A “Historical” Account of the Cool City Challenge

Imagine it's the year 2020, and we're looking back on the Cool City Challenge. What has it accomplished?


Five years ago, three of the most progressive California cities and their citizens embarked on a bold adventure to develop a game-changing social innovation around greenhouse gas reduction. Its goal: rapid and substantial carbon reduction in the short-term and carbon neutrality in the long-term, with disaster-resiliency and vibrant livability for its citizens, and green prosperity for its businesses. And they are succeeding! Here’s how they did it…

Over a three-year period citizens substantially lowered their carbon footprints and in so doing built demand for green products and services. As a result, local low-carbon economies emerged. With this carbon literacy and sense of self-efficacy, these empowered citizens continued pushing the envelope and advocated to their local politicians to become carbon neutral cities, which these elected officials heartily accepted. Carbon neutral cities became the new “cool” in California. And the race began to achieve the coveted title of the first city in California to become carbon neutral. It also did not hurt that an “X Prize” was established that awarded ten million dollars to the first city to accomplish this audacious goal.

These communities sent a profound message to the world that citizens in the highest per capita GHG-emitting country were willing to lead the way in reducing their high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the greater good. But paradoxically, rather than this being a sacrifice, they discovered it opened up a whole new set of unexpected benefits. People now knew their neighbors, their neighborhoods had become more resilient and livable, and civic participation had become the new coin of the realm for people young and old.

At the community level, to the delight of the community economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, many green businesses had sprouted up and were flourishing. And with them, numerous high paying green jobs were being created. This was because between 25 and 75 percent of the citizens of these communities were now engaged in reducing their carbon footprint by an average of 25 percent, entire blocks were becoming carbon neutral, and each of these cities was reinventing its technological infrastructure to become carbon neutral. These cities were realizing the potential that many communities had talked about, but few had come close to achieving – a thriving local low-carbon economy.

Knowledge about the amazing success of these three cities began to spread and soon other California cities came to learn from them. This was not only because they wanted to replicate this success in their communities, but also because the state of California had wisely decided to invest a portion of their cap-and-trade revenues in helping its communities make these types of changes. The universities in these cities became repositories for this learning and played a key role in their dissemination to the visiting cities. These universities also attracted many students who wished to be part of a real-world social innovation laboratory around an issue so vital to their future. The students were fully integrated into the community-organizing aspects of the program and many built green businesses that grew out of the first-hand knowledge they gained about services needed to meet the burgeoning demand for GHG reduction.

All this success spawned a strong sense of confidence, civic pride and a can-do spirit in these communities. Combining this with the new competencies they had learned in how to engage the whole community and design transformative social innovations, engendered an outpouring of social inventiveness. These cities were now not just devising new ways to reduce their GHG emissions, but generating solutions to a wide variety of social, environmental, and economic issues as well. They were also living the maxim that many hands make light work.

After several years, knowledge of the bold social experiments taking place in these three pioneering communities—who were now actively exchanging best practices and collaborating with one another—had spread far and wide across the state, country and world. Many communities had come to learn and were now beginning to replicate this success in cities across the planet. And a new hope was pulsating everywhere that a viable way had been found to overcome the paralysis around climate change that had gripped the planet for so many years. The climate change crisis had precipitated the reinvention of our cities from the bottom up and with it a newfound sense of possibility for our future as a species.