Environmental Sustainability: How to Orient the Discussion

By Lily Deng

Our course is on sustainable cities, but one under-discussed area of sustainability in our course is environmental sustainability. I was surprised that our case on Masdar vs. Tianjin became largely about the cool vs. less cool, the high-tech vs. low-tech, the greenfield vs. brownfield, the new vs. retro-fitted space. While all those items warrant discussion, I thought that the environmental impact of cities ought to be a higher priority in our course consciousness. For example, a major section of the case was on Reinventing the City to Combat Climate Change, but it is unclear from the case how Masdar and Tianjin are specifically combating climate change.  Here is how we might unpack these issues.

As the case notes:

  • “Cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions”
  • “China alone is estimated to generated…16 percent of all new urban area in developing countries”
  • The Masdar Initiative was designed to pursue “solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues: energy security, climate change and truly sustainable human development”
  • “Nearly 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions…already emanate from cities, and that number is expected to grow as the world’s population moves towards the 9 billion mark…”

Thus, instead of thinking merely about piecemeal issues that involve high project-on-project risk, I think we should be proactively discussing the broader global environmental factors. The topics we’ve covered in class are extremely important business and design considerations, but do not get at the heart of environmental stability. These topics include, but are not limited to: public-private partnerships, PRT vs. BRT vs. MRT, lease vs. own, partner vs. develop internally vs. sub-contract, and so on and so forth.

Here’s how I propose we might orient our discussion forward instead. Continue reading


Smart, Non-Grandiose Entrepreneurship

By Yonatan

In our survey of case studies in the course we encountered several types of entrepreneurial approaches that range from Living PlanIT’s system-level IT solution and Masdar’s top-down support of cutting edge technology to Sarvajal’s business model innovation for clean water delivery to individual rural Indians. These and other examples demonstrate approaches that vary across many dimensions, two of which, I would like to argue, are most important: the degree of technology innovation and the scope of the solution (i.e. room, apartment, building, neighborhood, city; not scope as in size of addressable market). [Maybe “ambition” or “scale” would work on this axis too? – John M]

There are numerous reasons for why these dimensions are particularly important. The degree of technology innovation has vast implications on upfront R&D expenditures, time-to-market, level of customer education and required guarantees on one end and competitive barriers-to-entry, asset intensity and costs of operation on the other. The scope of the solution influences scalability, level of coordination and concentration/fragmentation of the customer base, among other things. Overall, these are chief in determining the go-to-market strategy, profit formula, availability of funding and other elements of the opportunity that impact the probability of success for a new venture[1].

With this in mind, I believe that the middle-ground of these two dimensions are the “sweet spot” for entrepreneurship in the fields we have been discussing, especially for applications in existing cities. The following diagram illustrates my rough evaluation of some of the examples we discussed in class and others [2]:

Continue reading

Inclusive, Practical, Replicable, and Scalable

By Tina Adams

I came across a quote from the company in charge of building Tianjin Eco-City that summarizes why I feel the Eco-City is more significant and interesting than Masdar City in Abu Dhabi or PlanIT Valley in Portugal

“We want to avoid the idea that [Tianjin Eco-City] is a haven for rich people or second-homers from Beijing…Being green isn’t a luxury, it’s an affordable necessity. This city should be a practical, replicable, scalable model for elsewhere in China and the world.”

I wholeheartedly agree that the overarching mission of a sustainable city should be to be socially inclusive, practical, replicable, and scalable. Without these characteristics I find it hard to classify a city as truly sustainable. I want to dive deeper into what we can learn from Tianjin Eco-city’s plan to meet these four criteria. Continue reading

Urban Growth: Old vs. New


If you had asked me yesterday whether I would elect to be on the Masdar project or the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Project, I would have answered Tianjin without a second thought. However, as I sat in class thinking about the cities that I have read about recently, I realized that many of the cities that came to mind were created in the past few decades: Chongqing of China, Naypyidaw of Myanmar, Incheon of South Korea, Brasilia of Brazil, Singapore. Yes, they were always there, as pretty much most of the land where we inhabit have existed way before we evolved into humans. However, the formation of these places into our concept of modern cities is fairly new. I then had an epiphany that Masdar may enjoy more success and impact in the long-term because our assumption that urban growth happening mainly in established cities could be wrong. Continue reading