05/28/2010 06:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Grey to Green. Innovating the Sustainable City.

Cities cover only 3% of the world's land mass, but they house 50% of the world's population, consume 75% of the world's resources and emit a corresponding proportion of greenhouse gases.

Statistics like that make a convincing case for green innovation.

But can planners, engineers, politicians and bureaucrats create a culture of learning and innovation focused on sustainability? There are daunting barriers to overcome - lack of time, funding, human resources, clarity, passion and cooperation, to name a few.

Sustainable Cities is an NGO (Non-Government Organization) that has helped cities bridge these barriers. In fact, it has pioneered a network that accelerates city-to-city learning.

Using the network, cities have created a 'safe space' where they can connect and learn from each other's failures and triumphs. The advantages are compelling:

1. Lower costs associated with knowledge acquisition
2. Peer-to-peer learning - building capacities, rather than building consultancies
3. A common 'memory' of best / failed practices, archived for the benefit of all
4. Creation of a culture that nurtures flexibility
5. Elimination of silos
6. Breaking down the use of knowledge as a tool of power and control, instead making it a tool of communal empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, the learning network has grown to 40 cities in 14 countries, with some real green innovation results to back it.

Imagine a sustainable city

Imagine Calgary and Imagine Durban were two projects that grew from the network. In each city, thousands of citizens were engaged to create a blueprint that would lead to a more sustainable, socially equitable community.

Imagine Calgary was one of the largest community visioning and consultation processes of its kind in the world. The project brought together citizens, corporations, community agencies and the local government - an ecosystem that engendered an atmosphere of innovation and collaboration.

Today, it is still going strong, and continues to influence the civic planning of the rapidly growing city.

Back to the future

Now let's shift gears.

I had the good fortune to work on a land development project with Andres Duany. Duany, author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, is a champion of New Urbanism, the movement to make cities more sustainable, more civic-minded, and more humane.

What surprised me about New Urbanism was that it was essentially a copy of old European urbanism.

It proffered ideas like building a city around a central structure (a church or city hall); zoning for residential and commercial in single buildings; encouraging urban food production; creating housing that allowed rich and poor, old and young to live comfortably side by side; and creating roads that encouraged pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Benefits included reduced traffic / congestion / smog, increased production of local food, and savings in energy consumption. The benefits as far as community-building and civic engagement are equally impressive.

All from green innovation that's been with us for over a thousand years.

But the real beauty of New Urbanism is that - unlike a new technology - it presents us with models for living that we're already familiar with. In a sense, it takes us back to the villages of our forefathers, even as it solves our very modern sustainability problems.

Look forward, look back

It is possible to build cities that are more sustainable and humane.

The process can can be accelerated by sharing learnings more freely, using technology like the Sustainable Cities network. It can also be accelerated by giving our citizens options they feel familiar with, as with New Urbanism.

The enemy of progress in both cases is lack of information and collaboration. It's a hindrance to innovation that is pervasive, whether we're talking about improving cities or improving breakfast cereal.

In short, if we're going to teach our cities to be green, first we have to teach our planners, engineers, regulators, architects and consumers how to communicate and work together.