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A Crystal Clear Business Case for Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

The new Siemens Crystal, the world’s first center dedicated to improving our knowledge of urban sustainability

The next time you’re in London be sure to visit the new Siemens Crystal. The Crystal opened to fanfare and urban guru accolades a couple weeks ago. The 30 million pound, 6000 square meters building is on the east bank of the Thames (a short walk from the Royal Victoria DLR stop). The building is divided into two parts, an exhibition and meeting place on cities and headquarters for up to 100 London-based Siemens staff working in the urban sector and external cities experts. Siemens has plans to build similar, albeit smaller, competence centers for cities in Washington, DC and Shanghai.

When wandering through the majestic building, one might wonder why Siemens would spend so much money on what is arguably mostly a public meeting place on cities. Similar to any successful company, Siemens is driven by profits. Making a business case for public education is likely not always easy, even if your company would benefit more than most from a better informed public. But a well-informed public asks many questions, some which might be uncomfortable.

Like many companies, Siemens has been charged with wrong doing in the past. For example in 2009, responding to corruption charges, Siemens acknowledged wrongdoing in World Bank financed projects. The company agreed to pay $100 million over 15 years to educate against corrupt practices, and was barred from bidding on World Bank projects for two years.

Siemens is not alone as a company in the global Fortune 500 convicted of illegal behavior. The US Securities and Exchange Commission Foreign Corrupt Practices Act website reads like a who’s who of global businesses . At least seventy-seven companies were charged in the last five years: e.g., GE ($23 million fine); Pfizer ($45 million); Johnson & Johnson ($70 million); IBM ($10 million); Alcatel-Lucent ($137 million); ABB ($39 million); DaimlerChrysler ($185 million). There are also the big corporate transgressions like US EPA’s insistence that GE spend some $460 million to dredge the Hudson River of PCBs; Union Carbide in Bhopal; BP in the Gulf of Mexico; Exxon Valdez; Barings Bank; Enron; Bre-X; etc.

But the Crystal highlights something new driving businesses like Siemens, Philips, Unilever, IBM, Suez, Cemex and Cisco. They have not become saints overnight and they all know that enormous sums of urban-money is about to be spent, but they are rolling up their sleeves, opening themselves up (the glass walls of the Crystal are a powerful metaphor), and working together to help build better cities – while still (fairly) competing with each other.

To undertake a task of this magnitude, we need new business models – businesses as credible advocates; new partnerships – businesses cooperating as well as competing in the same city; new attitudes – open, honest respectful; and probably above all, a much greater sense of urgency.

We now need ‘Future 500’ companies. We have about 500 months to build cities for an additional 3 billion residents, while completely retrofitting existing cities. How we as partners in urbanization, build these cities is the most important task facing humanity today; citizens, agencies, financiers, and especially city-building corporations like Siemens, need to come together in open and transparent manner and get on with the job at-hand.

One cannot view the exhibits and watch the films on urbanization, climate change and demographics at the Crystal and not be moved by the critical urgency to build better cities. The work will be messy – carried out by imperfect corporations, city politicians and administrations that often fall short, supporting agencies like the World Bank that can be ineffectual, and a public that regularly puts off the hard work and tough choices.

The windows of the Crystal are open for everybody – city experts and urban decision makers as well as the general public and school classes. The need and even the path for better cities are clear. The world is watching.

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