Dreams Come True on the Cool Block

By Sue Lebeck

Sue Lebeck is the Chair Emeritus of the City Protocol Task Force (CPTF), an open collaborative R&D community hosted by the City Protocol Society (CPS) to help create the Internet of Cities. Sue is also technology advisor to the Cool City Challenge,  creator of InnovatingSMART, and contributor to GreenBiz.

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.”

Program Structure

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 Cool Block Book CoverThe 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.”

Value Delivered

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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