Stories of place in the fourth industrial revolution: a review of “Life after Carbon”

A new book is timely following a dire warning that the climate is worsening faster than previously thought, which could lead to major effects by 2040

By Nancy Johnson Sanquist
Issue 11 – Spring 2019 pages 30 – 33
Tags: cities • sustainability • innovation

The introduction:  Google as urban planner

It comes as no surprise that Google conducts experiments all over the world in its research and development offices, but to hear that it is experimenting with an abandoned twelve-acre neighborhood in Toronto – now that is unexpected.

This urban planning venture, “Sidewalk Toronto,” is being designed by Sidewalk Labs, a peer company with Google under the Alphabet umbrella. In a response to a proposal issued by Waterfront Toronto to redevelop what was known as the Quayside property, Sidewalk Labs won the rights to be an innovation and funding partner with the Urban Development Corporation, and then committed $50 million to the project. They agreed to create an eco-friendly, smart neighborhood that could be a showcase for Sidewalk Labs’ innovative technologies and new urban concepts.

An interesting motivation behind Sidewalk Toronto was also the concept of involving academia and the public in the creation of this mixed-use urban experiment. An “Urban Innovation Institute” was planned to be a quasi-academic institution, which would be a place for collaboration and testing of ideas for urban regeneration. In addition, there were concepts for public participation in discussions, temporary pop-up experiments, and design jams along with embedded sensors, which would control building environments, traffic lights, and everything needed to support ambient sensing in the neighborhood. And, more importantly, the development would be a carbon-negative energy revitalization project.

The context:  a new revolution transforming everything as we know it

We are at the beginning of new era called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as introduced in 2015 by the leader of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab. Driven by twelve new innovative technologies, this revolution will mean a fundamental change in the global economy, society, and, certainly, how we plan for, design, construct, operate, and manage places.

Smart cities are very much part of the blending of these new technologies with urban design and management, and they signify a new type of work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new type of work requires the kind of collaboration between public entities and private enterprises like what is happening in Toronto – a collaboration that “helps defray costs, solve pressing problems, and increase benefits for government, citizens and industries.”[i]

The story of Sidewalk Toronto represents a new form of experimentation going on in urban environments around the world; it is thoroughly explored in Life After Carbon, the new book by John Cleveland and Peter Plastrik.

This book gives us hope by identifying twenty-four cities in the world (nine in the US, seven in Europe, two in Australia and Canada, and one city each in Asia, South Africa, and South and Central America) that are called Urban Climate Innovation Labs (UCIL) and are tackling climate change head-on. Now Google, one of the largest technology companies in the world, has become an urban planner and developer in this new transformation of cities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The concept:  The Urban Climate Innovation Lab defined

It is the urban climate change experimentation that attracted authors John Cleveland and Peter Plastrik to Toronto and its UCIL as a core theme for the book. The authors describe the UCILs as:

“…cities that have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness. They take to heart the challenge of climate change. They publicly commit to do more about it than many national governments have pledged. They immerse themselves in figuring out what they can do. And they start doing it, despite the many technical, political, economic and social difficulties involved.”[ii]

The authors describe how these forward-thinking cities are redefining every aspect of the “city.” This redefinition includes buildings, streets, and neighborhoods (like Sidewalk Labs), as well as the entire infrastructure of a city that is comprised of the supply and demand of water, energy, transportation, natural elements, and waste disposal.

The authors are also trying to change the way the public thinks and behaves in cities and how the outside world identifies with a city’s brand. And urban residents cannot do it without a top-down belief in what they are doing, which requires each city’s mayor’s leadership.

It is no surprise that Dan Doctoroff is CEO of Sidewalk Labs. He served under the change-leader Michael Bloomberg, when Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, as deputy mayor for economic development, which included a large environmental and economic plan, PlaNYC and the first truly digitized neighborhood in the world, Hudson Yards.

It is not only mayors who have a big role to play in the design of these innovative responses to climate change, but a huge cast of characters including:

  • the leaders of local governments, civic institutions, business and academic institutions;
  • the professional classes of people like city planners, architects, engineers, real estate developers, government and corporate managers, financiers, environmental and social-change advocates, community organizers, philanthropists, and university researchers and scholars; and
  • a supportive public who support the efforts of the UCILs.

All of these “characters” value the sense of place their cities give them to work, play, live, and consume resources. They realize they need to take action sooner rather than later in the fight to be as resilient as possible in the unpredictable moves of a climate that is changing their environments right before their eyes. Many residents have already experienced the effects of climate change in their cities, like Hurricane Sandy in New York, Cape Town’s lack of water, and Boston’s changing winter climate that is affecting the roads, infrastructure, and downtown transportation systems.

The Stories:  the scale of UCILs:  cities, districts and buildings

Almost 20 years ago, Martha O’Mara’s book, Strategy and Place,[iii] revealed that the centrality, physicality and competitive advantage of place (land, buildings and technology) were linked to the strategy of an organization. For those readers who know of O’Mara’s ideas, this book is a great sequel to her work, emphasizing that the decisions we all make about place (in this case, cities, neighborhoods, and buildings) are even more important today in our digitized world on a very fragile planet. The following are some of the book’s enlightening stories about place in 2018:

1. Carbon-free Advantage of New York City

When the vast scale of a major city is treated as a UCIL, it is a major project where there are more buildings than people. In New York City there are 8.5 million residents and 600,000 commuters pouring into the city each work week. All of these buildings together produce 70% of New York City’s GHG emissions – mostly coming from fossil fuels and natural gas. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio committed to a program entitled “One City Built to Last,” which centered around a bold commitment to reduce those emissions – in the short term by 30% (2025) and in the long term by 80% (2050).

What is key to workplace professionals is that the program will be a requirement for buildings in cities like NYC to create or renovate buildings into high-performance places in terms of both design and management. It will also require a behavior modification where both workers and residents must consume fewer resources and less energy, and modify their water usage, besides deploying new technologies in their buildings. And Facility Managers will require up-skilling in these new technologies to achieve the aim to reduce energy usage by 40-60%.

The developer who created the world’s greenest and smartest office building in Amsterdam, The Edge, has his eyes set on the New York City market. Coen van Oostrom, the CEO of OVG Real Estate, has said, “…when it comes to sustainability or technology, [the US is] behind what is happening in Europe at the moment. And, that gives us a fighting chance.”[iv]

2. Renaturing Melbourne

If you live in Melbourne, Australia, and you have a problem with the way the city is pruning a city tree in front of your house, you can send an email to #1024658, the ID number of that particular tree, to complain about its treatment. In this city, all of the 77,000 publicly-owned trees have an ID number; they are visualized on Melbourne’s digital urban forest map and monitored by the city government’s own ten-person team of foresters, ecologists, and arbor culturists.

This is one example of how a city responded to a twelve-year drought by removing trees and reducing irrigation of public greenery. However, years later, a city urban sustainability manager reversed that response by working with nature, not against it. An urban forest was created; it was designed to cool the streets, reduce the flow of storm water, and provide nutrients, as well as reducing air pollution and GHG emissions.

3. Efficient abundance of a district of Austin

In Austin, Texas, the Mueller district is 700 acres of mixed development involving 13,000 workers and an equal number of residents. This area is located in an abandoned airport three miles from the city. There is a three-story R&D building that monitors the performance of the rooftop solar panels, electric vehicles, and residential microgrids in this neighborhood lab.

Many of the stories in the book, like this one, are about neighborhoods that are often located in blighted areas and have been redesigned using the UCIL approaches to reduce the consumption of energy, water, and other resources to save money and materials, reduce waste, and embrace recycling, as well as other initiatives to rezone and rethink the compactness and mixed-use design of urban neighborhoods.

4. Adaptive Future of the Smartest Greenest Buildings

This summer, when I was traveling to my company’s headquarters by train from Schiphol Airport to Nijmegen in the Netherlands, I spotted an asymmetrical-shaped building out the window and recognized what has been called the smartest and greenest building in the world, The Edge. Now, after reading Life After Carbon, I realize it is an Urban Climate Innovation Lab. The developer and architectural firm that designed it experimented with the most innovative technologies to create a system of systems for a smart, efficient, and sustainable building on steroids, including;

  • the orientation of the building is based on the sun’s movement throughout the day;
  • 65,000 solar panels, which allows the structure to produce more energy than it requires;
  • Collectors on the roof for rainwater reducing waste of resources; and
  • Low-emission LED lighting with sensors to reduce energy costs by 100,000 euros.

The developer of The Edge also used similar concepts and technology to redesign the Unilever American headquarters in the United States, in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey – an initiative that proves you can create the same benefits in an existing, remodeled building in terms of environmental sustainability (LEED Platinum) and wellbeing for the employees (WELL certifications) to increase productivity and health.

The conclusion: alignment with SDGs

As a former urban planning student, historic preservationist, and ex-Chair of a small Southern California planning commission, I believe Cleveland and Plastrik’s book is a powerful guide for people interested in innovations in cities around the world that also meet the goals of sustainable development. By this recommendation I am referring to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are rapidly being embraced by cities all over the world, as well as universities (Higher Education Sustainable Initiative (HESI)), and many of the major institutions, industries, non-profits, and corporations.[v]

There are seventeen stated goals that make up the UN’s SDGs – and the activities and innovations that the UCILs are doing (which are chronicled in this book) are aligned with more than half of these goals, including:

  • Goal #3: Good health and well-being
  • Goal #6: Access to water and sanitation for all
  • Goal #7: Affordable and clean energy
  • Goal #9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Goal #11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • Goal #12: Responsible consumption and production
  • Goal #13: Climate action
  • Goal #17: Partnership for the goals

Life After Carbon should be required reading for anyone who cares about the city where they live and/or spend most of their adult years working in, like the readers of Work&Place. Cleveland and Plastrik define their audience well: “For now, though, building professionals, real estate markets and potential driving forces of urban change are themselves in an early state of a long-term innovation transition.”[vi]  And for all of us, as facility, real estate, and workplace professionals, we have to make sure that transition happens, for the sake of ourselves and future generations – so there is, indeed, life after carbon.

About the Author

Nancy Johnson Sanquist recently retired aVice President of Global Strategic Marketing for Planon. She is an IFMA Fellow since 1996, an AIA Associate, and is currently Chair of the IFMA Foundation, where she is one of the founders of both the Global Workforce Initiative (GWI) and the Workplace Evolutionary Community in IFMA.

Nancy has been in the real estate and facility management technology business for three decades and has spoken at industry conferences all over the world. She is a well-known author and editor, including two IFMA Foundation books, Work on the Move (2014) and Work on the Move 2 (2016). Nancy formerly worked as an academic professor in art and architecture (UCLA, Lafayette, and Muhlenberg Colleges), as a historic preservation urban planner (Easton, Pennsylvania), and as an urban revitalization consultant (Hollywood Revitalization, LA


[i] Chambers, John and Wim Elfrink, “The Future of Cities:  The Internet of Everything will Change How We Live,” Foreign Affairs, The Fourth Industrial Revolution:  A Davos Reader, 20 January 2016, p. 137.

[ii]  Cleveland, John and Peter Plastrik, Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities, Island Press (2018), p.23 (at,,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch – Accessed 25 October 2018)

[iii] O’Mara, Martha A. Strategy and Place: Managing Corporate Real Estate and Facilities for Competitive Advantage, Free Press, 1999. (at,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch) Accessed 9 October 2018.

[iv] Hall, Miriam. “The Dutch Developer of the World’s Smartest Building Has Sights Set on U.S. Expansion.” BizNow, May 9, 2018 ( – accessed 9 October 2018)

[v] Guterres, Antonio, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017. United Nations. ( – accessed 20 November 2018.).

[vi] Cleveland and Plastrik, p.184

Comments (0)
Add Comment