Matthew Clay, United States
I love cities. For the mass transit that lets me zone out and read my magazines or listen to my iPod on the train when I need to get from point A to point B. For the blinding, beautiful lights when I’m flying over them at night. For the diners that serve the food you will only find in a big city (how many Nigerian restaurants do you find in Springfield?) For the romantic mix of concrete and nature that just seems to work. For whatever reason, I just feel a bit more alive in them.
And it turns out I’m not the only one…
Right now 53% of the world’s population lives in major urban areas, that’s the first time in the history of human development that urban communities have outnumbered rural, agriculture-based ones. Only 100 years ago that number was at 13% and in 2050 it’s guesstimated that 70% of the entire world population will call big cities their home. We’re adding the equivalent of seven New York Cities to the world each year and yet not doing much about it (source: IBM’s Smarter Cities).
While the world-class cities have been getting all the attention, the majority of this growth has not been in the likes of Beijing, Mumbai, Chicago or London. It’s the smaller cities and towns (felt most palpably in Asia and Africa), which have far fewer resources – human or natural - to respond to this magnitude of change that are most vulnerable. After all, the New York’s and Moscow’s of the world sprouted because resources like fresh water, mountain ranges and healthy food sources perfectly coalesced to make it possible.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that many people concentrated in one area doesn’t breed the best intentions or outcomes. One billion people (1/7th of the world’s population) live in urban slums or poverty (source: UNFPA State of World Population) and the rush of consumers who, emboldened by their own imminent domain, have little sense or care for sustainability in respects to the larger urban community are leaving a huge strain on their city’s – and for that matter, planets – infrastructure. Remember that game Jenga we used to play as kids? Maybe you still play it, so you know that the gist to winning is to stack a bunch of wooden blocks on top of each other and slowly remove as many of the blocks from the center and stack them at the top of structure without toppling it all over on the floor in a big mess.
We are not replacing blocks of sustainability at the same rate the blocks of consumption are being taken out of our human ecosystem and sooner or later our structure will come crashing down, and that’s the bottom line.
This situation is felt urgently by Governors, police chiefs, school administrators, heads of economic development and all other civic leaders and the current state of affairs is concerning. Take a look at California’s Governor Schwarzenegger on 60 Minutes in December talking about how California is literally running dry – mandating a 20% reduction in California’s consumption to ensure everyone has water to just drink and bathe. Again, it’s not just Los Angeles or San Francisco in crisis, the overall population of the state has skyrocketed so much that it’s also the Modesto’s and Santa Clarita’s of the state that also need to figure out where their next drop will come from. If California – the state that on its own would qualify as the 5th largest economy in the world – is having these issues you know it’s not just a problem we can throw money or influence at to solve. Some of the world’s brightest minds are currently working on these problems because this unprecedented growth within our fragile, finite resources is affecting our most precious resource of all….our day-to-day lives.
From this dramatic and sobering wake-up call comes an exciting and very real opportunity for a huge player in the game to make their entrance and make a difference, a game changing difference in fact. That player is brands. I’m not talking just any brand but the brands we love. The brands that see themselves as enablers and understand the stark truth of who their consumers are, that they are also people - people who need investment in their future now more than ever. In return, these people will take action and support these brands for supporting them when they need it. So here is a light evolutionary guide for how brands – with their creativity, ingenuity and capabilities of mobilizing mass publics – can outshine even The Governator and be the superheroes consumers need when they really need one:
- Wake-up and Recognize We already have quite enough consumers themselves who won’t believe global warming exists until Miami is 10 feet under water or that their electrical grids could be down for months due to overcapacity at one moment in time until they come home and their lamps won’t produce light – consumers need you to help spread the word to the masses that the way we do things needs to be refined. And what better place to start this conversation than the companies and brands that enable our consumer behaviors?
- Be Community Minded Think about your coworkers, all the people who live in your apartment complex, the other passengers on your train – even your dorm mates back in college; what do they all have in common? You all shared and in some way bonded over communal needs and demands. You drank water, sat under lights, played video games, walked to a cafeteria, ran out of toothpaste, exercised – all in a closed environment. What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander and brands need to think about how they become relevant in an increasingly shared world. How can you create programs and products that make community living more relevant, interesting and harmonious?
- Play to Please Yourself You’re not a mayor, police chief or school administrator and thus you don’t have to solve problems within the vast ecosystem of cause, effect and budgets. You get to choose an issue that not only benefits the masses but also resoundingly relates back to your core messages and platform. Whether you’re Brita (Edelman client) whose FilterForGood program has kept 180 million plastic water bottles from sitting in landfills or you’re IBM whose brilliant A Smarter Planet campaign consistently taps scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs and anyone wanting to make a difference and challenges them to “think smart” and provide ideas and fund projects that make our planet more efficient and healthy – whether that be in education, energy, food, cities, government, etc. Both brands benefit by creating community- changing goodwill initiatives but also benefit from positive engagement that relates back to their brands core messages and ideals. Brita has water and IBM has information systems, you don’t forget that when you’re drinking water from a reusable bottle or reading on IBM’s Smart Cities Tumblr Page about ways boulevards can be adjusted to increase traffic – and thus energy - efficiency. The biggest question comes here: where do you fit and how do you engage?
- You’re a Media Company Once you’ve answered the questions on how your brand can make a difference to help solve a problem consumers are facing and have developed a program to address it with your brand at the heart of the campaign – you need to tell your story. Not only that but you need to tell your story often and tell it authentically. Whether you’re IBM who consistently churns out trend and consumption POVs through many social media channels or you’re Brita who through event sponsorships and grant programs tells the world about the hazards of bottle water waste – you need to not only think about what your customer needs to hear but where they are willing to hear it.
The irony of all this talk is that with all these ominous and frankly scary situations confronting consumers now and in the decades to come, the next steps are quite simple – just take one. Notice an insight or problem, find your stance and engage consumers to help you in your solution.
Consider this: two centuries ago if aliens happened by our lonely little planet they would have only noticed two specks of light – Beijing and London (source: IBM’s Smarter Cities). Today, 450 specks more resemble a flooding stream of constellations crisscrossing continents illuminating our planet’s need for connection and community. While beautiful and harmonic, the need has come with a cost – one that brands can and should play a part in paying.