Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

(Photo by Mark Vauxhall of public Peugeot Ions on Rue des Ponchettes, Nice, France)

It’s strange how you can find inspiration in the most surprising places; and the first time I came across the philosophy of sustainability at the heart of big business was certainly unexpected.

Five years ago I was creating a business model in a UK city for a car-sharing scheme using social media (which at the time was a new technology); the scheme was being put together by a collaboration of technology entrepreneurs, University researchers and local employers who wanted to offer the scheme to their employees as a benefit in kind. What we lacked was a business partner with expertise in offering transport services to consumers.

A colleague suggested we speak to an international car rental company for whom they’d recently run an innovation workshop. Initially, we were sceptical: why would a car rental company encourage people to share cars – in other words, to need to hire less of them?

Nevertheless, we called the global Vice President of Sales of the company concerned. This person was responsible for the sales performance of a company in an extremely competitive, commoditised market, so we were expecting the social and environmental philosophy behind our proposal to be given little consideration compared to its revenue-earning potential.

Instead, I remember feeling as if I was being blown away down the telephone line by  his enthusiasm for sustainable business. The reason he had spent his career making a car rental company as successful as possible was his belief that it was the most viable business model for sustainable transport of its time: hire cars are much more effective than public transport for some journeys; and because they are heavily used throughout their lives, the environmental cost of manufacturing and decommissioning them is much less per mile travelled than for privately owned vehicles.

The proposition that technology offers to the sustainability debate – whether in Smarter Cities, intelligent transport or supply-chain optimisation – is to enable business models that create better social and environmental outcomes. In some cases, those outcomes are the objectives of a business; but more often they are the side effects of business operations whose objectives are to create financial returns. So in order to justify investments in technologies or practises that promote sustainability, we need to do just what the car rental company’s Vice President had done early in his career: think creatively about how to balance social and environmental outcomes with the financial imperatives of our existing economic systems.

We’ll need to find that balance in order to develop realistic business models for Smarter Cities. It will not always be an easy balance to find; and finding it will sometimes be a controversial process. But five approaches can already be seen that show how it can be achieved in different ways.

1. Cross-city Collaborations

Many initiatives that contribute to city-wide outcomes require either co-ordinated action across city systems; or an investment in one system to achieve an outcome that is not a simple financial return within that system. For example, the ultimate objective of many changes to transportation systems is to improve economic growth and productivity, or to reduce environmental impact.

Such initiatives are often shaped and carried out by a group of collaborating stakeholders in a city – perhaps including the City Council, nearby Universities, local businesses and community groups, and private sector partners.

To attract the various forms of investment that are required to support a programme of “Smart” initiatives, these partnerships need to be decision-making entities, not discussion groups. Investors will look for a history of collective action to achieve clear, shared objectives; and for a mature approach to the mutual management of risk in delivering projects.

Such partnerships take time to form, and it is notable that in last year’s Technology Strategy Board Future Cities Demonstrator competition, most of the shortlisted entries had been prepared by collaborations in cities such as Glasgow and Peterborough that had existed for some time before the competition began. Other examples include the Dublinked information-sharing partnership in Dublin, Ireland, and the Sustainable Dubuque partnership in Dubuque, Iowa. I wrote about these examples and discussed how they form and operate successfully, in “Smart ideas for everyday cities” last December.

2. Scaling-up Social Enterprise

Social enterprise is a broad category of private businesses which in some way commit themselves to social and/or environmental objectives against which they audit themselves alongside their financial performance – a practise known as triple bottom-line accounting.

Given the similarities between triple-bottom-line accounting and the objectives of “Smarter” initiatives, it’s not surprising that social enterprises are carrying out a great deal of “Smart City” activity. They often use innovative, technology-enabled business models that combine elements of sectors such as food, energy and transport. A good example is “Casserole Club“, which uses social media as the basis of a peer-to-peer model which connects people who are unable to cook for themselves with people who are willing to cook for, and visit, others.

(Photo by Mermaid of the People’s Supermarket in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, a social enterprise that aims to promote social cohesion by supporting local, independent food producers)

Social enterprises have a powerful potential to contribute to Smarter City objectives. They tend to create employment opportunities where they are most needed, for example – 39% of all social enterprises are working in the most deprived communities in the UK, in comparison to 13% of SMEs. And they are a significant contribution to the overall economy – in the UK,  a recent government report found that the sector employs more than 2 million people, is estimated to have total annual incomes of £163 billion and to contribute £55 billion Gross Value Added – about 14% of the national total. Social enterprise is 13% of Sweden’s GDP and 21% of Finland’s GDP; and 4 in 10 residents of the USA– the world’s flagship private enterprise economy – are members of a co-operative of some sort. Worldwide, social enterprises employ over 100 million people with a turnover of £1.1 trillion. That’s big business.

Many social enterprises are entirely independent ventures. There is great potential for cities to recognise the alignment between their philosophy and Smarter City objectives; and to support their role in achieving them. When the resources and assets of large, formal organisations are made available to local, social innovation, the results can be tremendously powerful.

In Resilience, Andrew Zolli gives the example of the Kilimo Salama scheme in Kenya which provides affordable insurance for subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. This is a good example of large-scale infrastructures operated by formal institutions – mobile payments systems and remote weather monitoring technology – that have been adapated to the needs of a community which previously didn’t benefit from them – the farmers – by a creative, socially-minded organisation.

Awareness is growing of the importance of this sector; the alignment of its values with the objectives of Smarter Cities (as described by Knight Foundation Vice President Carol Coletta recently); and of the great potential of information economy technologies, especially social media, to empower it (see this article by ex-IBM Vice President Irving Wladawsky-Berger). It will be a major part of the economy and society of the sustainable cities of the future.

3. Creativity in finance

We don’t consider banks, insurers and other financial institutions enough in the world of Smarter Cities. Public sector and research grants will not finance the wholescale transformation of our cities; we will have to look to the broader financial markets for that support.

New forms of financial service are emerging from the online, collaborative economy such as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. In the UK, the Trillion Fund, for example, offer a range of investment schemes in renewable energy to the retail investment market; and a variety of local and electronic currencies are emerging.

(Photo of a smart parking meter in San Francisco by Jun Seita)

More traditional financial institutions are also exploring the new products that they can create to support this market; and we are sure to need the depth of resources they can make available. Smarter city services create assets and offer services which people and businesses pay to use. With the appropriate banking, insurance and investment skills, those assets and services and the incomes they generate can be packaged as investable financial products. Citibank, IBM and Streetline partnered last year to offer a financing scheme for “Smart Parking” solutions, for example.

Citigroup were also amongst those who supported the recent “Innovation and the City” report by the Centre for an Urban Future and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service which recommended 15 policies for consideration by the next Mayor of New York, many of which are financial innovations intended to support Smarter City outcomes.

In recent years, the banking industry has not always been associated with social outcomes. But some financial institutions are very clearly social organisations – such as the credit unions to which 87 million US citizens belong; and many banks have social elements in their original charters – as Hancock Bank demonstrated when responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They have the means, method and opportunity to contribute enormously to the development of Smarter, sustainable cities and we should encourage them to do so.

4. Making traditional business sustainable

A very many of our lives depend for our basic needs – not to mention our entertainment and leisure – on global supply chains operated on astounding scales by private sector businesses. Staples such as food, cosmetics and cleaning products consume a vast proportion of the world’s fresh water and agricultural capacity; and a surprisingly small number of organisations are responsible for a surprisingly large proportion of that consumption as they produce the products and services that many of us use.

The social and environmental impact of those supply chains is immense, and, of course, highly controversial. A notable recent development, though, is the number of statements made by the leaders of companies involved in them asserting the importance of evolving their businesses to adopt more sustainable practises. The CEOs of  Unilever and Tesco have made statements of intent along these lines recently, and IBM and Hilton Hotels have described the progress they have already made.

Any analysis of the motivations for such statements and the outlook for their impact also enters areas of great controversy, of course. But need there be any fundamental contradiction between profitable enterprise and sustainability?

Richard Powers’ 1998 novel “Gain” tells the story of “incorporation”, the creation of companies as entities with a legal and financial existence separate from that of the people who start, manage and work for them. It contrasts the story of three Irish brothers arriving in 19th Century New York who make a living manufacturing soap, and the subsequent growth of their business into a vast 20th Century multinational corporation; with that of a woman dying from a cancer likely to have been caused by exposure to the waste products of the industrial operations of that corporation. Its complex, nuanced story explores both the facility of private enterprise to create wealth for anybody; and its potential for ambivalence towards the fair distribution of that wealth, and towards its impact.

(An example from Indonesia of the deforestation that can be the result of palm oil production. Photo by the Rainforest Action Network)

Gain’s narrative makes clear that the model of private enterprise does not lead inevitably to any specific outcome. The success, sustainability and equitability of any enterprise, social or private, are ultimately the result of the actions and decisions of those involved in it – whether they run it; work for it; supply it or buy from it.

All of us can assert influence on the sustainability of business, through our buying decisions as consumers and by campaigning. Jared Diamond explored in depth how we can do so effectively in his book “Collapse“. But the role of the investment markets is also crucial.

In one sense, the markets are already playing a role: in a recent report, 53% of fund managers collectively responsible for $14 trillion of assets indicated that they had divested stocks, or chosen not to invest in stocks, due to concerns over the impact of climate change on the businesses concerned.

However, that is a negative, not a positive action. It is driven by the impact of climate change on business, not by the impact of business on climate change. To grossly generalise, whilst the CEOs of Tesco and Unilever, for example, are following Jared Diamond’s argument that sustainability is simply good, long-term business sense; by and large investors are largely ambivalent to this argument. They choose which companies to invest in based first and foremost on the prospect of their short-term financial returns.

So whatever motivations influence the CEOs of companies that manage the vast supply chains that play such a major role on our planet to adopt sustainability as a business objective, it is not to win short-term investment. It may be to appeal to consumer opinion; or it may be to attract investors who take a longer-view.

One thing is certain, though. Our world as a whole, and the cities in which life is concentrated, will not become socially and environmentally equitable and sustainable unless private businesses adopt sustainable strategies. So it is in all of our interests to encourage them to do so, whilst putting in place the governance to ensure that those strategies are carried out effectively.

5. Encouraging entrepreneurs everywhere

Smarter city services are innovations that change the relationships between the creation of social and financial value and the consumption of resources: they involve new ways of doing things; and they often depend on consumers choosing to buy different products or use different services than those that they are accustomed to.

Investing in a new product or service on the basis that consumers will change their behaviour in order to buy or use it is a risky business. Too risky, in many cases, for traditional institutions.

In the developed world, public sector finances are under extreme pressure. Economic growth is slow, so tax returns are stagnant. Populations are, on the whole, growing older, and requiring increased levels of healthcare. So public sector has little ability to make risky investments.

But the private sector is also under pressure. The same slow economic growth, coupled with competition from rapidly growing countries in emerging markets, means that money is short and the future is uncertain. Risky investments are unlikely here, too.

(The QR code that enabled Will Grant of Droplet to buy me a coffee at Innovation Birmingham using Droplet’s local smartphone payment solution, an example of a Smarter City service created by an entrepreneurial company.)

But some investors are seeking new investment opportunities, even risky ones – especially as the rate of return offered by many traditional forms of investment is so poor. One consequence is that many Smarter Cities services are delivered by entrepreneurial companies backed by venture capital. Examples include “Droplet“, a smartphone payment system operating in Birmingham and London; and Shutl, who provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers in London.

However, many cities face a challenge in exploiting the ability of entrepreneurial businesses to deliver Smarter services.

Such businesses may be inherently risky; but those that succeed still do so by minimising risk wherever possible. One way to minimise the risk involved in any new business is to operate that business as closely as possible to its largest possible market. So entrepreneurial businesses that offer services to city ecosystems (as opposed to national or international customers) tend to start in and provide services to capital cities.

If cities that are not capitals wish to encourage this sort of entrepreneurial business, they will need to make themselves attractive in some other way: by offering tailored programmes of support (as IBM and Sunderland Software City are doing); by making available unique assets created by geography, culture or existing business clusters (such as the cluster of wireless technology companies in Cambridge); or by exploiting the strength of local teaching and research (as Birmingham are doing through institutions such as Birmingham Ormiston Academy and the Aston Engineering Academy; or as “Science Vale” has long done in Oxfordshire).

Entrepreneurial businesses can and will make a huge contribution to Smarter Cities; and those that succeed will eventually scale their businesses to cities across the world. But in order to benefit from their creativity early, cities that are not capitals will need to take action to attract and support them.

Evolution and revolution

As I remarked in my last article on this blog, “business as usual” will not deliver Smarter, sustainable cities. We would not be so collectively concerned with this subject otherwise. But while we will need new approaches, sometimes revolutionary ones; we are not entering wholly uncharted territory.

We will need new cross-city collaborations; but the idea of such collaborations is not new. The collaboration that submitted Peterborough’s short-listed proposal for the Technology Strategy Board’s Future Cities Demonstrator has its origins in the Greater Peterborough Partnership which was formed in 1994, for example.

Social enterprises and sustainable business models are hardly new, either – co-operative businesses have existing for centuries, and IBM, Sony and Cadbury are just three examples of private businesses started 50 to 100 years ago by Quakers with a strong sense of civic and community duty.

So whilst change is required, we are not entering the unknown. Our challenge is rather to realise that there is no single approach that can be adopted in all circumstances. All of the approaches I’ve described in this article – and doubtless others too – will be needed. But not all of them will be popular all of the time.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK's largest engineering and infrastructure services companies, and part of the Ferrovial Group. Previously, I was IBM UK's Executive Architect for Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

6 Responses to Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

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