The greenovation revolution: how to make cities greener and fairer - 7 Oct 2021 12:00 – 13:00

Collectively, cities are responsible for 72% of greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle the climate crisis we need greener cities with energy-efficient buildings, transportation, and infrastructure.

“Cities are not moving fast enough – most are just employing ‘random acts of greenness”

Following the UK’s recent, and ongoing, fuel shortage, there’s never been a more important time to talk about decarbonisation and our reliance on fossil fuels – not only for transportation but for heating our homes too. We at Nesta, as part of our Sustainable Future mission are mobilising innovation to help the UK reach its net zero targets faster.

In this Nesta Talks To, Oliver Zanetti from our Sustainable Future mission team, is in conversation with Professor Joan Fitzgerald about the various ways actions by cities and in cities will be essential to tackling the climate crisis and tackling it fairly. Decarbonisation is essential for reasons of economics and justice as well as managing climate change, meaning that equity must play an essential role in the discussions and strategies made to tackle climate change across our cities.

Among Fitzgerald’s many unique terms discussed in the conversation, she covers ‘random acts of greenness’; showing the tokenistic behaviour of many cities across the globe to increase sustainability in their regions, rather than integrated and aggressive action, ‘greenovation’; setting aggressive climate goals with the strategy and accountability to achieve them, and ‘eco innovation districts’ which refers to places like Hammarby sjöstad in Stockholm, known for its innovative solutions to climate change.

In order to set aggressive climate goals, and make them genuinely achievable at a city level, Fitzgerald outlines the importance of innovation and experimentation, as well as changing traditional structures of how cities are governed.

“Think about it; we haven’t done climate planning in cities for very long so we don’t exactly know what we’re doing, so there has to be a sense of experimentation, both with new technologies and how we even manage climate action at the city level”

Fitzgerald also covers the various obstacles that stand in our way of implementing effective, long-term climate change strategy including contradictory policies and potential conflicts of interest with key figures across cities.

“A lot of what we do about climate change is really changing ways of living – there’s always going to be people, organisations, businesses, who don’t like those changes.”

Whilst there is increasing need for urgency to find solutions to climate change, along with it comes the ever-growing urgency in recognising that without social equity, these climate goals will be insufficient. In order to implement key policy change, it is essential to recognise the historical and current social conditions in which certain demographics of society have become more and more isolated by the lack of aggressive climate goals.

“Why cities? Cities are where the people are and where the emissions are”

A key consideration is that, while cities are the most effective site for innovation, they generally do not have the resources to achieve the aggressive climate goals needed to make lasting impact. However, Fitzgerald references a handful of ‘eco innovation districts’ that, whilst being potentially at risk of ‘eco-gentrification’, are making important inroads into achievable models that can be scaled up. Hammarby sjöstad, Malmo and Agustenborg have all acted as a test ground for new technologies that can work on a wider scale.

There is a shift in perspective that needs to happen in order to create long-lasting effective climate change. Aggressive climate goals need to be set, but rather than trying to achieve them on an individual-by-individual basis, responsibility must be placed on those with the power to achieve city-wide change – governments, key corporations, and producers. Society and community must be a key consideration in setting these aggressive climate goals. The urgency of the climate crisis brings into effect a tension between wanting to act fast and ensuring social justice is at the forefront of the decision-makers’ plans but Fitzgerald outlines that there is no long-lasting solution without both.


Joan Fitzgerald

Joan Fitzgerald is a Professor of Urban and Public Policy at Northeastern University. She focuses on urban climate action and strategies for linking it to equity, economic development, and innovation. Her ongoing Climate Just Cities Project examines strategies for a green and equitable recovery from the COVID pandemic, which she is working on as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Fitzgerald blogs on urban climate action and sustainable development on Planetizen. She teaches The 21st Century City, Cities, Sustainability & Climate Change, and Environmental Science & Policy.