My team at Arup was working at the cutting edge of low carbon sustainable city planning worldwide, particularly in China. It was there I got very inspired by their vision of an ecological civilisation, living in harmony with nature, as the next phase of development after the industrial model. However getting the plans built everywhere we worked was very difficult because success still revolved around GDP growth and that was the metric decision making. We knew that this was damaging the health of land and ocean ecology, and human well-being was not necessarily improving as a result, but everyone thought that this was the “price of progress”. Development was becoming less inclusive in many more developed countries as well.
I was given the opportunity to develop and articulate a roadmap towards a more resilient Ecological Age in the 2008-9 Brunel Lecture sponsored by Institution of Civil Engineers in London.
I gave this presentation all over the world in 45 cities in 2008-9, and the feedback was very positive, but many were skeptical that a more resilient Ecological Age could be delivered. The financial crash did not help the mood. It was very clear that the disconnect between investment decision making and the community social/ecological system impact at global and local scales was a huge problem. We did not have the tools and understanding of how human and ecology systems and resource flows interact and how this affects investment and health-productivity risks. It was clear to most people that city regions would be critical in determining a successful outcome for humanity by 2050, because of the projected urbanisation and the resulting investment drawn into those locations. The analysis showed that we had to embrace a factor 4 reduction in pollution and resource consumption, including greenhouse gas emissions, by 2050 both in retrofitting existing city regions and in the model for new urbanisation, if a successful outcome was to be achieved.
By 2010 , more and more scientists and city Mayors were calling for radical change of direction and many global experts came together with the Chinese Government at a meeting in Hong Kong organised by Civic Exchange in November 2010 and I was there. John Ashton, who was then at UK FCO, was on the stage one afternoon with his opposite number SUN Zhen from NDRC China talking about the COP process. I asked them why the UN and Governments were not establishing a fund to enable technology deployment to tackle climate change. They said it was not their job to do that!
When I sat down among the 800 audience, Santa Raymond, in the row immediately in front of me, turned round and said
“If you had the resources what would you do?”
I said I would bring together maybe 50 to 100 world leading experts in all the disciplines, show that change was possible in one or two places and then scale it up quickly. She said
“Winston Churchill in the last war had just 15 experts to help him win the war. Could you do it with 15?”
I thought about it and replied that if they were top of their fields with great networks then yes I could. She then looked me straight in the eye and said
“Well why don’t you do it then?”
I went home and discussed it with my family over Christmas. We decided that with my knowledge, connections and reputation, maybe I was in a position to help. So we decided that I would leave Arup and create a UK Charity to do exactly what I said to Santa and by April 2011 The Ecological Sequestration Trust was up and running with a significant number of experts on the advisory board who immediately agreed to help. I had no idea where the money would come from in the long term to build the tools, but I capitalised the Charity myself for the first 2-3 years of effort.
The first task was to find world leading modellers in agent based city resource flow models, agriculture and soils, forests and in the economics of human well-being within markets and then ask them if they would bring their models into an open-source environment if I found the money to pay to create an integrated human-ecological-economics modelling platform for the first time.
This would mean that communities could understand the way that human-ecosystems interacted in their region and take decisions to improve well-being outcomes. Natural capital would not need to be valued in monetary terms but in it’s value as part of a holistic system.
The modellers agreed it would be a great idea and said they would contribute their existing modelling knowledge and then work with us, which was the first big breakthrough. We agreed that once we had funding, the work would be led by Prof Nilay Shah at Imperial College and Rembrandt Koppelar from the Institute for Integrated Economics Research working in London.
It was clear in 2011 that 2015 would be a critical year at the United Nations for setting up the new Sustainable Development Goals, moving disaster risk processes forward and reaching agreement on climate change. It seemed that a tidal wave of social change, anticipated in 2008, may at last start to rise and move in 2015. I saw our job at the Trust to work with these processes to understand the wave of change and help shape it to the world’s needs. Then in parallel create the open-source free to use tools designed to enable everyone to ride the wave, that we had helped to shape in our small way, and deliver community success by 2030.
It would also be necessary to create a way to help communities all over the world to build capacity to surf the wave, learn from the early demonstrators and plan the scale up process. What we were doing was trying to create the ‘surf-board’ that everyone could use for themselves to ride the global tidal wave of change to find a more resilient and sustainable future. We planned this as an inclusive process, drawing in more and more partners and existing programs, to hopefully empower them and grow momentum. The need for the ‘surf-board’ to be open-source and free to use, was a major difficulty all the way along in getting funding but we found ways to keep going and named the platform resilience.io. We now talk about this as providing communities with a resilience compass and the platform creates a resilience brokerage system.
We built a small world class team with our partner Future Earth Ltd and worked tirelessly in India, China, Mongolia, South America, Africa and Europe to find locations that might be willing to help develop and test the platform. DFID and Cities Alliance became very interested in building resilience.io for demonstration in Africa, thanks to the vision and leadership of Simon Ratcliffe at DIFD, and this Future Cities Africa Pilot became a main source of funding to get the resilience.io platform into prototype form for demonstration in 2016 for the WASH sector in Accra, Ghana. This work is well advanced. We are very keen to work with a demonstration region in the UK but have so far failed to get enough funding.
In parallel the wave-shaping work took me into Thematic Group 9 at SDSN, drafting and fighting for an Urban SDG, also working with Lancet and Rockefeller Foundation on the Planetary Health Commission, also drawing together the finance and insurance community to create a model for funding the transformation in city regions, and then working with the UN Data Revolution and C40 Cities and ICLEI on city metrics and with earth systems modellers at ICES Foundation to work out how to connect regional models with earth systems models for risk assessment.
We have made some very big discoveries along the way.
- This is a unique moment in human history when we have the capability to connect earth system and regional system modelling together and create practical user interfaces to enable communities, public, private and NGO sectors to work together, test scenarios, build collaborative intelligence and make decisions aligned to the 17 Global Goal outcomes. These tools can now be built and made operational by 2018, starting from where we are now.They need to include a library of “process blocks” for human and ecological activity and sets of algorithm linkages which can be researched and upgraded as we learn more.
- There is enough capital in the world to enable the transformation to happen by 2030 if communities have the tools and capability to use them. Funding to build capacity and create learning and research networks can come from the huge value that will be created, using a revolving commercial fund.
- Tools can be used for investment decision making and risk assessment locally for both public and private sectors in a way that is aligned with the needs and interests of insurers. Insurers are interested in investing in improved resilience as well as in providing insurance products. However they need community engagement and an evidence base for outcomes.
- Management of ecology on land and at sea, forests and soils is really critical to delivering the Goals and the same tools can be used for those as well, and urban rural systems management can become the normal integrated human-ecosystems approach.
- Land tenure and cadastre systems are essential to enable inclusive development to proceed and the same GIS tools can be used for essential land registry purposes.
- Community involvement and gaming versions of tools for education are essential components of successful change.
- A form of trusted collaborative governance, with data checked by independent experts at local Universities is essential for success. A concept of a collaborative laboratory or ‘Collaboratory’ that supports everyone in the community is evolving and being tested.
- Platforms should be used for storing and accessing data on the cultural history of a place, it’s people and ecology, so that cultural planning can become the norm and is built on the foundations of the experience and knowledge of the past.
The next stage of the journey is to get the full size ‘surf-board’ working-increasing the resilience.io functionality to it’s full sector coverage and demonstrating this in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area. Also to build the user interfaces, which we call cockpits, so that the platform can be readily used every day for decision making and also in schools and colleges through a gaming version. In parallel we will demonstrate how an Urban Development Fund UDIF can be set up to move projects forward, and how capacity building, research, training and knowledge sharing can proceed across all the networks.
It has been an exciting, hard but rewarding journey for everyone involved and we look forward to supporting the Habitat III process and the meeting in October to help up to 5billion people to live in a more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable way.