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Christof Brandtner

Research Findings

How civic capacity gets urban social innovations started

June 1, 2023

After President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, several hundred mayors signed national and global treaties announcing their commitments to “step up and do more,” as a senior official of the City of New York told me in a poorly lit room in 2017. Cities were rushing to the forefront of adopting practices and policies to address contemporary social and environmental problems, such as climate change.

What the general enthusiasm masked is significant variation in the extent and speed at which cities adopt these innovations. The We’re Still in Campaign, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, actively pursued mayors of all colors to join the movement. But even with mayoral and philanthropic support, many cities have refrained from taking drastic action to protect the environment.

This variation reflects a general problem, frequently observed when it comes to local initiatives about infrastructure for electric vehicles, gender-neutral bathrooms, reigning in police violence, or even the desegregation of schools. Some cities are quick to transition to new ways of doing things, while others are slow to respond or do not adopt such social innovations. A recent study of the energy transition in US cities shines a new light on the origins of such disparities.

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