A Chat on Sustainability with Jean-François Barsoum

NewCities has recently expanded its fellowship program to highlight leading urban thinkers. Associate Fellows play a key role in advancing our mission to make cities more inclusive, connected, healthy and vibrant.

An expert on smart cities, innovation, corporate responsibility and climate change, Jean-François Barsoum is our Associate Fellow for Sustainability and spoke to NewCities about how technology and innovation can serve the fight against climate change, particularly in urban areas.

NewCities (NC): What first attracted you to address the challenges of climate change, especially from within the hi-tech sector?

Jean-François Barsoum (JFB): My area of expertise in consulting has been, since the beginning, counselling my clients on how to understand emerging technologies. That typically means being exposed to hundreds of ideas and picking out the ones that will have the biggest impact – not just in the short-term, but in the medium- and long-term as well. Technology is also filled with science, jargon and opposing viewpoints. Clients look to us to figure out what the trends mean, what’s important and meaningful, and how they should react (if at all).

Here is a bit more context. In 1998, a colleague and I started brainstorming about the future of the consulting business in general. We quickly spotted the strategic importance of sustainability to corporate performance; and within that, dealing with climate change clearly played a leading role.

You might see where I’m headed with this… we quickly realized that educating others about climate change is very similar to educating them about emerging technologies: there is a lot of noise, many contradicting opinions, an abundance of jargon… And yet, it already plays an important part in determining the success of a company’s future. We see it at play in the automotive business with the massive changes underway (the market capitalization of Tesla, for example, is higher than most other car manufacturers), and will grow in importance in the real estate, agri-food, and travel industries. They will all see similar disruption.

Companies and individuals are drowning in information, and to them, climate change is just one of many data points buzzing around their heads trying to get attention. But I see it differently, and so do all the others who even briefly look at the facts. Climate change is massively important, much more so than other micro trends that are constantly spotted and chatted about… It will drive changes in behaviour that are still barely understood.

NC: How does a perspective rooted in technology influence your approach to thinking about sustainability?

JFB: The tech industry has its quirks. One is rapid change and innovation, which is not always a quality. That leads to quick replacement cycles, industrial waste and inventions that are sometimes ahead of our ability to understand their consequences. Those problems are not entirely solved, far from it, but at least those in the tech sector are aware of the problems – and that’s an important first step.

The other particularity about the tech sector is that it functions in ecosystems – in fact, for many in that industry, they no longer even notice that this word is a metaphor about nature. We speak of the Apple ecosystem, the Google ecosystem… and it’s a reflection of how success of one company is driven by success of partners, suppliers and customers. That leads to collaboration across organizational boundaries in ways that are not that common in other industries.

And finally, the speed of innovation I mentioned earlier, does have a quality: it leads to rapid adaptation. Fail early, fail often, goes the saying. And in sustainability, we have to try many, many more approaches before we find the right approach.

NC: As the realities of climate change become more severe, in your opinion, what aspects of city management require the most urgent re-thinking or change?

JFB: I’ve heard it said that climate change is often first expressed through changes in the water cycle; and for cities close to watersheds and oceans (the vast majority!), there will be impacts on water availability, water quality, wastewater processing. Low-lying coastal cities already see impacts to groundwater quality. Another area is transportation, which is clearly an area we need to focus on. Urban sprawl has created complex transportation problems and the continued growth of cities will exacerbate the problem.

NC: What are some of the most interesting examples of cross-discipline approaches helping cities become more sustainable?

JFB: Water and transportation are the core problems, but aside from their importance, they both share something which makes them especially complex to solve: they are not governed coherently, are often the subject of competing economic and administrative interests, and rely on such vastly different disciplines that very few people (if any) have a good grasp of all the issues faced by that sector.

There are exceptions: the Digital Delta initiatives in the Netherlands show that water can be subject to a coordinated governance structure, and Transport for London has done a decent job of managing London’s transportation chaos through congestion fees, added public transit, and cycling facilities. Many cities could learn from their coordinated approach.