Second in a series on the Executive Council’s Sustainable Cities leadership forum.
One of the more intriguing themes that coursed through the dialogue at the Sustainable Cities forum was the importance of a holistic view of corporate impact. IBM, the event’s co-host promotes such a perspective through its Smarter Planet and Sustainable Cities work. Rich Lechner, IBM’s Vice President of Energy & Environment, spoke with Fortune’s Brian Dumaine about the infrastructure challenges ahead for electric vehicles. The cars themselves are simply the beginning and any solution must incorporate myriad considerations for recharging, battery exchange and disposal, and other issues that will involve auto manufacturers, utilities, city planners, and many others. IBM is embracing the complexity as the first step to simplifying the solution.
He also spoke about the famous example of UPS eliminating as many left hand turns as possible for its drivers. Yes, the move saves fuel and time — but it also improves public safety as left-hand turns result in more accidents than do right- hand turns. Public safety is a critical component of a sustainable city and not one that should be relegated solely to law enforcement or public health officials.
Scott Vitters (Coca-Cola) and Harry West (Continuum) also addressed the broad view during the Sustainable by Design panel. Vitters noted that Coca-Cola believes that its accountability goes from the acquiring the raw materials for its products through the fate of its containers after use. Vitters’ charge is packaging and he explained that the company is engaged in everything from developing bio-plastics to the recovery of used cans and bottles.
West, CEO of the design firm Continuum, offered the example of the Preserve toothbrush, a product his firm helped design. The toothbrush is made from recycled yogurt containers and other #5 plastics which saves significant amounts of water and energy when compared to virgin polypropylene. Its package is also a postage-paid return envelope that lets the brusher easily return the used toothbrush for recycling.
“Preserve doesn’t just help consumers think differently about toothbrushes,” West said. “It helps them see new possibilities in all products and product life cycles.”
In the afternoon, Relina Bulchandani of Cisco spoke about an “ERP (enterprise resource planning system) for a city,” which expressed the idea of enabling transparency and usability for the vast reservoirs of data being generated in cities. Cisco’s work with client companies involves improving decision-making by improving data flow and unlocking discreet pockets of data that might exist in a single department so that a broader number of users can benefit from them. A city is like this only with more players and more fixed boundaries between entities as some data exists with public sector agencies and some with utilities and other private sector organizations. Bulchandani, participating on the Data-driven City panel, discussed the importance of bringing all of this data together to optimize system performance, minimize environmental impact, and maximize benefits to citizens.
Each of these perspectives was distinct yet, refreshingly, acknowledged that for cities to be sustainable, organizations and individuals must think and act across a broader purview that takes externalities and full life-cycle impact into consideration.