Collaborative innovation for urban climate futures: trends and shapers

By Maja Rotter, Head of Innovation at Impact Hub Berlin



Maja Rotter

This article was featured in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global SouthSubscribe to The Beam for more.


Cities matter. More than half of the global population already lives in urban areas, predicted to be 66% by 2050. Because most economic activity is concentrated in urban areas, cities have a key role in climate change. Affluence and lifestyle choices determine greenhouse gas emissions as cities’ share of global energy consumption will increase from two thirds to three quarters by 2030. In order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals, we need local solutions — the local level counts and adds up to global effects.

“Collaborative innovation matches the knowledge, networks and resources of local governments and cities with the entrepreneurial ideas and approaches of innovation ecosystems — to drive climate mitigation and adaptation.”

‘Collaborative innovations’ are now blossoming across the globe, demonstrating how collaborations between diverse actors can drive meaningful climate innovation — and how technology and social innovations can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although local governments (or administrations) and actors like startups, businesses, nonprofits and NGOs may seem to work in different worlds, they often pursue common goals. Meaningful climate action can only be created through collaboration, and the potential of partnerships between these actors is immense. Collaborative innovation matches the knowledge, networks and resources of local governments and cities with the entrepreneurial ideas and approaches of innovation ecosystems — to drive climate mitigation and adaptation.

Nation states have not yet taken sufficient action to effectively tackle climate challenges. Urban governments, however, are starting to fill this gap, transforming mayors into climate activists. If cities become climate-friendly and climate-proofed, this creates tremendous climate impact. The city-level presents tremendous opportunities for solving societal challenges through local action: urban density allows for wide-reaching sustainable development at a local scale through more efficient infrastructure and more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. Moreover, cities’ vast socio-economic ecosystems are environments where innovative solutions to climate challenges can be tested and quickly scaled for impact.

What shapes the way collaborative solutions to global climate challenges are developed? Why is local-level action a vital element of the global effort to address both climate impacts and the unsustainable patterns that accelerate climate change? Emerging trends show that we are rethinking the way we live, work, consume and approach politics. As these trends collide, opportunities arise for innovators and cities to effectively co-create climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Businesses and public organisations are reaching the limits of what they can achieve by operating in isolation and relying solely on in-house capacities and capabilities. Some futurists predict that, in 2030, the world’s most successful organisations will be those harnessing swarm intelligence — bringing together the combined actions of huge numbers of individuals, organisations and initiatives to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Governments and administration are rethinking on how to develop policies for cities and states that increasingly face complex climate change issues. To do so, they are learning from the approaches applied by innovation ecosystems, and especially startups. Innovators and administrations both serve people: innovators their customers, governments their citizens. Political actors have learned from innovators and increasingly use human-centred approaches to develop policy and public services. The lesson is clear: to address complex challenges, local governments and cities must learn from entrepreneurial approaches — and be open to test, fail and learn and iterate.

Technological change fosters bottom-up innovation. Technological developments and digitalisation accelerate the trend toward collaboration. When combined with decentralised technological architectures like the Internet of Things (IoT) or Blockchain, this allows a collaborative, climate-friendly economic system to emerge.

The circular economy integrates financial profits, ecological sustainability and social responsibility in equal parts. This leads to decisive shifts in economic activity and new business models pursued by a diverse set of actors. The emergence of circular economies in all sectors has great potential for mitigating climate change: a linear economy depends on short durabilities to ensure more sales and keep the economy thriving, while the circular economy focuses on long-term, sustainable use of products.

Cities are increasingly translating digital revelations into improved regulatory measures, urban planning and services. This culminates in the transition to smart cities that more efficiently and effectively provide a better quality of life for their citizens — and protect them from climate risk.

These trends all underline the need for action, open innovation, co-creation and cross-sector collaboration; however, an array of challenges remains for potential collaborators.

Administrations and innovators often have different objectives, and control contrasting and, at best, complementary resources and skills. This can create major hurdles rooted in cultural and organisational differences, which must be identified and overcome for collaborations to be successful. These are some of the most important contrasts to be aware of:

These differences can lead to a vast variety of challenges. For example, the slow consensus and decision-making processes of a local government might frustrate entrepreneurial partners, while public entities often encounter difficulties or legal restrictions when leaving their well-established processes behind and trying out new ones.

But creating collaborative innovations is not the only challenging part. Scaling intimate collaborations to entire cities in a way that considers all project stakeholders is an even more demanding process. To mitigate the social and economic risks associated with scaling innovations that are naturally often imperfect — and to make the best of different perspectives — implementing innovations at scale must be a collaborative effort. This requires time, dedication and commitment from everyone involved, and above all, openness to work with unlikely allies.

© Impact Hub Berlin
© Impact Hub Berlin

Understand, focus, measure: Cities need to identify their target communities, understand the climate impacts relevant to them, and identify what they need to achieve.

Start with people, not technology: An early focus on technology makes it difficult to identify the best solution. Instead, start with empathy to understand what people feel.

Organisations don’t innovate; people do: Studies suggest that only 30% of people have entrepreneurial traits. Organisations taking collaborative innovation seriously should invest in identifying these people and fostering thriving innovators — and then help them connect with innovation ecosystems.

Seek unlikely allies: Most collaborative innovation begins outside of innovation programmes. Interactive platforms for engaging with innovators and civil society can help match them with the local government agencies that need their ideas and can support with implementation.

Pave a path to collaboration: Establishing an innovation partnership first requires finding out how each partner works and clarifying the process, expectations, obligations, ownership of the innovation, and governance design.

Provide a safe space to innovate, and simply start: Innovations do not follow a linear process as they move from ideas to fully operational and scalable solutions. Governmental entities must thus set aside financial and operational resources for experimenting. Developing an innovation or adapting one to the requirements of a city requires iterating, mistakes, lots of learning and the ability to pivot. Welcome change.

It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon: Successfully developing an innovative product or service is only the beginning of a city-innovator partnership. Scaling the impact of innovations is the real challenge and takes time.

This article was featured in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global SouthSubscribe to The Beam for more.

This piece is also available on our Medium page.