Guide to innovation and sustainable cities : Guidepoints for action


Cities are places where the challenges of sustainable development are concentrated. Most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced in large urban centres. This is due to the fact that cities bring together the majority of production in developed and developing countries and that they have become vital hubs for tangible and intangible flows of goods and people. This concentration of activities and CO2 emissions goes hand in hand with the demographic growth of urban centres, where more than 50% of the world’s population has been concentrated since 2007 and two-thirds will be by 2050. In France, urban areas account for 90% of GDP, 80% of the population, 75% of energy consumption and two-thirds of the greenhouse gases.


From the preface

The rural exodus naturally leads to a movement of urban expansion which fuels the tendency to increase the distances and development of mobility and transport, which is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impacts of growth and urban sprawl are not only measured in tonnes of CO2 emitted in the atmosphere, but must also include other parameters such as worsening air quality, ecosystems, impacts on public health, food and waste management.

Proposing new methods to understand and think about the city of the future is to act directly on one of the main components of the global ecological problem. There is an urgent need to reflect on new environmental standards for cities and it is in this sense that public policies are in line with a paradigm that is compatible with the “Factor 4”, that is, dividing greenhouse gas emissions by 4 within 40 years. “Factor 4” has been incorporated into the EU’s texts and regulations (in particular with the 3 x 20 European Climate Plan objectives) and France in the framework of the “Grenelle de l’Environnement” and the Energy Transition Act which will be voted on at the beginning of 2015. Achieving these ambitious environmental objectives requires rethinking urban centres and how they function, which requires a complete renewal of the urban policy approach in order to speed up the transition from energy-hungry and tentacular cities to models that are more efficient, denser, and more respectful of the environment and inhabitants’ well-being.

In order to make the necessary qualitative leap, we must use innovative methods to design the city differently and to develop innovations that structure urban development in its technical and technological aspects (with construction, energy, transport, digital networks, etc.) and its political and social aspects (economic models, new forms of democracy, etc.). Innovation and installing demonstrations in urban areas are at the heart of a process that will confirm new urban objects and practices that have sustainable development in mind. In other words, it is thanks to the demonstrations of today that we are preparing the sustainable city of tomorrow.

Beyond this crucial issue, there are various things that can motivate a group of actors to develop urban innovations in an area. They also concern economic development, regional attractiveness, improvement in quality of life and services for inhabitants, reducing public spending, regenerating neighbourhoods, etc.. Innovation is thus a powerful springboard that fosters urban performance in all its forms.

In the complex urban environment, private and public actors who wish to create new ways of producing and living in the city must progress by iterations, testing their innovations in a real urban environment, the only way to measure the concrete feedback, linking in with the other components of the “city system”. Experimenting with an innovation in an urban environment is all the more important as the city operates in a systemic way and it is not possible to reproduce the complexity of the urban environment on a small scale. This is the challenge of the scaling up made possible by the development of demonstrations installed in urban environments, and which should allow the innovations tested to be confirmed in real conditions by interacting and “co-innovating” with the user-inhabitants.

Moreover, demonstrations and the region-laboratories of sustainable cities play a significant role in getting populations used to adopting new practices, strengthening innovations’ acceptability and social desirability. For example, the gradual implantation of self-service vélib’ bicycle rentals in certain districts of Paris and then to all nearby suburbs, followed by the creation of self-service autolib’ car rentals, illustrates a typical effect of gradually habituating inhabitants to new urban services. Finally, these demonstrations also aim to make urban innovations’ economic models more rapidly sustainable, by directly confronting them with real operating conditions, that is to say economic risks that would have been impossible to measure otherwise.

Innovating in the city has therefore become a central concern for elected officials as well as for businesses and even citizens. But urban innovation raises many methodological questions and imposes a shake-up of the current practices of the various actors concerned, in terms of governance and partnership with companies, internal organisation and management, citizen involvement, legal and financial arrangements, evaluation methods and reproducibility.

There are already many initiatives in France for urban innovations. Nevertheless, these initiatives often develop independently of one another, without sufficient assessments, coordinated sharing or effective capitalisation on good practices and methods, which are the only guarantees of systematising and securing these innovative, high-stakes approaches.

This is precisely the objective of this vade mecum, which is intended as a methodological summary on managing innovation in urban areas, resulting from the observation of best practices in France and Europe. Let’s get going, innovate!

Nicolas Blanc, Head of Innovation and Sustainable Development at Caisse des Dépôts Group