Michelle Wu could be America’s first great climate mayor. One of the centerpieces of her electoral campaign, the Boston Green New Deal, galvanized her supporters and caught the attention of international observers. Wu is now poised to join the growing ranks of municipal leaders across the world 一 from Anne Hidalgo in Paris to Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr in Freetown, Sierra Leone 一 who have come to realize that the path to a sustainable future must run through our cities. Yet to succeed, Wu and her peers must overhaul the decision-making processes that animate how governments act and innovate.
Cities are at the front lines of the climate crisis. They cover just 2 percent of the planet’s surface but account for 55 percent of the earth’s population and around 70 percent of CO2 emissions. Beyond being responsible for the current emergency, cities will also bear the brunt of its consequences. Boston, whose historical growth has depended on reclaiming land from the ocean, faces more than 7 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century if global carbon emissions continue at the current rate. In the global South, urban areas with limited resources are facing even greater hardship.
As both perpetrators and victims of the climate crisis, cities are also positioned to be among its foremost problem-solvers. The frustrations of the United Nations’ COP26 conference in Glasgow remind us that nation-states and international bodies are struggling to meet the moment — they are too slow and unwieldy. Time is of the essence, and cities may be able to move far more quickly than larger governmental bodies. To quote directly from Wu’s Boston Green New Deal, “City governments [are] more nimble, responsive and collaborative.”
However, cities cannot make the most of their agility if they remain entrenched by the traditional method of urban decision-making — “best practices,” based on a prior track record of success elsewhere. There are clear benefits to best practices: Governments understandably want to minimize risks when procuring funds from their limited budgets. Yet this approach also slows the pace of innovation by locking our future into solutions from the past. It is too slow to cope with a novel and fast-moving climate crisis, which will not wait for us to develop incrementally. To succeed, cities must move more quickly than best practices allow.
Can democratic city governments innovate more quickly? Yes; think of the coronavirus pandemic. Without best practices to guide them, leaders on every level embarked on a frenzy of experimentation and risk-taking. Some ideas were better than others, but the boldness and multiplicity of our experiments has led to lasting changes in urban life, from pedestrianization to outdoor dining. This trial-and-error approach allowed urban initiatives that had been discussed for months or years to be fast-tracked in a matter of days or weeks.
To reproduce the best advantages of the COVID-19 pandemic response, cities like Boston could organize “moonshots” to catalyze urban innovation in the face of the climate crisis. Moonshots — periods of rapid, unprecedented development — can take the form of open calls and competitions for the best ideas available, accepting submissions from within the city and around the world. While such an approach is not common in municipal circles, there are some precedents. The Helsinki Energy Challenge, launched by former mayor Jan Vapaavuori in February 2020, offered a million euros to the best new ideas to target a specific problem: decarbonizing the Finnish capital’s heating system. More than 250 teams — including my design firm — submitted entries that brought their particular expertise to Helsinki’s particular problems. In Paris, Hidalgo’s “Reinventing Cities” initiative was so successful that it was exported across the world.
The power of a climate moonshot lies not only in its ability to generate novel ideas, but also its participatory nature. A hypothetical “Boston Climate Challenge” could make the most of the region’s conventional brain trust — local universities and innovative companies — but it can also engage a much wider network of local and international participants. The city could benefit from the fresh eyes of players around the world, just as from community members who have lived experience with every block of their city.
A moonshot approach can also help address one of the criticisms most often directed at Wu — that her proposals are outside the limits of municipal power. City governments have limited jurisdictions, but working to attract and advocate for new innovations can actually enlarge their influence and power of persuasion. Cities can launch the best ideas upward, toward larger coalitions and collaborations with other levels of government and society.
As Wu prepares an ambitious slate of climate actions, she should embrace the ideas that neither she nor anyone has even imagined — yet. With a “Boston Climate Challenge,” the city could continue its proud history of innovation — from public education to the Moderna vaccine — to reimagine the policy-making process itself. Boston could once again be what Justice Louis Brandeis called a “laboratory of democracy,” inspiring cities across the nation to launch open calls and competitions of their own. A moonshot from Wu could trigger a space race among her peers — aimed not at touching the stars but at devising the best ways to save the turf on which all our cities stand.
Carlo Ratti teaches at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is a founding partner at the design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati.