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
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Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.
I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.
We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.
I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.
There is a risk of further widening the gap between so-called ‘knowledge workers’ able to do their jobs remotely and afford to move, and those with place-based employment who cannot. Beyond that, retreating residents might take the very identity and uniqueness of the places they abandon with them.
Nurturing the community-resident bond could be an antidote to these dismaying departures, and new research sheds light on how. A recent report by the Urban Institute and commissioned by the Knight Foundation surveyed 11,000 residents of 26 U.S. metro areas to uncover what amenities created a “sense of attachment and connection to their city or community.” Three key recommendations emerged in Smart Cities Dive’s synopsis of the results.
What is the Role of Chief Resilience Officers in Responding to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter Protests?
I spoke recently with Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy about his work with Resiliency Officers around the world through the Global Resilient Cities Network. My four takeaways from this 9-minute video:
- As Stewart says, COVID-19 “ripped the bandaid off” to show the weaknesses and frailties of our cities and towns. Chief Resiliency Officers (CROs) around the world are well positioned to assist Mayors in mitigating/recovering from Covid-19 and responding to the protests and civil unrest across our cities.
- Their interdisciplinary, holistic role is exactly what’s needed right now as we tackle the enormous task(s) currently at play in cities throughout the world. Not surprisingly, cities, and even states, are creating more resiliency officer positions. Louisiana, for example, has recently created a State Resiliency Officer position.
- Resiliency’s baked-in focus on equity and racial justice sets up resiliency officers to quickly engage and assist Mayors offices as they respond to the protests and call for racial justice.
- Resiliency officers are seeking to expand their network to engage with leaders (across sectors) focused on this work through the new Cities for Resiliency Recovery network. More information is here.
Laetitia Dablanc is a Director of Research at the University Gustave Eiffel/IFSTTAR and a member of MetroFreight, a VREF Center of excellence in urban freight research. I spoke to her recently about lessons learned from the COVID-19 lockdown in Paris.
My take aways from this 6-min video:
- She estimates that the lockdown resulted in a 30% reduction in VMT, but the effect were not lasting. Traffic is already back to pre-lockdown levels in Paris.
- The Parisian government rapidly deployed improvements in data management, traffic enforcement, bicycle lanes, and the subsidy for companies acquiring electric vehicles has been doubled – all in the last few months.
- The demand for bicycle delivery services (UberEats, etc.) has led to an expansion of gig-based jobs in this sector (and increased use of those new bike lanes!). Laetitia thinks freight companies have an opportunity here to attract these part-time, temporary workers to be full-time, longterm workers in freight if the right training programs can be established.
My take-aways from this interview:
- The world swapped commercial real estate for residential real estate overnight, and as Robert says, our homes are now our castles. The ripple effects this will bring to the workplace and the real estate economy will be far spread and difficult to unwind once the pandemic is resolved. This is a pivotal moment for digital connectivity – Robert calls it the “big bang moment for online.”
- Among the many problems commercial real estate has right now – elevators are definitely one of them. Robert describes this is ways I hadn’t thought of, and I don’t look forward to.
- Business travel will lose its cool – which could be a net benefit for climate change, but will require business development teams and convening organizations (ahem…like ours…ahem) to recalibrate our business models and not just for the short term.
Earlier this month we hosted a live webinar featuring Alex Gibson from TransLoc, and Josh Powers who is serving as a member of the County Manager’s Office and is the contract administrator and regional transit liaison between Johnson County Government and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA). Josh shared his unique perspective and insights from service changes and the re-utilization of infrastructure to creative ways to avoid driver layoffs and the allocation of resources with CARE Act funding.
Included in this post are responses to additional questions we were not able to answer during the live session.
Though public life has been put on pause by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery period is predicted to bring a sequence of phases returning us gradually into public spaces with varying levels of social distancing as Coronavirus cases decline. The way to recovery is through collaboration; across sectors, across stakeholders, and across equity gaps. We believe that the careful engagement of all voices, in a collaborative, thoughtful way is critical when forming solutions to the challenges we are facing and to moving forward with confidence and trust.
We hope to provide a framework for addressing the challenges that will come with building back our necessary social infrastructure, by and for the community. From our perspectives as an urban anthropologist at THINK.urban and as a director of stakeholder engagement firm Connect the Dots, we see the following key points as a good place to start.
I spoke last week with Hugh Martin, Chairman & CEO at Lacuna Technologies. My three key take-aways from this 8-min video:
- The hand-wringing over whether streets temporarily closed to vehicle traffic during COVID-19 should be permanently closed or not is unnecessary. Technology could allow us to dynamically manage our streets in the way Hugh describes.
- Before we take the next step with drone delivery, cities and the FAA need to come to a conclusion on who controls, and in what manner, the airspace above cities.
- Private mobility operators are benefitting (sometimes even with profit!) by the free use of public infrastructure assets like streets (and, one day, air). These assets are built and maintained with tax dollars, but if they are ending up on the assets ledger of private companies, it stands to reason that cities could conceivably capture some of that value for their own revenues. If we can figure out #1 and #2, then we could figure out #3.
Kenya consistently ranks among the countries with the highest traffic fatalities in the world – #18, according to the World Health Organization, and some estimates put it even higher. One of the most alarming statistics is that 1 in 10 traffic fatalities in Kenya is a child.
I recently spoke with Dr. Anne Kamau, Research Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, about her research on transportation and children’s safety. Her research, funded by the Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF), is in collaboration with Dr. Regina Obilie Amoako-Sakyi at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.
Unloading commercial real estate burdens, bringing supply chain components back to North America, and preserving cash
Could organizations unload 50% of their real estate burdens post-pandemic? Should essential components of supply chains be brought back to North America? And what’s the best thing companies can do in an environment like this?
I spoke late last week with Marc Mercier, a senior partner at the law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto. Marc works across multiple business sectors, including public and private finance, and his work gives him special insights into the rapidly changing economic crisis that governments and companies are dealing with right now. His thoughts on business continuity and supply chains is particularly prescient for this moment in history.
We encourage public sector partners to think about data monetization as a spectrum of opportunities. On one end, there’s indirect monetization, which refers to the obvious idea of getting more value from data by doing more with what already exists. That could mean putting data in a more accessible form or location; sharing it across departments more effectively; or mining it more deeply to identify potential operational insights, anomalies, or efficiencies.
On the other end of the spectrum is the idea of direct monetization, meaning new, incremental revenue flowing directly to the city in exchange for the rental, purchase, or limited use of the city’s data. This is approach requires some focus and a proactive sales effort, but can deliver attractive, meaningful revenue streams.
In the middle of the spectrum is what we think of as the Hybrid opportunity. This is often where cities are most comfortable getting started, since its initial focus is on ensuring that the municipality is getting fair value for the time, effort, and costs of the city’s current efforts supplying data to other entities.