Citadels of Innovation

Cities are aiding in the fight against the climate crisis, becoming beacons of science diplomacy.

By Marc Lefkowitz, SWE Contributor

Last fall, the world watched as its ambassadors filed out of the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), the latest round of UN-led climate talks, which occurred in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, without a clear mandate on how to reduce global carbon emissions and curtail global temperature rise to a safer, 1.5 degrees Celsius. Participants, observers, scientists, and policy experts said they will continue to press forward with national plans and, in some cases, subnational efforts to close the gap. Some see science diplomacy among cities as a robust alternative to nation-state negotiations.

“We’ve had 27 COPs and we’re not getting there,” observed Casimir Legrand, climate politics, intelligence, and diplomacy manager for C40 Cities, a global network of mayors coordinating climate action, based in London. “Maybe there’s a fundamental reason why?”

For nations, the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change signed in 2015, was a starting point. For cities, climate mitigation and adaptation efforts have continued despite nations such as the United States reversing course on the agreement from 2016 to 2020.

Casimir Legrand, climate politics, intelligence, and diplomacy manager for C40 Cities
Caroline Nevejan, Ph.D., chief science officer, city of Amsterdam
Angie Fyfe, ICLEI USA executive director
Anju Sharma, global lead, Locally Led Adaptation, and lead, Global Hub at the Global Center on Adaptation

Addressing complex systems locally

Cities have an urgency to act, Legrand said, fueled by rapidly changing conditions on the ground. Climate impacts are felt more acutely at the local level. Hence, a consortium of cities, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set out to learn from one another and continue to push for climate action.

Hundreds of mayors, from C40 Cities and similar networks, have committed to act on the Paris Agreement. Cities have appointed administrators to key posts overseeing sustainability, resilience, climate equity, and local science offices. City governments are reaching out to universities, scientists, and environmental NGOs with the technical know-how to measure, plan, engage with residents, and write policy to address how climate change is affecting urban centers.

The need to assemble scientists and policymakers gave rise to the City Science Initiative (CSI), a European Commission (EC) effort started by European cities to conduct research and discuss policy. Caroline Nevejan, Ph.D., chief science officer, city of Amsterdam, launched the initiative with Patrick Child, then-deputy director of research and innovation with the European Commission, and then-EU and EC Joint Research Centre Deputy Director-General Charlina Vitcheva. The CSI includes five, citywide science experiments in air quality (Paris), circular economy (Hamburg, Germany), mental health (Thessaloniki, Greece), sustainable urban mobility (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), and tech and the city (Reggio Emilia, Italy).

“We share the challenges,” said Dr. Nevejan. “We’re all working on sustainability. We said [to the EC] with the billions of euros for research and innovation, cities should be in your focus.”

Dr. Nevejan explained that the CSI, as well as the science-policy hub that she leads in Amsterdam, requires substantial orchestration and investments of human capital to design effective and in-practice collaboration between policy and research.

Cities are engines of innovation, she said, but they also have patchwork systems that struggle to keep pace with changes in technology and shifts in living arrangements.

“The only way to change complex systems is by iterations of design interventions,” Dr. Nevejan explained. “We are now 55 cities [in the CSI]. We all recognize this.

“The design of services and of new products — whether it’s the meter for electricity in your house or whether you share cars or the negotiation of electricity between communities at different hours — [affects] our concept of service level agreements,” she continued. “It goes from social to business to governance to engineering to fundamental thinking about complex systems.”

Since Dr. Nevejan was brought on in 2017, she has overseen the creation of an online space where Amsterdam’s research community tackles such questions as how to retrofit the infrastructure of all 5,000 city streets to be more climate resilient. The challenges include physical limitations and climate impacts simultaneously.

“We’re considering many things,” she said. “We have to prepare for heat and for droughts. We are a city built on poles. Wooden poles. We’re facing between 6 and 15 meters (20 and 50 feet) of sea level rise, which some people tell us we cannot build on anymore. The water goes down [to foundations and] the poles break.”

Dr. Nevejan said there are signs, moving forward, that the EC will allocate a significant effort and investment in its research for city science.

Golap Mohila Dal (Rose Women’s Group) with Gita Roy, center right, lobbied to build and operate a water plant in their village in coastal Bangladesh. CREDIT: WaterAid / Drik / Farzana Hossen

Big data leads the way

When cities identify the sources of their carbon emissions and make plans to reduce them, they look to groups such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability to figure out how.

Six hundred cities have used the tools created by ICLEI to calculate their carbon emissions sources and chart a course for reductions. There are real-world implications for cities — huge swaths of urban populations are living in conditions ill-suited to handle the sudden shifts and spikes of a climate crisis. Standardization of data is key to directing action, said ICLEI USA Executive Director Angie Fyfe.

“We developed the software tool to help cities do their GHG [greenhouse gas] inventories, set targets, and monitor their mitigation strategies,” Fyfe said, adding, “That’s where this whole ‘Race to Zero’ [net emissions] work came in a couple of years ago.”

ICLEI USA is currently working with 49 cities to meet a science-based, UN climate neutrality by 2050 goal. Fyfe said they are focused on three sectors: decarbonizing the electric grid (“preferably, by getting off of coal as quickly as possible,” she said), by increased energy efficiency, and by switching buildings as well as transportation to 100% electrification. The policy mechanism, in some cases, involves updating building codes, Fyfe said. However, some state governments forbid cities from raising energy-efficiency requirements in the building code above state minimums. In the interim — until the federal government adopts a more stringent building performance mandate — cities are finding a workaround.

“Cities are doing energy-related codes requiring buildings to be built to standards often that are EV [electric vehicle] ready or solar ready or are [100%] electrified,” Fyfe said. “Some communities are banning new construction where the building would be built with natural gas as a heating source. There’s been pushback to those communities from industry. Cities have addressed that to say, ‘Our standard will be a building performance standard and the proxy is carbon emissions. So, if you can meet that standard with natural gas, go ahead.’”

As the C40 mayors met at the World Mayors Summit, hosted in Buenos Aires in October 2022, they pressed for locally led climate strategies to stabilize the earth’s atmosphere at 1.5 degrees C temperature rise. CREDIT: C40 / Franco Fafasuli

A global village approach

In contrast to the stalemate at Sharm El Sheikh, science diplomacy among cities and rural villages is a vibrant space of knowledge exchange, said Anju Sharma, global lead, Locally Led Adaptation at the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA). She is also lead of GCA’s Global Hub on Locally Led Adaptation, which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Often the work involves elevating the role of women, some who are not formally trained, but who have lived through climate disruptions such as the poisoning effect of elevated salinity in drinking water along the coastal delta, where villages such as Moricchap, Bangladesh, faced a precarious situation. It is where GCA documented the work of NGO WaterAid in establishing the Golap Mohila Dal (Rose Women’s Group).

In the village, women such as Gita Roy lobbied their community heavily for a reverse-osmosis plant managed by women to address water shortages. At first, the men resisted the idea. In Bangladesh, many women need permission from the men in their families to work outside the home. As a first step, the women’s group was established to manage the water plant. Roy led the formation of a group of five women who broke through gender barriers and extreme poverty to stand up to a private water purification plant.

“These kinds of projects have spin-off benefits,” said Sharma, adding that Roy ended up running for a local council position. “Just the fact that she took leadership like that, and it ended up with other women doing the same. It’s important that these things get institutionalized so that you can continue to nurture that leadership.”

The European Commission’s City Science Initiative has five city projects including Thessaloniki, Greece, where mental health is the focus. The project produced the art installation seen here on the city’s waterfront. CREDIT: Resilient Thessaloniki Office

GCA’s program is aimed at how climate change is impacting local communities, bringing together indigenous knowledge, the leadership of women, the technical know-how of NGOs, and academics who have honed their craft with cities across the globe. Their charge is to build up resilience — to the devastating effects of drought, excess heat and storms such as high salinity in the coastal communities of Bangladesh, and a lack of basic infrastructure in informal settlements of Africa and in the hyper-urban mega cities of Europe and beyond. Locally led adaptation plans are a massive shift from the mindset of the developed nations and NGOs.

“There was inequity within mitigation, which was that the countries and communities that hadn’t contributed to climate change were paying for it,” Sharma said. The program was created in 2018 under the auspices of then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. GCA has helped define locally led climate action.

“What we’re saying here is that leadership needs to be by the communities,” she said. “Whatever health and support external agents give them needs to facilitate that agency rather than replace it, particularly for climate change. That’s really key because the impacts of climate change can be so context specific.”

Legrand added that the need for scientists to unpack complex climate models and participate in campaigns that aid in solutions to the climate crisis cannot be understated. “We need scientists, the folks on decarbonization and the ‘Race to 1.5’ to help inform policy action,” said Legrand, who attended the COP27 talks in Sharm. “Communicating that complexity could help.

“No one understands if we do this one thing how it’s going to lead us to 2 or 2.4 degrees C of warming,” he continued. “Scientists, with their role and links to others, can make a meaningful difference by just raising your voice.”

All That Glitters: Barcelona Basking in Science Diplomacy

Adding to Barcelona’s notable attractions — its sun-kissed beaches, world-renowned architecture, and rich culinary history — the city’s tech sector may be less heralded, but it is no less influential in placing the Catalonian capital as a leader in city-science diplomacy.

Barcelona’s glitter helped springboard it from tourism to talent attraction with a robust startup environment for tech businesses. The city’s reputation as a welcoming place for international visitors set the tone for promoting economic growth, and science diplomacy has been a driver, confirmed Alexis Roig, Barcelona’s chief science and tech envoy and chief executive officer of the SciTech DiploHub. This consortium of public and private institutions “positions Barcelona as a global lab in science diplomacy,” according to the organization’s website.

“The key for science and technology to flourish is having room for creativity and inclusion,” he said. “Our ecosystem was built on the three ‘Ts’ of talent, tech, and tolerance.”

Tech and the city: Barcelona raises its international profile charting a course for multigenerational, gender-inclusive science diplomacy. CREDIT: SciTech DiploHub
Alexis Roig is Barcelona’s chief science and tech envoy and chief executive officer of the SciTech DiploHub. CREDIT: SciTech DiploHub

Fresh off an event that showcased Barcelona’s STEM talent, Roig credits the scientific and public sectors with teaming up as far back as the 1980s. What started small, with competitions and citizen science projects in schools, over time formalized into a city-science program with leaders of all the major universities meeting on a regular basis, he added. As evidence of growth, the recent event featured 300 participants out of the 2,000 alumni of universities and the private sector, with participation from 30 countries.

“Barcelona was the world’s first city with a science and technology diplomacy strategy,” Roig said, “and this has paved the way for other cities to follow, like Geneva, Boston, and so on. We have worked with them in helping write down their strategies in science diplomacy. This approach is pioneering because it has this nonprofit, public, private approach, a grassroots approach.”

From grassroots to high-level policy, city and regional governments have introduced the Barcelona Science Programme (2007), the Citizen Science Office (2012), and the Municipal Universities Advisory Council (2018), which is charged with “promoting a favourable environment to enable research and technology centres, universities and the scientific businesses of the city to implement innovative solutions in relation to urban challenges such as quality of life and aging, or environmentally friendly mobility,” according to a European Commission City Science Initiative report.1

Since 2019, Barcelona has issued a new call for research grants; introduced a City and Science Biennial; urban projects linked to science; and the Barcelona Science Plan 2020-2023, a scientific roadmap with 15 objectives and 51 actions.

“Everything started with a city-science plan and trying to involve the city, particularly kids and younger generations, to make sure they were seeing the positives of having these scientific and technological infrastructures,” Roig said. “Now, with London, Shanghai, Mexico City, Amsterdam, and others, we are building networks of cities that are also committed to science, technology and to leveraging [it] as a tool for their international relations.”

A metric of Barcelona’s success has been a much-improved gender balance in the IT sector compared with those in major capitals.

“In the case of tech in Barcelona, among the universities that have engineering studies, the number of women is between 20% and 30% depending on the bachelor’s or master’s,” Roig said, adding, “there is a lot of opportunity now in the data sector, and this is where Barcelona is strong.”

Roig said that even with Barcelona’s outpacing Europe in gender balance among IT professionals, 41% to 57%, the city finds itself facing a shortage of talent in IT, with an estimated 100,000 positions currently or soon to become available.

“This is a big opportunity for female talent to take positions of responsibility,” Roig said.

1. Nevejan C. et al. (May 2, 2022). Urban Regional Research Ecology: On the Local Interaction Between Science and Government, Research and Execution, Theory and Practice in Times of Accelerating and Accumulating Global Crises. Report by the City Science Initiative, City of Amsterdam.

A wider lens for city sustainability

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals contained within the UN Global Compact, include eliminating poverty, creating opportunity for women, thus recognizing the relationships between health, social equity, and environment. Companies with a multinational presence generally are moving more quickly than cities to adopt SDGs in their corporate environmental, social, and governance plans.

Fyfe agrees. “I think we could do more to raise viability of SDGs in the U.S.,” she said. “City planners and officials are talking about all of those things, but they don’t talk about them as they relate to SDGs. There are voluntary SDG reviews. [ICLEI] did one for [the] city of Orlando. They took SDGs and broke the goals [in their climate action plan] along with what are global targets in the SDGs.”

ICLEI will launch a program in 2023 aimed at widening the lens of city sustainability to include biodiversity and health, Fyfe said. But first, ICLEI needs “to better connect the science data to policy at the local level,” she explained. “One place to start is the connection between nature and health and weaving that into a sustainability plan. We know those who live in areas with more trees have better health outcomes, for example.”

Atiqul Islam, mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, speaking at a UN High-Level Champions Human Settlements event at COP27. Locally led climate adaptation that empowers community leaders will address historic inequities in global frameworks. CREDIT: C40 / Maurizio Martorana

As a peer-to-peer exchange network, C40 Cities’ 2023 goals include convening the mayors across different political factions and geographies to exchange knowledge, information, and intelligence and to share best practices, Legrand said.

“Because if you bring mayors together from different regions, despite sometimes the political sensitivity, you find there are so many parallels,” he said. “Beijing is taking the same sort of actions on its buildings programs that Copenhagen is, so there are definitely commonalities between cities.

“We saw that with the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued. “Eleven mayors from all around came together to create the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. The idea is, what does a green and just recovery look like? They defined the C40 mayors’ agenda to ensure that recovery was going to leave no one behind.”

In her report for the City Science Initiative, Dr. Nevejan wrote that “cities have to learn how to formulate their own questions and team up with other layers of government to put forward clear and understandable requests in order for the Commission to be able to cater to cities’ needs.” Asked to elaborate, Dr. Nevejan gave the example of how to transition the electric grid off of fossil fuels while working in the dense confines of cities, where approximately 80% of Europe’s population resides.

“We have to think differently about research, because if you talk about the energy transition, for example, I was speaking to eight energy professionals a few years ago and they said, ‘Oh, we know how you have to do it. We have blueprints.’ I said, ‘So, how do you do it? We don’t own the ground. So, your research question is, how do you do the energy transition where you do not own the ground [or] when you cannot store batteries in an environment where 100 people live in one building?’”

In order for science diplomacy to take hold, Dr. Nevejan concluded, cities and their academic partners will need to redefine their approach to research.

“It’s about deliberation. It’s about iteration, and it’s what you see in the city science field,” she said. “This is fundamental, so we allow organizing debates, for example, academic freedom in the lab. It’s about ‘we the people’ are part of research. We the people are part of invention. We the people are part of innovation.”