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Sustainable cities: investing in training and research to meet the challenges

This article includes some proposals from the book "Inventing sustainable cities" (Ed. Dunod, 2022), in which we review the horizons of sustainable cities and the conditions to be met to build them in a broader and more efficient way.

If the construction of the sustainable city depends on the awareness of citizens, the voluntarism of politicians, and the methodologies deployed to carry out the transformations, it is largely based on the capacity of public and private actors to work differently, and to produce new solutions.

The Ministry of Territorial Cohesion says it all when it writes that "urban development is a priority issue for improving our quality of life and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to build a green and sustainable city model that preserves our resources, our landscapes and our territory so that every city dweller can enjoy a decent quality of life and the economic benefits of controlled urbanization. To do this, it is essential to support the professionalization of companies in favor of innovation and to renew housing production practices.

The sustainable city will not be achieved without significant investment in research and development. Nor will it be possible without the training or retraining of the city's actors in new professions or new ways of doing their job.

Investing more in R&D

The construction sector, the very sector that is supposed to be a source of proposals for local authorities and a driver of innovation to make cities more sustainable, is one of the sectors that invests the least in Europe. Out of 15 sectors ranked, it comes second last, ahead of the oil and gas sector.

The European Union, which has set a goal of creating 100 smart and net-zero cities and to have these cities serve as both laboratories and showcases, recognizes the need for the sector to innovate further to achieve this goal. It will provide €350 million between 2021 and 2023 to encourage more innovation.

In France, Sébastien Delpont, Associate Director of Greenflex, points out that "only 0.1% of the construction industry's turnover is devoted to research and development, compared with an average of 2% in other industrial sectors. Such a gap is - it must be emphasized - considerable and can be explained by the fact that the construction giants have little or no competition. Under these conditions, innovation must of course be encouraged through subsidies, but also, without doubt, these players must be more constrained. RE 2020 is a first step, but it is likely that the pressure exerted by both the State and the communities must be stronger. Having high ambitions is not enough if the means invested to reach them are not up to the task.

Training for new professions and developing old ones

Innovative materials and processes are of little use if the people who use them do not understand their value and do not integrate them into their work.

Making the city sustainable implies that its architects (the State, agencies, local authorities, companies and associations) must understand why such a city is now necessary, even before learning how it can be made. One might think that this is a given, as politicians and large corporations vie with each other in their ambition to reduce their footprint by 2030 or 2050. But in reality, few actors understand the urgency of the situation, and especially the magnitude of the changes to be made, above all on themselves. In an interview with the authors, Sébastien Maire recounts that he often goes to meet with elected officials. He then adopts the "shock strategy", showing local projections of the effects of global warming. His objective: to create an awakening that could lead to awareness and rapid decisions. As an extension of his interventions, France Ville Durable, the association he directs, offers so-called "shock" trainings to understand the consequences of the Anthropocene, to better understand the objectives of sobriety, resilience, and inclusiveness linked to sustainable development policies, and to better understand the methodological tools for setting up public/private territorial governance of the transformation.

These methodological tools must be enriched by innovation methods that have proven their worth over the past twenty years in other industries. One example is lean, a production method that focuses on waste management, which originated in Japan and has been revived in the United States for start-up development. A method based on user needs (participation), developing solutions through iterations (consultation), in order to reduce the complexity of projects and gradually move towards a match between the solutions envisaged and the field.

Beyond methodologies, we have seen how important a role digital technology plays in designing and operating sustainable cities. Paradoxically, construction is one of the least digitalized sectors. We tend to forget this because we talk so much about the ConTech and PropTech start-ups, which are competing with each other in terms of innovation. But these solutions are still struggling to be used on a large scale, and to have an impact on usage. Sébastien Delpont believes that it is urgent to support the French economic fabric in its transformation to embrace digital thinking. He adds that "new expertise in the building sector needs to be integrated into projects: smart building program designers, network architects, information system architects, developers, data scientists, cybersecurity experts, data administrators, smart services operators, etc. These skills are in addition to the traditional building trades.

Local authorities are also concerned. Even if they delegate the management of certain actions to private actors, they are still responsible for monitoring these actions in front of the citizens. Let's take "Dijon intelligent and connected metropolis", which brings together and pilots what was previously managed by six different departments: security, municipal police, traffic, snow, urban supervision and the Allo Mairie service. This project is led by a group of large companies (Bouygues, EDF, Suez and CapGemini) who will manage it for twelve years. However, the city will exercise control over these activities, in particular by guaranteeing the proper use and integrity of the data processed. Simply monitoring a public service that has been delegated or handled under a partnership contract requires a new organization and new skills within the local authorities.

The sustainable city cannot be built on the basis of scattered innovations; its design implies a change in awareness and the evolution of the professions of all the city's craftsmen. Human resources therefore have a crucial role to play in driving change internally, by identifying - in close collaboration with management - the jobs that need to evolve and those that need to be created. We have seen, for example, that the local authority, as the operator of the sustainable and intelligent city, does not have the skills to manage the data and produce relevant services from it. Some cities, based on this observation, have set up departments and created positions that only five years ago did not exist. It is up to the other communities to draw the consequences of this, and to articulate an updated organization and skills plans to the vision they have of their new role in the sustainable city. Once this has been done, it is necessary to work on the forward-looking management of jobs in the territory and to include it in the training programme. In addition to training, and in order to better prepare for it, the climate frescoes (and their various variations applied to food, for example), already in vogue in companies, would benefit from being generalized in all communities.

For local authorities wishing to combine action with learning, solutions exist that allow the most advanced cities to spread around them. This is what Mouans-Sartoux does, for example, through its Sustainable Canteens and Biocanteens programs, or the OpenDataFrance association, whose training courses capitalize on the experience of the most advanced French cities in terms of open data.

Secondly, if jobs are changing, then it is urgent to train students differently. This is true for all the schools that train the engineers and civil servants who will be tomorrow's actors of the sustainable city: the École nationale des travaux publics de l'État and the Institut national des études territoriales still have a lot of work to do in order to treat the themes of the sustainable city, not as separate subjects (as sustainable development is still taught by the national education system), but in a transversal way, in all the subjects taught. For several years now, students have been complaining that they are neither sensitized, nor a fortiori trained to work towards sustainability in their respective sectors. We remember the manifesto for an ecological awakening, signed by more than 33,000 students. It is urgent that schools take this phenomenon into account and adjust both their curricula and their teachings accordingly.

Complete book available here (in french): Inventing Sustainable Cities: Ideas and Tools to Meet Today's Challenges  (Matthieu Chéreau & Maxime Guillaud)

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