A Lesson From Stockholm’s Sustainable Development: Identifying Crucial Tensions, Conflicts or Tradeoffs in Urban Sustainability Policies

Director, KTH Center for a Sustainable Built Environment

Urban challenges are indisputably complex—even “dually complex,” because the city is comprised of several social, technical and social-ecological systems. Research and policy are well equipped to support positive incremental change, but not the transformations needed to match the pace of structural and biophysical change. Urban vitality is the capacity of cities—and the people that live and work there—to survive, grow and develop in a changing environment. Achieving urban vitality means moving from adaptive to transformative approaches to sustainability.

Although these challenges seem immense and intractable, in fact their characterization as complex provides a clue to finding the answers. Achieving goals within complex systems requires working to understand system interactions, patterns of self-organization, and trajectories that can tip cities towards sustainability. Meeting urban challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach, new ways for researchers, professionals and civil society to work together, and a deeper understanding of the dynamics, morphology and functional geography of cities.

Challenges of Urban Vitality
A recent cooperative project sponsored by the KTH School of Architecture and the Built Environment[1] studied Stockholm’s experience with sustainable development to identify crucial tensions, conflicts or tradeoffs in urban sustainability policies:

Raise the bar or shoot out peaks?
Should policy supporting urban vitality establish minimum sustainability standards, or maintain a low bar but show dramatic leaps over it? Many cities develop showcase districts with highly efficient, closed-loop, no-waste systems. In practice, however, these projects may be difficult to ramp up or out to other areas or contexts. This is partly a technological challenge since showcases and pilots often use custom-designed systems optimized to a limited site, building or area. Some argue that showcases facilitate the implementation of sustainable technologies and practices in more mainstream developments, while others fear they create fragmented and isolated eco-islands.

Build consensus or forge ahead?
Swedish culture has a strong focus on consensus in development decisions, which has arguably contributed to the “staying power” of its sustainability policies. But broad consensus can also have a paralyzing effect if concrete concepts and policies become so watered down that they cannot be used as tools for change. Successful cities seem to make bold policy and investment decisions while seeking broad consensus regarding desired substantial outcomes.

Local benchmarking or a global outlook?
Ambitious policies must be coupled with metrics and methods that track progress. This has prompted cities like Stockholm to use local economic, social and environmental indicators. However, this in turn leads to a focus on measurable local production impacts rather than (less easily measurable) global consumption impacts. Universities can play an important role in helping cities develop metrics and tools for understanding local and global impacts of both production and consumption.

Durable, predictable frameworks or flexible, experimental solutions?
The durability and predictability of both the physical and institutional environment can help people and firms better understand the effect of their own choices, individual and societal. How can cities provide stability but make room for both technological and policy innovation? We found that experiments and pilots can reduce uncertainty and allow policymakers to craft compensatory policies within the context of political negotiations. Stockholm’s policy and technology demonstrations tend to be large-scale enough to have measurable impacts and high visibility but small enough to allow for experimentation and innovation. Many have been scaled-up or made permanent, for example the sewage management and district heating systems as well as policies such as road congestion taxes.

Closing Urban Vitality Gaps
The role of universities in supporting urban vitality has traditionally been to support policy and investment with knowledge, by producing research, educating and disseminating results to cities. Universities can also help improve local capacity for interaction, collaboration and partnership.

Closing the knowledge gap
Although new tools and models and the promise of “big data” resources have advanced the study of complex systems, knowledge gaps prevent analysis and assessments of different urban growth trajectories as well as benchmarking with other cities. A research agenda for urban vitality would combine insights from sustainability and resilience research with the study of innovation processes and the dynamics of urban economic change and growth. The commonality in these fields—knowledge and expertise about transitions, adaptive capacity and more recently transformative change—combined with the interactive working practice used for example by architects and urban designers, may provide a radically better theoretical basis for sustainable urban transformations.

Closing the interaction gap
Cities and universities are in fact natural partners. The problem is rather that there are many contact points representing different research/professional fields, and these have little contact with each other. Indeed, the stronger the social capital between researchers and their professional counterparts, the more difficult it may be to incorporate other perspectives. On the other hand, individual researchers and professionals create “small world” networks that can be utilized to help universities in different cities connect, and help cities connect with each other through their university partnership networks.

Postgraduate students, particularly PhD’s, come to the university with open visions and a willingness to work together across disciplinary boundaries. They produce some the most successful examples of multidisciplinary research. Innovative universities are starting to target resources to postgraduate “beehives” and open labs where students can tackle complex problems articulated by practitioners.

Theory development is also needed to close interaction gaps, combining insights from game theory, institutional theory, theories of governance and negotiation theory. For example at KTH we are using multiscalar visualisation and analytical tools in game settings to understand how individuals and teams react to complex, interrelated and highly dynamic urban processes.

Closing the mindset gap
A mindset gap is reflected in the persistence of values formed during eras when the environmental impacts of human consumption, behaviour and production and transportation activities were much smaller and mainly local. We need to better understand the trade-offs citizens and urban stakeholders make between environmental, social and economic outcomes of their choices.

Urban planning and design paradigms affect the conscious expectations of end users in different ways. We know quite a bit about what affects and motivates choice, but less about the specific effects of urban form and design. How do we make individual choices in the context of the built environment? How does cooperation affect the way we build cities, and how does the built environment affect the way we see ourselves? Will new IT technologies improve democratic process and engagement or are some important constituencies such as the poor, the homeless and the elderly being left behind as elite networks link some and shut out others?

Policies and regulations supporting sustainable development has generally been market-led or at least market-oriented, building upon the expectation that individuals and firms are rational actors who can make informed judgments about the consequences of their choices. But reliance on the “enlightened consumer” may be shaky ground upon which to base a broad sustainability strategy. “Passive” sustainability technologies such as low-energy light bulbs or smart windows take responsibility away from individuals, and may engender apathetic consumers. If the light bulbs are low-energy, why bother turning them off?

Universities can contribute to closing mindset gaps in a number of ways. Visualization and analysis tools that can incorporate both actual (even real-time) and scenario inputs, and that can zoom in to the individual level or out to the global scale—can be important tools for understanding the collective outcome of individual choices. “Living laboratory” approaches to transdisciplinary research can bring stakeholders into the process of framing research and open source models can engage residents—not least the young—in new ways. Behavioral research within transport sciences, economics, philosophy and humanities, planning and cognitive sciences are helping us understand how the way we frame decisions—the “decision architecture”—affects individual choices and collective outcomes. International networks of universities and international student bodies are resources for cities seeking to understand the global impacts of local production and behavior.

[1] See Metzger, Jonathan and Amy Rader Olsson, eds., Sustainable Stockholm: Exploring sustainability in Europe’s Greenest City. Routledge, 2013.

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