You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller

In their popular book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Poras made a persuasive argument in support of something they called the “big hairy audacious goal” or BHAG. As they saw it, a BHAG was “…an audacious 10-to-30-year goal to progress towards an envisioned future.” Boeing’s decision in the 1950s to build a prototype commercial jet, allowing them to leapfrog McDonnell-Douglas, and U.S. President Kennedy’s call in the early 1960s to place a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth within a decade – the definitive moon shot moment – are famous examples of BHAGs.

The trend continues. As Collins himself puts it:

The power of the BHAG is that it gets you out of thinking too small. A great BHAG changes the time frame and simultaneously creates a sense of urgency. It’s a real paradox. So on the one hand, you’re not going to get a BHAG done in three years. You’re not going to get it done in five years. A really good BHAG probably has a minimum length of about a decade, and many take longer than that.

On the other hand, the only way you can achieve something that big is an absolutely obsessed, monomaniacal, overwhelming intensity and focus that starts today and goes tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day for 365 days and then for 3,650 days–that’s how you do it. 

It is now common to hear executives in business talk about their BHAG. Less common are mayors or city managers staking out an environmental or sustainability BHAG. In view of the material and strategic significance of climate change, for example, the transition to a low or no carbon economy would seem to be an obvious BHAG. And yet, looking across the world we see too many well-intentioned but incremental civic efforts, many under the banner of sustainability or livability, that fail to serve as a “unifying focal point of effort, and act as a clear catalyst for team spirit.”

With the intention of spurring conversation about the level of ambition that is now necessary to drive real civic change in service of sustainability, I have identified examples of cities that are daring to reach for the moon. We should all be inspired by their example – they are living a new form of honest and rigorous engagement on the kind of strategy all cities, in my opinion, need now.  The Earth is experiencing rapid and non-linear ecosystem decline – and with it, a decline in cultural and social diversity as well. Time to rally the troops and think and act differently to achieve different outcomes. These cities are lighting the way ahead in this regard:

  • Almost all of the residents of Copenhagen live within 350m of public transportation and more than 50% regularly use a bicycle to commute. More broadly, the city has set an audacious goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. City infrastructure is designed to be conducive to bicycling and walking rather than cars.
  • San Francisco has a 77% recycling rate, one of the highest in the world, made possible through city mandates requiring the separation of recyclable and compostable materials from regular garbage.
  • After the city of Freiburg was destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt on environmental sustainability principles. In the 1980s a civic decision was made to become a car-free city – a moon shot decision, to be sure.
  • Dallas has made green building standards mandatory. All commercial and residential building projects are required to meet the city’s Green Construction Code or be certified under Green Built Texas, LEED or another sustainable green building code.
  • Stockholm has set an objective to be fossil fuel-free by 2050.
  • Melbourne has set a goal to become net zero with respect to carbon emissions by 2020, one of the most audacious civic sustainability goals in the world.

The unifying theme for these cities is a willingness to leave behind incremental progress and instead, embrace the audacious; bold goals that truly engage and captivate an audience – and “pull” it toward something better. Long may they prosper.

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