How China’s new cities can have a smaller impact and why marketers aren’t all bad

Chinese cities of tomorrow

The issue of sustainable cities has been occupying policymakers’ grey matter of late. Nowhere more so than in China. Such preoccupation is not without good reason. Come 2030, one in eight people on the planet will live in a Chinese urban area.

So how do such cities fare? Some better than others, is the general verdict from consultancy firm McKinsey. Using a new metric – the unimaginative but precisely named Urban Sustainability Index – the big brains at the McKinsey Global Institute evaluated 112 Chinese cities. The index encompasses 18 indicators under five main headings: basic needs, resource efficiency, environmental cleanliness, built environment and commitment to future sustainability.

The findings reveal some notable success stories. China’s performance in meeting urban residents’ basic needs (such as access to water, health care, and education) is mightily impressive. For once, economic growth seems to be translating into practical improvements. Less impressive is China’s reliance on heavy industry, which is hitting the environment hard, especially in terms of air purity.

So what are the lessons? Look to the “all-rounders”, McKinsey suggests: ie cities that have balanced urban growth with environmental protection. They have four policies in common: industrial restructuring linked to land renewal, “green” urban planning, transparent standards and charges, and integrated large-scale recycling. Examples are provided for each. They range from the obvious (shifting polluting industries out of urban centres and planting trees) to the innovative (reusing brewery wastewater through bio-contact oxidisation). All have applications for other expanding cities beyond China’s shores. 

Sustainable cities are the subject of a new working paper by Harvard, too. The research looks at eight so-called eco-city projects, four of which (Dongtan, Tianjin Eco-City, Nanjing and Meixi Lake) are based in China. The paper raises interesting questions about finance, technology, partnerships, property and replicability – the latter important when considering predicted Chinese growth.

“How green are China’s cities?” by Jonathan Woetzel, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2011; “Sustainable Cities” by Annissa Alusi et al, Harvard Business School, Working Paper 11-062, March 2011.

Marketing makes amends

Marketers were once the good guys. They’d sit next to the production floor and service customers just down the road. In the 1960s, their star began to wane. Academics (and others) began pointing out fat kids stuffed with junk food, and marketers were to blame. Come the 1990s, things got worse. Business went global. Suddenly the thin kids – those working in Africa’s cocoa fields and the like – became their fault too.

The answer from marketing folk has been to blitz us with “feel good” messages  – companies, overnight, became responsible. But the truth proved otherwise. Downstream advertising often ran in contrast to upstream realities. Greenwashing and boycotts soon followed. Research suggests there were five times as many boycotts in 1999 in western democracies as in 1994, and little wonder. PR does not solve the root problems.

That’s not to write marketing off. Indeed, this fascinating paper is a clarion call for the role of marketers in helping companies become more responsible. Few others understand stakeholders (and, one would like to think, stakeholder theory) better than marketers. Their “privileged relationship with the mind of the consumer”, coupled with their sophisticated research and communication techniques, make them “uniquely poised” to lead the way. Don Draper, eat your heart out.

“The Sweatshop on YourConscience”by Craig Smith & Elin Williams, Insead Knowledge, February 2011.

Green tech tips

US investors poured nearly $9bn into clean energy in 2009. Some of that will be wasted. Why? The list is short and not terribly sweet: technical challenges, systemic complexity, head-on competition and “because customers don’t want it”.

On the plus side, the authors of this paper provide insights on why new technologies work, and where. Take solar energy. It is both less reliable and more expensive than traditional power generation. So who would want it? Not developed-world consumers connected to the grid. But the rural areas of the developing world where energy is scarce or unavailable? Sure.

New technology won’t just become commercialised in developing markets at the drop of a hat. First, the business unit responsible for developing and deploying the technology needs to be located close to its target customers. Second, it should to able to pursue “good enough” products at lower price points. Lastly, it must integrate its activities across a wider spectrum of the value chain.

Green energy adoption is more daunting in the developed world, but not impossible. To date, however, it has required government support to help green tech to compete with conventional rivals. Enter subsidies and mandated conservation measures (eg energy efficient light bulbs). But where governments can make a difference is not propping up uneconomic technologies, but rather incubating them in places where they can succeed commercially from the outset.

“Picking Green Tech’s Winners and Losers” by Richard Alton et al, Social Innovation Review, Spring 2011.


Net Impacthas released an 80-plus page guide to pursuing a career in corporate citizenship. Corporate Careers That Make a Difference encourages readers to explore functional roles outside the usual orbit of the corporate social responsibility profession. See:

Prof Bruce Milne has been appointed the inaugural chair of sustainable environmental food systems at the University of New Mexico. The chair is funded through a $1.5m grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation.

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