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Is Vancouver the next global hub for green tech? Andrea Reimer weighs in

Is Vancouver the next global hub for green tech? Andrea Reimer weighs in

Posting in Cities

Andrea Reimer explains why Vancouver wants to be the greenest city in the world by 2020: "Everybody's racing to own the future, because if you don't own the future, the future owns you."

Which city is the greenest in the world?

Is it Copenhagen? Tokyo? San Francisco?

(Is it no city at all?)

If Andrea Reimer is to be believed, it's Vancouver.

Reimer, the chair of Vancouver's Planning and Environment Committee and lead councilor on its Greenest City Action Team, says that the coastal Canadian city is ready for the limelight -- literally.

With major green initiatives already underway -- most recently, a partnership with Cisco and Pulse Energy to monitor energy consumption -- the city is making progress toward its goal to be the greenest metropolis in the world by 2020.

But how do you get there? And what are the challenges? I spoke with Reimer this month to find out more.

SmartPlanet: How was the Greenest City campaign conceived?

AR: The current mayor [Gregor Robertson] was elected in November 2008. He had a pretty ambitious plan: he wanted to end homelessness. We have the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country. But after that he wanted to bring green to Vancouver.

On the greenest cities side, Vancouver is really, really lucky to have some of the brighest minds on the planet on sustainability come from Vancouver, like David Suzuki.

Green is about environment, but it's got to be about money, especially when you're in the middle of a recession. We came up with a 10-year action plan. [Read the report here (.pdf) -- Ed.] It looks at 10 major environmental areas. We wanted to do well in all of those areas. It is quite ambitious.

The first section is about economics, and making Vancouver a global hub for green technology. The more companies we attract, the more other companies they attract. It's about economies of scale.

SmartPlanet: This all sounds good, but what are the challenges? A lot has to come together to make these goals happen.

AR: Buildings are by far the largest challenge. All of the electricity in British Columbia is produced by hydro power -- dams. Our elecricity is pretty much zero emissions. So our big challenge is around [reducing the energy consumption of] buildings. We're kind of running out of rivers to dam.

SmartPlanet: Let's return to the cleantech hub concept for a moment. How do you compete?

AR: We're absolutely competing with the world. Everybody's racing to own the future, because if you don't own the future, the future owns you.

Baby Boomers are retiring. We have a smaller workforce and more competition for the brains. We have the largest ratio of entrepreneurs of any city in Canada. People come to Vancouver and see the mountains and figure out, "How do I stay here?"

We have beauty going for us. But you can't underestimate the value of having a city government [with favorable policies]. The mayor comes from the green business community. What he's doing could be charecterized as courageous, to push new initatives. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have the world's focus on you from the [2010 Winter] Olympics.

In the first four months [of the campaign], we've seen more than $70 million in investment in the green sector, which ranges from digital media to cleantech.

The mayor is currently in China trying to draw investment. We have a large Chinese-speaking population. China is putting more energy and money than any other country on the planet into green technology.

SmartPlanet: So Vancouver is pursuing a knowledge-based economy?

AR: We're definitely in it for the knowledge base. We would like to have a manufacturing base, but we have a geographic disadvantage for that, and we don't have the population base like the East Coast.

When people come to Vancouver for the first time, they say, "Wow, there's a lot of Asian people here." In the knowledge economy, people can be almost anywhere, as long as you can be awake to talk to people [such as colleagues in Asia].

The challenge has been, historically, green-minded people move somewhere else. Our businesses would prefer to stay home and find ways to be able to supply their services to other countries, and that's where we play a role.

We traditionally have been a small and medium enterprise center. We have only one head office in the entire city. We're very low on business taxes.

For us, it's definitely about brand. It's definitely about clustering. People want to get together and jam. That happens when you reach a critical mass.

We've worked hard on policy for open data and open policy, right through the fabric of government. It's an intangible piece that attracts companies.

SmartPlanet: Do you make a regional play? Seattle is known as a city full of smart folks. So is San Francisco.

AR: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco -- we're very aligned in terms of an interest in pushing for a position on green technology.

The problem is awareness. The [American] border is maybe 30 miles from where I live, but when I open the newspaper, the media only wants to talk about what's going on in Toronto or Montreal.

SmartPlanet: Which cities does Vancouver look to for inspiration?

AR: Because we're sort of isolated and have that West Coast attitude, we've had an appalling attitude to not look elsewhere.

So we've had a team scouring the globe to find these things out. For example, Los Angeles -- not a green city by many standards -- is doing incredible things with water conservation. There are many cities doing incredible things in one or two or three policy areas. We didn't find anyone that's doing it in 10 different areas. That's why we want to be the first.

There are definitely a lot of benefits to having a comprehensive environmental policy. if you're not planning holistically, other problems are going to get worse because the very things you're using to solve, say, the climate problem are creating problems elsewhere.

If we're not able to solve in a 360-degree way, we're not really solving for green. We're solving for public opinion. We need to fundamentally change the relationship we have with the environment and really, our integration with it. We're going to do it because we can build strong green economies.

We try not to think of Greenest City as environmental policy separate from economic or social policy. If we have a green city but everyone's broke or homeless, well, we didn't really accomplish anything, did we?

Having said that, public opinion is very supportive of moving on environment. There is a very well-organized but small opposition, but if there was no debate at all, it would worry me a lot more than having one in the first place.

We had a bit of an Armageddon-like scenario recently. Vancouver is on a peninsula, and we wanted to put a bicycle lane on a bridge. The media coverage it got was probably more than most sex scandals would get in New York City: we had three helicopters over the bridge the day it happened. And then it happened, and traffic wasn't really impacted at all. They actually found that traffic was a little faster than it used to be, and bicycle ridership has increased in the west side of the city.

We just celebrated the one-millionth rider going over the bridge. We thought, if New York can close down [half of] Times Square [for pedestrians], surely we can close down 1 kilometer of a bridge for bicycles.

We often argue about what we think will happen, rather than about the results of pilots programs and studies.

SmartPlanet: Is it that people don't think their cities can move that nimbly?

AR: That's actually a good reflection. Now, we're seeing an economic recession, so obviously there are things not working. We have a massive homeless problem. That's going to involve change and helping people cope with that change.

Three big things:

  • You must have leadership, ideally at the top, with vision, not baby-steps.
  • You need a plan, and it has to have a business case. The public wants to see a return on investment and be able to measure results.
  • And partnerships -- no government can do this alone, just like no business can or academic institution or nonprofit can.

SmartPlanet: What's the hardest part of your job?

AR: One is my e-mail -- there are all these people that are very excited about this. I get about 200 a day, and we don't have the staff to handle it. When they're excited, that's the very moment you want to respond to them. And of course, there are people complaining, too, but often about the wrong information.

The other thing is knowing that 10 years isn't actually that far away. We have to retrofit 20 percent of buildings in Vancouveer by 2020. That's huge. It's still going to be a race to get there. A fun race, though.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure