Innovate4Cities Day: The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy goes around the world in 24 hours

At midnight on 15 October, Jorn Verbeeck and Cathy Oke will start out in Oceania and Southeast Asia, then go to other parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, before venturing to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Not done yet, they’ll move on to Latin America and the Caribbean, before ending their journey in North America. 

In the span of just 24 hours, they’ll not only go around the world, but also spend meaningful time talking to geographically dispersed urban leaders about the numerous challenges cities face when it comes to dealing with climate change. 

Fortunately for Verbeeck and Oke, coordinators of research and innovation at Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCoM) their journey will be a virtual one – via the five Zoom sessions that make up Innovate4Cities Day at Daring Cities. But it’s a challenging, ambitious schedule all the same.

As moderators for these sessions Verbeeck and Oke, along with members of the Research and Innovation Technical Working Group of GCoM, will oversee discussions tied to the 2018 Edmonton Cities Climate Change Science Conference and other GCoM research on best practices and knowledge gaps at the local level vis-à-vis creating clearly defined climate action plans.

“Globally, many of the challenges are the same, but there are also strong regional differences,” Verbeeck says. “From a research and innovation perspective, Europe has had a focus on emissions reduction, most recently, through the proposed carbon neutral cities mission, but for example in parts of Africa, the focus has been on climate adaptation to contend with drought, extreme temperatures and less frequent, more intense rainfall.” 

According to Oke, some of the most prevalent knowledge gaps the Innovate4Cities initiative has identified include the need for better tools to support local responses l to climate change; urban planning strategies for more vulnerable communities and informal settlements; and ideas on how to use green infrastructure as part of a mitigation strategy. 

“Cities are trying to not only understand which sectors greenhouse gases are coming from and their climate impacts, but also what actions can effectively help to reduce local emissions,” observes Oke. “So hopefully some of the data we share will help shed light on these challenges and point to ways to respond. Equally important for these sessions, she says, is to get localized feedback in terms of what the cities’ priorities are and the help they need.

After the initial plenary involving the GCoM presenters and city representatives, as well as speakers from Student Energy, a global youth organization that empowers the next generation of leaders who are accelerating the transition to a sustainable, equitable energy future, each session will transition into smaller breakout groups designed to encourage the sharing of knowledge and on the ground experience. Discussions that will involve participants from varying backgrounds, including municipal administrators, politicians, representatives from various professions, concerned  students and other members of the public.  

And the sessions will emphasize dialogue and interaction. “We want to make sure everyone is involved,” comments Verbeeck. “It’s not going to be like you can sit back, relax and just listen to what’s being presented for two hours. We’re calling on everyone to participate.”

During each session, Verbeeck and Oke will be listening closely to participants’ feedback as part of building on their current research. In the context of energy systems, “we hope to better understand what cities need to know in terms of cost, emissions analysis and market barriers so that we can help them to find the right answers to these challenges,” observes Oke. “Helping cities to come up with a workable plan is a good starting point, but we also need to help them identify implementable actions.”

From Verbeeck’s perspective as Head of Research and Innovation at GCoM, many cities are venturing into new territory when it comes to finding creative ways to respond to climate change. As such, many of their actions will be experimental in nature. In light of this reality, “I think you really need to have front running cities that are willing and capable of paving the way with some of these urban renewal experiments… and essentially act as lighthouses to inspire other cities,” Verbeeck says.

Yet another challenge he says, is the short window of time local politicians must grapple with, vis-à-vis initiatives that have a much longer window than the four to  six years civic administrations might have before the next election. 

“It’s one thing for politicians to say okay we need to move toward climate neutrality by 2050,” says Verbeeck. “But if I’m only elected for a few years, how do I go about planning for 30 years? How do I manage my budget? What are the potential lock-ins to ensure the program keeps going? And how do you bring this narrative to the citizens, so you get their buy in and they take ownership of the story?” 

Answering his own question, one strategy Verbeeck throws out is what he describes as “the moonshot approach.” Past journeys to the moon involved massive amounts of research, planning and execution. Likewise, when it comes to dealing with climate change at the local level – often with limited resources “local players need to establish a point on the horizon and say this is what we need to do together. For sure it’s going to be challenging, but it can be feasible with the right approach.”

After their whirl-wind tour on Innovate4Cities Day and the knowledge they gain from these sessions, perhaps the next challenge for Verbeeck, Oke and the GCoM team will be to use the feedback to help cities from around the world plan their own moonshots. 

Join the journey: https://daringcities.org/innovate4citiesday/

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