Cool City Challenge is a program to engage citizens to work together to create sustainable lifestyles, in support of each other and the planet.


Do you know your neighbor well enough to knock on their door and ask for the proverbial “cup of sugar”?

In an emergency, would your neighbors know what to do to help you? Would you know how to help them?

Do you wish there was more you could do to conserve resources for the sake of your children?

Would you like to make your neighborhood safer and more livable?



Cool City Challenge is based on a proven behavior change methodology developed over thirty years of iteration, research, and learning. It synthesizes the best of Empowerment Institute's four award-winning programs to:

  • increase eco-friendly lifestyle habits
  • lower carbon footprint
  • build resilient and livable neighborhoods
  • promote the sharing economy
  • build green economic development

Problem and Opportunity: With international climate change legislation failing to get traction, a ticking clock, and the long timeframe required to scale up new technological solutions and renewable energy, the world is searching for feasible, scalable and high impact strategies to address global warming in the short-term while we still have the time to take action. Since cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions and citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent 70% of these emissions, helping cities and their citizens reduce their carbon footprint provides the world with an unparalleled opportunity to address climate change. Further, engaging citizens can serve as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.

Solution Summary: The purpose of the Cool City Challenge is to scale up a proven community-based social innovation to achieve deep carbon reduction while building disaster-resilient neighborhoods and green economic development in three early adopter California cities (the five city finalists, from which we will chose three, are San Francisco, Palo Alto, Davis, Sonoma, and San Rafael) and then throughout California, nationally and worldwide. The ultimate goal of the Cool City Challenge is to change the game around carbon reduction in cities and provide a viable path forward to address climate change. 

As a result of the large carbon footprint of cities and citizens, they provide a key leverage point for addressing the climate change issue. But even though more than 100 local climate action plans have been developed in California alone over the past few years, they often lack implementation strategies and face stiff headwinds in community awareness and acceptance, much less financing. And these action plans tend to focus on high-level targets with no methodology for structured implementation, measurement or verification. Moreover, state and local approaches focus on technology-based solutions and policy adoption but generally lack strategies that include human and social factors that can either drive or hinder technology and policy adoption.  

Initiatives for residential energy efficiency retrofitting programs targeting single-family homeowners have not been successful or cost-effective despite hundreds of millions in federal and state funding. Concurrently, personal transportation is the “800-pound gorilla”—the largest source of emissions in many cities—and city officials are largely vexed by this sector, with little in the way of short-term policy fixes and/or affordable technological solutions. 

Fundamentally, this is a systems problem spanning multiple issues and perspectives: people’s attitudes and behaviors, how people view and use energy, technology choices and cost considerations, existing policies and incentives, market acceptance, and larger social contexts such as norms and values. Traditional approaches to climate change mitigation that focus on technology, policy, and markets often neglect or underestimate the human and social factors that interact with policy acceptance, technology adoption and market development.  

Unlike conventional top down climate action approaches, the Cool City Challenge is designed to work from the bottom up by empowering citizens to reduce their carbon footprint through participation in a structured behavior change program—the Low Carbon Diet—with a peer support group of neighbors. A full suite of 24 carbon reduction actions is provided including transportation, home energy and food. And it does this by engaging not just citizens, but the whole system including local government, local businesses and civic organizations.

The Cool City Challenge brings to scale community-wide Empowerment Institute’s proven behavior change and community engagement methodology. Centered on household level GHG reduction, it uses the existing social infrastructure present in neighborhoods and community organizations. This behavior change methodology is based on two decades of rigorous research and social learning that has demonstrated how a peer support system combined with recipe style actions set in the context of a structured program and compelling community vision, move citizens to take action. 

The Cool City Challenge initiates a new paradigm in addressing climate change: coupling state-of-the-art behavior change and community engagement strategies with deep data collection and analysis, and enabling technology adoption, policy adoption and market development.

Why this Solution: Because effectively addressing the issue of climate change is essential to humanity's survival and we have few feasible, high-impact solutions available in the short-term while we still have the time to act. And because the Cool City Challenge has the potential to be a tipping point solution in that it not only can effectively engage people to achieve substantial carbon reduction, can be immediately implemented, is cost effective relative to other solutions, and is scalable; but because it is a whole system solution that can drive change from both the demand-side (consumers/voters) and supply-side (policy change, technology adoption and market development). Further, this initiative enables nothing short of the reinvention of our planet's cities, or if you will, a major upgrade of their operating system that can help them better address the multiple challenges and opportunities the 21st century will bring humankind—most of which will be living in cities. 

If the cities can achieve these carbon reduction goals combined with the social and economic benefits described in this strategy, we might just have the right formula to release the pent up demand for effective climate action and tip our species toward a more viable and promising future.