Want to develop smarter, greener cities? Maybe the key is compelling communications

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Believe it or not, I think the answer to smarter, greener cities may be more compelling communications. I reached this conclusion after hearing a number of experts propose other solutions. This post explains why.


This morning, I had the good fortune to attend Building the Future: Opportunities for Energy Innovation and Efficiency  hosted by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council at Foley Hoag's Emerging Enterprise Center. The keynote speaker was Dr. Joan Fitzgerald, Northeastern University Professor and author of Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Development. The other panelists were Cambridge, MA urban planner Iram Farooq, Architect and Autodesk Industry Programs Manager Erin Rae Hoffer, and entrepreneur and developer Kenneth H. Smith. Attorney Adam Wade from Foley Hoag moderated the discussion.


Drawing on her research, her book, and recent articles, Dr. Fitzgerald pointed to municipal, state, and national governments that have developed smarter greener cities, green manufacturing jobs, or both. If I understood her correctly, she attributed success to a commitment to creating jobs, government subsidies, and favorable public policy/regulation-although there were often other factors present.

Examples of favorable policies included creating demand for green energy through feed in tariffs or portfolio standards, sustainability requirements for new construction and building upgrades, and prohibitions against driving and parking. Examples of subsidies included grants for green manufacturing plants and green energy production, free parking passes, and building retrofits.

Dr. Fitzgerald concluded with several observations. Retaining manufacturing jobs given will be challenging. Business coalitions will need to lead the charge, presumably since they will grasp economic necessity faster than voters. Americans may need to start at the municipal level since national and state regulation seems unlikely.

Smith took a different perspective. He said regulation was not the answer. Pointing out that many of the community-based projects he was developing prior to 2009 stalled with the recession, he said we needed more financing for small projects. He raised several other good points in the discussion that ensued (see bullets below).

Farooq's presentation clarified why change may need to occur at the local level. For one, locales have different needs. For another, they have different priorities.

A lot of Cambridge's initiatives focus on seeking solutions that will work in dense urban environments. Examples include technology that takes advantage of wind turbulence rather than unfettered wind energy-and regulations that take into account that the possibility that a neighbor's building addition may render a building owner's solar panel useless.

Hoffer demonstrated some of the tools architects and engineers use to ensure that the buildings they design will produce the desired results.


One of the exciting things about going to a presentation in the Boston area is that there are often as many experts in the audience as there are on the panels. Knowing this, the Massachusetts Technology Council left plenty of time for discussion. Here are some of the points the audience and panel raised:

  • Recapturing manufacturing jobs depends on Americans deciding they will work for lower wages
  • We can develop an economy on services
  • Proliferation of services is an early warning sign of the end of a great economy
  • We need to change the conversation from advocating consumerism to advocating citizenship
  • The necessary regulations exist, but they don't apply to the powerful. A utility can drop a line across a farmer's land but a powerful senator can stop Cape Wind
  • Anyone can sue. What good are regulations when lawsuits can delay actions for years?
  • Of course, the US believes in industrial policy. How else did we build yesteryear's mills and railroads?
  • Change will happen when people connect energy policy to their children's future
  • We can't make people buy US products. Of course, we can. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, contains "Buy America" provisions.
  • Is anyone looking at the cost of externalities from events such as the BP malfunction this year?
  • The utilities can collect revenues from ratepayers to provide financing
  • Why can't the Boston municipality prohibit cars downtown where we have great public transit?
  • Special interests block green initiatives that aren't in their interest (e.g. utilities/green energy, retailers need for parking/ adding bike paths, etc.)
  • Why did everyone drive to the suburbs for a meeting that we could have had downtown? How do you get downtown when connecting transit runs infrequently, except at rush hour?
  • We're building a sustainable food industry on low wages, we should be able to do the same for clean energy


I'll preface my comments by saying I was not one of the energy experts in the audience. I work as a B2B marketing consultant.

What impressed me was that with so many experts in the room, there were lots of solutions that sounded worth exploring. For every potential obstacle someone raised, someone else cited an example where it didn't apply.

Listening to the audience, I learned that there are a number of competing entities-none of which wants to yield ground. I also learned that throughout history the US has succeeded in aligning competing interests to accomplish the common good-even when the underlying issues were complex and difficult to parse.

The end goal is achievable but it requires a shared vision of the common good. Arriving at that shared vision will depend on the following steps:

  1. Convening experts, like those in the room today, to surface the obstacles and options
  2. Gaining deep insights into the electorates' concerns (one audience member today recommended focusing on the fate of voters' children and grandchildren)
  3. Clearly communicating options that will address those concerns-and consequences of inaction
  4. Making the connection for the electorate between current policies and future outcomes, perhaps with the help of data or case examples
  5. Putting these messages where voters will see them, consistently and frequently.
  6. Developing political candidates who can then "close the deal"

In short, this expert thinks the solution lies in effective marketing. (Of course, "if you have hammer, everything looks like a nail).  Nevertheless, marketing to the American public is much more challenging than it's been in the past.

Our population is more diverse. So, we will need more marketing messages that appeal to each major segment.

We may need an incremental approach. There is strong competition from well-funded special interests for voters' share of mind. So, we may need to begin with raising voters' awareness of how PACs are affecting their long-term interests.

There is also no easy way to reach voters. Gone are the days of the fireside chat, three major TV broadcasters, or even 50 major print publications. Now that there is a proliferation of conventional and online media, voters are harder to reach.

Can we do it? I don't know, but consumer marketing must be part of the solution. Success will depend on developing a compelling message-and communicating it frequently and consistently where voters will see it. Perhaps social media can aid in the dissemination....

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