Regardless of one’s views of climate change, there is a vast and growing body of evidence that there are simply better ways to consume and produce energy than the conventional methods of today. Substantial and enduring benefits accrue by making the shift to a new energy economy sooner than later. The question is how best to make this transition. Can we learn and improve upon the major energy and technological shifts of the past? Past shifts have arguably led to socio-economic upheavals. While creating some big winners, significant swaths of populations were left behind or exploited in the process. Do we try to channel promising transformative technologies and practices into existing hierarchies, systems, networks, and rules, in other words, taking extensive measures to preserve status quo? Such an approach might speed adoption of specific technologies, but severely limit the synergistic benefits of a holistic transformation. Are there means to speed a comprehensive transition with many more long-lasting benefits and many fewer socio-economic casualties?
One concept that is showing great promise is Eco-Innovation Districts (a.k.a., Neighborhoods and Zones). These are defined as areas in which municipalities concentrate state-of-the-art technologies in green buildings, smart infrastructure, and renewable energy to create sustainable, resilient, and inclusive districts that accelerate action on climate change and sustainability. In this process, the technical innovations must be accompanied by market, policy, and finance innovations. Consider them a manageable melting pot of well-developed technologies, platforms, services working in concert with policies, practices, outreach, regulations, and programs thoughtfully integrated to meet key climate goals pertaining to decarbonization, justice, economics, and resilience.
There are at least 420 Eco-Innovation Districts worldwide, with countless more in various stages of development. Examples include the Vaubon district in Freiburg Germany, Western Harbour in Malmo Sweden, and Southeast False Creek in Vancouver British Columbia. In the US, Santa Barbara California has earmarked an area as an eco-enterprise zone where regulations and incentives favorable to innovative approaches to sustainability are tested before implementing citywide. Municipal governments are typically, for good reason, late adopters, risk-adverse, with often-times onerous approval processes. In the context of an existential threat such as climate change, this mindset has the opposite result, making the municipal more vulnerable. Eco-innovation zones reduce risk by creating an environment that tolerates missteps, creating positive feedback loops with the developers – improving products and services, increasing value to end-users, safely reducing unnecessary barriers and speeding adoption.
There are many facets to spur the imagination when designing an Eco-Innovation Zone. Consider creative ways that not only drive decarbonization, but nurture climate-related workforce development and educational resources across the social spectra in each district. Are there means to spawn new economic activity? For example, can the “zone” become a destination, drawing the interest of folks from across the region – with restaurants, stores and parks that embody sustainability and community resilience. Perhaps there is a local manufacturing component to the equation. Consider the CHERP PV module factory in Pomona CA. Are there effective ways to develop a local “currency” of climate attributes? Participating buildings could display their PSF carbon footprint, air quality, water usage and waste volume against their goals. Groceries and restaurants could include carbon footprint assessments of meals. There is transportation and e-mobility to integrate into the mix. How about resilience? How are facilities set up to deal with floods and heat waves? Can new developments within the zone be designed to double as resilience hubs in the event of emergency – even providing services to local “climate refugees” from outside of the zone?
Municipalities are not the only ones creating eco-innovation zones to explore integration and implement clean & resilient energy technologies. Cautious businesses and institutions are essentially creating “micro zones” – applying a myriad of features to a given facility. Skeptical households effectively create nano-zones – maybe converting one floor of the house to heat pumps, trading in one ICE vehicle for an EV and installing a single modular battery that can be expanded at the appropriate time.
Beacon Climate Innovations has been working with the Greentown Labs community to facilitate the development of Eco-Innovation Zones of different shapes and sizes. Most recently we have been conducting informational and brainstorming sessions with municipal government representatives, developers, educators, practitioners, labor representatives, workforce development groups, climate justice groups and technology coalitions… to name a few. If your town, community or organization sees an eco-innovation zone of some sort on its horizon and would like to know more – please contact us a email@example.com.
 Greenovation, Urban Leadership on Climate Change. Dr Joan Fitzgerald.  Holden, Li and Molina 2015  Greenovation, Urban Leadership on Climate Change. Dr Joan Fitzgerald.  Beacon Climate- Tufts University Student Cohort Study: Municipal Decision-Making Process in the Face of Climate Change  CHERP Locally Grown Power | Solar Power | GHG | Claremont Pomona (cherplgp.org)