Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Parting thoughts on Rio+20

I'm leaving Rio, leaving behind a great city and a conference that tends to evoke an uncertain range of grimaces from people when spoken of. The uninspiring outcome of Rio+20 provokes different reactions depending on expectations and personality. I myself never expected much from the actual document. I came to find out how the bottom-up approach makes use of international meetings and how the local relates to the global. I learned a few things:

  • Policy based side events are incredibly dense.
  • You never quite know who you'll meet around the corner or what they'll be talking about.
  • Human society is experiencing challenges in the urban environment that are daunting in complexity and scale:
    • In the next 40 years, we will spend as much on urban infrastructure as we have in the past 4000.
    • One billion people live in slums right now. By 2050 there will be 3 billion.
    • In 2009, we passed the halfway mark: more than 50% of people now live in cities, and it will be 70% by 2050. Factoring in population growth, the number of people in cities will double.
There's some good news: with all of the huge technological, planning and management challenges cities face, we actually have the capacity to handle it. The technology is there, the planning methods have succeeded in some cities already. We can do it. What remains is finding the political will and organisational capacity to get it done. If we can get ourselves sorted out, we can actually improve quality of life while making cities more environmentally sustainable and economically productive. The power of town planning to shape good, healthy lives is incredible.

As I begin to ponder the importance of strong, functioning local governments and their ability to implement sustainable planning and services, it seems entirely appropriate that I'm bound for a course called Sustainable Institutions. I look forward to examining the role that people and social networks play in shaping a sustainable institution or organisation, and considering how Yale's experiences can help me back at Australian National University and in future organisations.

I get the feeling that a lot of what can go wrong in an organisation comes from the role of human fallacy and unexpected social patterns. I'm still not sure whether the helpful response is to resist this or embrace and cooperate with it. Human enthusiasm and social empathy can be great forces for good, and I like to think this doesn't stop in a work setting, and that the right workplace can support these drivers for the kinds of phenomenal outcomes we need.

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