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6 Essential Truths That Will Help the World Urbanize Sustainably

Hear from the leading experts at the forefront of emerging sustainability developments and trends.

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Urban Expeditions was held at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event convened experts who are currently redefining what it means to be “sustainable.”

What will Detroit look like in 2050? Or Dubai? As we look ahead to a time when two-thirds of us will be urban dwellers, the innovative ways our cities are urbanizing today provide a blueprint for how a growing population can thrive tomorrow.

Fascinating glimpses of this future are starting to reveal themselves. Urban Expeditions, a collaboration between National Geographic and United Technologies, explores emerging sustainability developments and trends. In June, a live event held at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington, D.C., convened experts who are currently redefining what it means to be “sustainable” across various sectors: food, climate, transportation, buildings and finance.

Here are six takeaways from the conversation.

1. Cities are at the forefront of innovation. Each city has its own set of challenges, but all cities share a common thread: the need to maximize resources, enhance livability, and build resilience. In Austin, the Seaholm neighborhood has many green features, such as district-wide air conditioning with chilled water infrastructure and solar panels on roofs and benches. Located on a former brownfield site, Seaholm is a vibrant community that has revitalized the area, noted the city’s chief sustainability officer, Lucia Athens. Turning attention to Dubai, National Geographic magazine’s senior environment editor, Robert Kunzig, highlighted progress in a city often regarded as a “poster child of unsustainability.” In fact, Dubai is making impressive gains in renewable energy, has the longest driverless metro system in the world, and is erecting modern, energy-saving housing developments.

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Lucia Athens, Chief Sustainability Officer for Austin, Texas, discusses the strides she and her team are making to build a more sustainable community in Seaholm.

Innovation is not only confined to infrastructure – cities can also foster innovation among residents. In Detroit, JPMorgan Chase is investing $150 million in the city’s recovery, said Camilla Seth, the firm’s executive director of sustainable finance. Part of this investment includes an Innovation Fund designed to stimulate economic development and job growth among Detroit-area entrepreneurs and companies with growth potential.

2. The debate is over: Sustainability adds real value. “If you are a CEO who cares about your reputation, you want to build a company for the long term,” noted Audrey Choi, who heads Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing. United Technologies Chairman and CEO Greg Hayes echoed this idea in his own comments during a chat with National Geographic magazine editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg. Sustainability is “really not an option for us. It’s an imperative,” he said, pointing to the growth in urbanization that is driving the demand for smarter buildings and greener air travel. “If you don’t think about sustainability with our business, we’re not going to be in business.”

“Profitability is the end game but sustainability is the enabler,” Hayes added.

As a result, business leaders, investors and city officials are recognizing the need to frame up-front costs across longer time frames. “A big part of a sustainable cities dialogue has to be, how do you value the long-term benefit relative to the short-term investment?” said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for the industry group Airlines for America.

3. Solutions need to help people as much as the planet. No innovation exists in a vacuum. As we strive to reduce carbon emissions and conserve resources, the impact on people cannot be overlooked. When it comes to the global food supply, “we’ll never be able to feed our way out of hunger,” noted Michael Curtin, who has led efforts to curb food waste as CEO of DC Central Kitchen. “What we need to do is use that food in clever, creative, innovative ways that are going to create opportunities.”

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Michael Curtin (center), CEO of DC Central Kitchen, is at the forefront of creating innovative ways to repurpose food waste. Also pictured is Lucia Athens, Chief Sustainability Officer for Austin, Texas (right) and moderator Brooke Runnette, EVP and Chief Programs and Impact Officer, National Geographic Society (left).

Similarly, state-of-the-art buildings that lower electric bills and conserve water can’t just serve one economic echelon. “Cities will not survive as just places for the rich,” said housing developer Jeffrey Brodsky, vice chairman of Related Companies. Affordable housing is “necessary to maintain the social netting that makes a city exciting.”

4. We need leaders to evolve the discussion. Alaa Murabit sees where roadblocks happen in her role as UN Global Sustainable Development Goals advocate, and she emphasized the need for leadership. “It’s simply getting enough people in the room who have credibility, who have capability and who have leverage to say, ‘We’re going to try this.’ Once you get that threshold, you can push forward.”

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Alaa Murabit, UN Global Sustainable Development Goals advocate, stresses the importance of education and leadership to evolve the discussion surrounding sustainability.

The world is changing rapidly and we need strong leaders who can navigate a successful path forward. “The pace of change is not geometric – it’s exponential,” United Technologies’ Hayes said. Technology will continue to impact every facet of life, so leaders must be flexible, adaptive and open to change. “The skills that you have today are just a baseline of what you’re going to need to build on in order to be successful,” Hayes noted.

5. More people need a voice. To foster cities that will thrive in the decades ahead, we need to hear all points of view – across gender, age and race. “Until we get all hands on deck, it’s all smoke and mirrors,” said Murabit, citing in particular the effect girls’ education can have as a tool to address climate change. Choi added Morgan Stanley research has found that companies with strong policies for gender diversity—not just putting women on the board, but in leadership positions up and down the organization—tend to outperform their peers on stock price. Even organizations that do not have women on the board but have representation up and down the organization have a higher return on equity and lower volatility than their peers.

6. Communication is critical to leading change. Early in the event, D.C. Office of Planning Director Eric Shaw made a comment that reverberated throughout the discussions. Part of his job, he said, is “to be the translator.” That can mean interpreting the language of climate change for a business context, or translating the details of smart technology into bottom-line results. Success often comes down to how clearly and effectively we communicate our goals.

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Eric Shaw (center), Washington D.C.’s Office of Planning Director, emphasizes how communication is key to leading change. Also pictured is Alaa Murabit, UN Global Sustainable Development Goals advocate (left) and Nancy Young, VP of environmental affairs for Airlines for America (right).

For JPMorgan Chase’s Seth, communications also means helping investors redefine what value means. People are looking for “financial value, yes, but not exclusively,” she said. “Sustainability for those investors is a blended value of social impact, environmental impact, financial impact.”

It’s clear that promising technologies abound and sustainability momentum is strong. What’s unclear is what the future will hold for our cities. Kunzig offered a quotation from writer E.L. Doctorow that speaks to the importance of moving ahead, no matter what: “It’s like driving a car at night—you never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Learn more about United Technologies and how they are creating sustainable solutions to move the world forward at


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