Storms, cities, sustainability

October 31, 2013

Mike Tuffrey rethinks what sustainability means in an era of extreme weather and growing cities.

Being out of London this week on half term, I got caught up in the storms that brought power lines down across rural southern England. That set me thinking about the resilience of cities and how the history of humans huddling together first in hamlets and villages, then in towns and now in mega-cities is actually something to be welcomed.

Today half of us live in urban areas – some 3.6 billion people. By 2030 that’s projected to rise to 5 billion, accounting for 60% of humanity. In India’s cities, floor space equivalent to the whole of Chicago is being added each year. In China it’s running at more than twice that rate.

Got right, cities can offer more effective transportation, greater energy efficiency, higher productivity and more opportunities to increase skills, knowledge and social and cultural interaction. There’s a growing body of research on how to do more with less through urban living. For example, I found it interesting to see how much of Jonathon Porritt’s latest analysis – in his new book ‘The World We Made’ which we review here this month – depends on reinventing the way we live in towns and cities.

For managers in companies trying to make sense of what sustainability means, I’ve often said – just see it as long term thinking: try to do the right thing for your shareholders and other stakeholders over the long term.

Now I’m starting to think we also need to build in a greater awareness of locality, as well as the long term, and so focus much more on the ‘place-effect’ of what we are doing. When considering who to employ and where to source local will often (but not always) turn out to be best. Above all, when considering what customers need, then providing products and services that help improve the quality of live in crowded urban areas will increasing be the route to sustainable commercial success.