Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Branding Your Hippopotamus: The Asia-Pacific Cities Summit

It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to present an elaborate hippopotamus metaphor at an international conference, and so I felt it would be remiss (not to mention intellectually irresponsible) of me not to work everyone’s favorite semi-aquatic mammal into my talk on “Green Cities” at the 2011 Asia-Pacific Cities Summit in Brisbane.

The summit, attended by nearly a thousand civic and business leaders, culminated in the signing of the “Brisbane Accord” by more than 40 city mayor’s from around the region. City mayors turn out to be curious animals in their own right, alternating been the signing of serious accords and the formation of enormous conga lines. The latter activity was fuelled by only a relatively small percentage of the truly impressive quantities of free booze on offer throughout the conference.

Of course, the whole kit and caboodle was designed to impress people who are far more difficult to impress than I am. In fact, they may have inadvertently overdone it: I needed to watch only 2 seconds of this act before deciding that sustainability is for chumps. I’m going to be Laser Man when I grow up.

Or at least I thought so, until I was forced to consider the possibility of becoming an electric cello rock group.

Although I have to admit that I thought the entertainment had peaked when former mayor of NYC, Rudy Giuliani, on the heels of admitting his potential interest in the 2012 Republican nomination, declared that he had begun his clean up of New York by having “wiped out the squeegee people”.

While Giuliani was apparently prepared to take a hard line on Star Wars ethnic groups, Sir Richard could easily have been mistaken for your favourite billionaire uncle. He wasn’t particularly eloquent, nor was he terrifically brash, but it was hard to listen to him and not start to feel like we could pool all the resources in the room and solve all of the world’s problems right then and there with 692 iphones, 912 ANZ-sponsored summit satchel bags and Branson’s motto “Screw it, let’s do it”.

This motto was, however, later applied with gusto to the smoked salmon appetizers. 

One step at a time, I guess.

Personally, I found myself fascinated by some of the talks on the branding of cities. I have to admit that, even though I work for an organization with “cities” right in its title, and I had just presented on cities at an international conference on the topic of cities, I had not often thought of climate change and green issues in the context of the world’s cities – opting instead for a more global outlook. The message I took away from the city branding talks was, with over half the world’s population now living in urban centers (a fact trotted out no fewer than six times over the course of the summit), the potential for cities to market themselves as centers of sustainability in order to appeal to an international workforce. I subscribe to the school of thought that human beings will not willingly sacrifice much in the way of economic growth for the green cause, so I am always pleased to find new ways in which the two goods may be combined.   

But back to the hippopotamus.

The point of the hippo metaphor was to illustrate the inadvisability of trying to solve every problem through a single project. Just as a snake would do well not to attempt to swallow a hippopotamus whole, so climate change is a complex problem better broken down into its component parts to be approached individually.

I suppose the same principle applies just as well to the APCS as anything else, which is why it was exciting to see so many divergent ideas being tossed around like Australian rugby players. I would like to attribute this diversity to the fact that, in addition to representatives from 84 other countries, there was a single Canadian in attendance.

The summit closed with an international incident in which the Chinese delegation walked out after the 2013 APCS was awarded to the city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. What remains unclear is whether the Chinese had simply received advance warning that the Kaohsiung group was about to sing a song they had written about Brisbane. 

It was an intriguing end to a fascinating conference and I look forward to attending again sometime in the future. 

When I am Laser Man.

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