Dreams Come True on the Cool Block
Ten years ago, a Big Idea constellated in the mind of pro-social behavior change researcher and innovator David Gershon, CEO of the Empowerment Institute. The idea was to operationalize the modest goal of keeping the planet viable into the long-term future and improving the quality of life for humanity at the same time.
“What if there was a program that could achieve measurable and substantive behavior change and at scale around the most critical issues affecting the wellbeing of [urban citizens] and our planet? What if it could empower households to voluntarily take actions that could achieve a…
- 30% reduction in water use
- 25% reduction in carbon emissions
- prepare families and their blocks to become resilient in the face of earthquakes and other natural disasters, and
- make city blocks safer, healthier, greener, friendlier, and a more beautiful place to live?
And what if this program could engage the participation of at least 25% of the people living on any block across a city? What would be the implications of this social innovation for the quality of life in a city? …for the future of cities in America? …around the world?”
Making Dreams Come True
Gershon is a dreamer and this may seem like merely a dream – but it is beginning to happen in the real world, on-the-ground in multiple cities, as we speak.
The author of thirteen books and developer of proven programs, Gershon integrates key learnings into a program now being piloted in three world-class cities in California – San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley. That program is “The Cool Block”.
Describes James Keene, City Manager of Palo Alto, “Cities are the platform for change in our world today. The Cool Block links the challenges facing our planet to the intimate, personal, social scale of the city block as the way we can meet the environmental, safety, and social connectedness challenges of our times.” Continues Keene, “The psychologist Carl Rogers said, ‘The personal is the most universal.’ This program starts and ends with that premise and promise—that the individual, household, and neighbors are the way forward in the face of seemingly insoluble global problems.”
The “Cool” in Cool Block
The concept of “Cool” originates from the critical challenge we face in stabilizing the earth’s temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal agreed as essential at the most recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP21. According to UN-Habitat, cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions, which scientists agree contribute to this temperature rise. Moreover, citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent 70% of these emissions.
As a result of the large carbon footprint of cities and citizens, they provide a key leverage point for addressing the climate change issue. Experts from the National League of Cities explain “Cities are the places where we live and interact. We expect our city leaders to keep [us] healthy, safe and vibrant… The nation’s mayors are leading the charge to develop sustainable, livable, smart cities.”
The Cool Block begins with a grassroots focus on this challenge. Observes Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California and Author of Citizenville, “The Cool Block is an exemplary how-to guide for local communities to make a significant impact on climate change. When added together, the effort of thousands of individual communities is what will allow us to tackle climate change at scale. This program demonstrates the untapped potential of citizens to engage in this grassroots initiative in an effective and achievable way.” Adds Newsom, “Very cool, indeed!”
World Class Pilot Cities
Three world-class cities in California are currently piloting the program on the ground in their communities. These cities see the Cool Block as a way to help achieve the goals of their climate action plans. Keene in Palo Alto has taken on the program as a tool in achieving the city’s sustainability and climate action goals (S/CAP). San Francisco’s Department of the Environment has linked it to San Francisco’s climate action initiative (0-50-100 Roots). And in Los Angeles, the City Council is partnering with the Cool Block and the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance to make Los Angeles the largest city to take on the challenge.
City Councilman Paul Koretz aims to spread this ground-breaking program across LA, and help it accelerate across the country: “In addition to strong and binding emissions reductions targets set by local, state, national and international government bodies, there needs to be in place a robust and scalable grassroots model to engage residents on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, house-by-house level if we are to truly turn around a rapidly worsening climate crisis. As many pundits in the climate movement have suggested that the world looks to California for leadership, the City of Los Angeles then is in a unique position to lead California and therefore the world by establishing a model grassroots effort which we are calling ‘Cool Blocks LA,’ that can be shared and spread worldwide.”
The Cool Block taps intrinsic motivators, and is delivered through a block-based peer support group. It consists of a book, website and block-based meetings with neighbors that empower participants to take action that can be brought to scale. A larger initiative called the Cool City Challenge will enable that program to go to scale.
The value proposition offered to Cool Block leaders and participants is this: Take a journey to become more planet friendly, disaster resilient and community rich. Experience greater meaning, purpose, community and the ability to make a difference.
Explains Sandra Slater, Northern California Director of the Cool City Challenge, and Palo Alto Program Manager for the Cool Block pilot: “Getting to know your neighbors is one of the best benefits of [this innovative program]. Participants select from a menu of 112 action recipes that include carbon reduction, water conservation, resiliency and livability. They… track their progress through a web platform that has [a wealth of local] resources necessary to help achieve the actions they choose to complete. Some actions are done as individuals and others are collective and carried out by the Cool Block team.”
The program provides the structure that enables households to confidently act to keep the planet viable and improve the quality of life for humanity, and to empower others to do the same. It includes the meeting protocols and action recipes necessary to engage neighbors, adopt pro-social behaviors and empower others.
Smart Citizens Key to Building Smart Cities
Smart City builders embrace the point of view that citizens are a smart city’s best partners. Say Jennifer James and Steph Stoppenhagen of Black and Veatch: “We are now realizing that if we don’t involve citizens, and actually empower them with the ability to both access and provide data… then we are missing a very substantial step … We need to design technology offerings to better enable the citizen, to empower them with what is meaningful, making them part of the solution.”
To this end, on-the-ground Cool Block program is supported by a website, currently in early pilot state, which provides intelligence and support to citizens on the Cool Block journey and collects participant-provided action-achievement data.
Using the website, participants share the data on their actions taken, contributing their “drops in the bucket” which collectively can make a difference in the world. Through this feedback loop, citizens can see their own direct impact, and spread their social impact across their neighborhood, their city and beyond.
Action data will be aggregated, gathered and analyzed by the initiative, and also made available to the research community. Behavior data can be correlated, for example, with hard data on energy, water, technology uptake and more.
Says Max Wei, Program Manager for the Sustainable Energy Systems Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “Lawrence Berkeley Labs can really contribute to the Cool City Challenge in terms of providing research and development methodologies and also a framework for collecting the data, and then also doing the modeling and the data analysis itself.”
Activating the System
The website also connects participants with powerful local resources to help them succeed with their Cool Block action plans. These resources — data, tools, assessments, training, discounted equipment and more – are provided by their city, NGOs and the business community. Action by action, the demand and supply sides of a sustainable local economy are connected, and the overall system of public and private players are activated.
Engaging citizens can serve as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.
Observes Stuart Bernstein, Global Head of Clean Technologies and Renewables at Goldman Sachs, “There are a number of very smart people focused on the supply side of the equation. But that’s going to take a long time. We’ve got to also focus on the demand side of the equation. What we find very interesting about the Cool City Challenge is, it does just that.”
Neighbors across our three pilot cities have found the Cool Block value proposition to be compelling. The invitation to participate is delivered by block leaders, on the ground and door to door. Of those neighbors who answer their door and receive a personal invitation, over half agree to join a Cool Block team.
Reports Annette Isaacson, Block Leader from Palo Alto, whose block was recently the first to complete the alpha pilot: “Last summer, we came together as individuals who wanted to do something about global warming while getting to know our neighbors at the same time, and we have morphed into a neighborhood group that is making our street and our planet a better place for all of us.” Elaborates Issacson, “As a team, we’ve taken a whopping 178 actions to help us save resources like energy and water, get prepared for emergencies, and help make our neighborhood friendlier and more resilient.”
Agrees Lisa Dossey, Block Leader in San Francisco: “I love the bottom-to-top approach of this amazing program. Making a difference in our homes and on our blocks is the foundation to making a difference in our city and our world.”
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Cities and communities are “systems of systems”: they are complexes of interacting physical, environmental, infrastructural, economic and social systems. Each system may have a different owner and management chain, yet each needs to interact with the others to minimize risk from hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires and the like – as well as from pandemics. This means that disaster risk reduction (DRR – defined as disaster adaptation, mitigation, planning, response and recovery) is a “team sport”. In any community, let alone a large city or state, multiple “players”, from the public and private sectors, will be needed to complete the team. In my experience with DRR activities in cities and communities, however, key players may be omitted. This article identifies who the players are, and why they need to be involved as well as what that involvement should include.
Following such a tumultuous school year where change was the only constant, perhaps there is no greater opportunity for colleges and universities to reimagine their campuses than there is today. To stay relevant in today’s increasingly competitive educational marketplace, schools must embrace the smart technologies that will enhance the collegiate experience and ensure seamless operations regardless of the next crises. By being proactive and planning now, schools can install the robust communications backbone and agile infrastructure necessary to support emerging technologies and create the connected campus of the future.
Small-scale manufacturers are locally owned businesses that produce anything from hats to hardware to distilled spirits to coffee and more. Unlike large manufacturers, they fit into relatively small commercial spaces and are clean, quiet neighbors. Your city might be home to some of these kinds of businesses already.
Given the rapidly changing “future of work” space and the impact on our cities over the last 15 months, I decided to catch up with Robert Hoyle Brown to get the latest trends and insights on where we are now and where we are headed next.
Their new report “21 Places of the Future” touches on the key drivers for the creation of jobs in relation to place. We discussed how architectural heritage is tied to jobs and place. We also discussed how people matter and the future role of philosophers and ethicists in our data-driven world. Given the recent cyber attacks on US companies, we discussed the role of cybersecurity as a driver for the creation of jobs, including the jobs of cyber attack agent and cyber calamity forecaster. And we discussed the future of virtual workplaces. Here to stay, go, or evolve? Take a look.
Why one city decays and another thrives can sometimes seem random. So, trying to foresee downrange why the future will happen in City A and not City B is hard. Moreover, to imagine that there is one formula that all 7.8 billion of us should adhere to, wherever it is we live, is clearly nonsensical.
In our work, we study, research, and rank places to determine what the best practices are to increase economic prosperity, social equity, and quality of life. Ultimately, the question we want to answer is: What is it that makes a city a place of the future? In our research, one thing has become clear to us: next-gen talent is the fuel for the future of place. And by extension, jobs of the future will happen in places of the future.
Digital twins and AI analysis would offer significant benefits to organizations across all sectors. By providing a comprehensive look at a geographical area and its infrastructure and assets, these technologies will enable smarter and more targeted field planning optimization. It could help digitize field surveys, offer new levels of remote engineering access, and enable contact tracing around COVID-19.
The focus will continue to shift away from the data itself and towards its relationships. The connections between data are where the most powerful insights lie. With enough data points, organizations can look to analytics to better understand the context and “see” the future.
AI at scale and emerging data technologies truly illustrate this connectivity and potential. Although it’s an emerging field, the benefits are limitless.
In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.
I caught up with Steph Stoppenhagen from Black & Veatch the other day about their work on critical infrastructure in Las Vegas. In particular, we talked about the new Bleutech Park project which touts itself as an eco-entertainment park. They are deploying new technologies and materials to integrate water, energy, mobility, housing, and climate-smart solutions as they anticipate full-time residents and park visitors. Hear more from Steph about this new $7.5B high-tech biome in the desert.
Planning for new, shared modes of transit that will rival private vehicles in access and convenience requires a paradigm shift in the planning process. Rather than using traditional methods, we need to capture individual behavior while interacting with the systems in questions. An increasing number of studies show that combining agent-based simulation with activity-based travel demand modeling is a good approach. This approach creates a digital twin of the population of the city, with similar characteristics as their real-world counterparts. These synthetic individuals have activities to perform through the course of the day, and need to make mobility decisions to travel between activity locations. The entire transportation infrastructure of the city is replicated on a virtual platform that simulates real life scenarios. If individual behavior and the governing laws of the digital reality are accurately reproduced, large-scale mobility demand emerges from the bottom-up, reflecting the real-world incidences.
This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.