Article | Harvard Business Review | July–August 2013

Building Sustainable Cities

by John D. Macomber


By 2050 the number of people living in cities will have nearly doubled, to 6 billion, and the problems created by this rampant urbanization are among the most important challenges of our time. Of all resource-management issues, the author argues, water, electricity, and transit deserve the greatest focus. Every other service a competitive city provides—functional housing, schools, hospitals, stores, police and fire departments, heating, cooling, waste management—depends on a reliable infrastructure for those three resources. Many corporations and investors assume that fixing cities is the purview of government. But governments around the world are stuck—financially, politically, or both. Implementing solutions to the problems of urbanization requires large amounts of capital, exceptional managerial skill, and significant alignment of interests. All these abound in the private sector. Thus major opportunities exist for businesses that can create and claim value by improving resource efficiency. The products and services that new (or legacy) cities will require, and that provide the return investors and entrepreneurs need, optimize both technological sophistication and financial sophistication—approaches designed to attract capital by offering different levels of risk and return, different cash-flow priorities, and opportunities for both short-term and long-term investment. The author cites a number of companies that have moved toward or into what he calls "the efficiency frontier." These include Sarvajal, in India, which saves money and eliminates waste by selling direct to customers through its "water ATMs"; the Boston-based EnerNOC, which manages electricity production and consumption to reduce spikes in demand; and EMBARQ, based in Washington, DC, which coordinates the interests of business and government to organize city transit services.

Keywords: Growth Management; Urban Development; Entrepreneurship; Infrastructure; City;


Macomber, John D. "Building Sustainable Cities." Harvard Business Review 91, nos. 7/8 (July–August 2013): 40–50.