How can cities become catalysts for climate action innovation?

Urban innovation is not only about technology; it encompasses policy-making, finance, climate action communication, and even human interaction innovations. Explore how cities can not only address climate challenges but also reshape the narrative of existing possibilities by adopting human needs and solution-finding approaches for a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive urban landscape. 


“Cities are already providing innovative climate solutions on the ground” is one of the key findings from ICLEI Daring Cities 2023

What does this mean? Maryke van Staden, ICLEI Director of Business Development and Director of Bonn Center for Local Climate Action explains it with an analogy: “When you go to the doctor, western medicine will give you a pill for the pain, but they are overlooking the holistic system of the body. As part of the world’s holistic system, cities, towns, and regions must ask: What is the bigger problem? And look at more cohesive perspectives. ICLEI does exactly that by switching from a problem-solving approach to a solution-finding approach; we work with our global network to look at sustainable urban development where climate action is vital”.

An essential aspect of ICLEI’s strategy in responding to the climate emergency is enhancing the interface between science, policy, and practice. This ensures that local governments worldwide can benefit from cutting-edge science in their decision-making and policy processes.


Redefining innovation in cities

What does innovation mean in the context of cities? According to Lea Ranalder, Associate Programme Management Officer of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), there’s a common misperception that innovation is solely synonymous with technological advancements like green hydrogen or the next solar panel. However, she emphasizes, “Innovation extends beyond technology to encompass policy innovation, financial innovation, and even innovations in human interactions.”

Ranalder notes that there’s often a collective challenge in effectively communicating the reasons behind the need for action. While goals are set, articulating why those goals are essential can be challenging for those outside the field, that’s why clarifying climate actions is necessary. This involves fostering innovation not only in addressing climate issues but also in articulating the relevance of these actions to a broader audience. “We need innovation in both ideas and actions to drive an effective climate agenda. In the end, innovation is about the collaboration between national, regional, and local governments,” she states.

“Innovation is not just a buzzword; it’s the key to making the conversation relevant to everybody,” says Simone Sandholz, Head of the Urban Futures and Sustainability Transformation Programme at the United Nations University – Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). Communicating climate actions can also benefit from innovative approaches. “We need to tell narratives people can relate to,” she adds. 

As the leader of the Transformative Urban Coalitions Project (TUC), Sandholz exemplifies an innovative and cost-effective approach to involve people in climate action through a photo competition, posing the question: “What defines a desirable and sustainable city?” Submissions poured in from 32 countries across five continents, with participants capturing their cities while addressing the envisioned characteristics. Sandholz emphasizes the effectiveness of this innovative visual content-gathering method, stating, “To communicate climate actions, it’s crucial to consider how to engage people. People connect emotionally with their cities; it’s not about technology or finance but their feelings. Individuals act on climate action when they care about their city, find it valuable, and appreciate it.”


How do we trigger innovation? 

The Urban Labs project, spearheaded by TUC, serves as a potent mechanism fostering dynamic innovation ecosystems and networks. Simone Sandholz highlights Urban Labs as an avenue to involve citizens in significant city decisions and instill a sense of belonging in urban transformations: “It mobilizes people from different sectors—grassroots, academia, and government—to collaborate on climate-aware solutions that prioritize people.”

A noteworthy discovery is that these labs address multiple challenges simultaneously, considering cascading effects on the city, including climate adaptation and mitigation benefits. “Making people work together requires time to build trust. However, this investment pays off, as broader community participation leads to solutions better suited for local contexts—more enduring and inclusive.”

Another example is given by Dr. Diana Reckien, Associate Professor of the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and Coordinating Lead Author of the Working Group II Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). She advocates for approaches like Citizens’ Assemblies, citing the first-ever Brussels Citizens’ Assembly as a model. “Our research shows the higher the level of engagement, the higher the transformative potential when people are integrated and cooperate with the city administration. This way, they can accelerate their adaptation and mitigation plans.”


Enhancing climate actions through a need-based lens

“To deploy climate solutions at scale, we need integrated innovation across areas. This requires us to be caring, sharing, and daring,” says Massamba Thioye, Project Executive of the UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub. “Caring enough to make a difference; sharing enough to drive ‘radical collaboration’; and daring enough to rethink what is possible,” he adds.

Launched in November 2021 at COP26, the UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub plays a vital role in facilitating solutions aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to climate while also addressing fundamental human needs such as food, shelter, mobility, and access through alternative value chains in harmony with these SDGs. 

In contrast to the prevailing approach to climate solutions innovation—typically incremental, sector-focused, and problem-centered—the Innovation Hub adopts a transformative, need-based, and solution-oriented one. “When facing a board for finance, for instance, the first thing they will ask you is, ‘How are you going to achieve your goal?’ The tendency is to set a goal based on what is possible and already exists, which blocks innovation and sticks us into a vicious circle. The innovation process must be interactive and based on what is needed. This is the main driver for innovation.”

In this path, the “Expanded Innovation Agenda for Cities,” a UNFCCC Innovation Hub initiative in collaboration with Mission Innovation, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, ICLEI, and others, seeks to propel cities into this role. 

With a “Dynamic Solution Approach” focusing on 1.5 °C compatible solutions and leveraging the 4th industrial revolution, leading cities can innovate to address local challenges while becoming exporters of globally sustainable climate solutions. “This agenda offers three key opportunities: a positive narrative making the climate challenge a chance for inclusive improvement; encouragement of collaboration through a focus on human needs fostering new clusters, and an embrace of transformative innovation by encouraging entirely new solutions for what is needed rather than just improvements of the old,” explains Dennis Pamlin, Executive Director of Mission Innovation.

Looking ahead, the Innovation Hub will stretch its network by collaborating with ICLEI Daring Cities 2024 to create a knowledge-exchanging space to move the urban innovation process forward.

As cities advance toward the goals of the Paris Agreement, they need to adopt a human needs perspective to drive agenda-setting innovation and further into the forefront of sustainable urban development. That’s how cities can rewrite the script of urban innovation.


*This blog was written based on the COP28 session “Human needs-centered research & innovation to address climate emergency: Moving from best practices to next practices and agenda-setting innovation,” organized by ICLEI. Watch the webcast here.


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