Delivering Climate-Resilient Cities Using a Systems Approach

Monday, 5 September, 2022

Delivering Climate-Resilient Cities Using a Systems Approach

Published by the World Economic Forum in August 2022


Adopting a systems approach to urban infrastructure delivery will help cities create more liveable spaces and curb climate change.

More than a thousand cities and local governments joined the United Nations Race to Zero campaign and 33 cities also committed to the Race to Resilience. The window to curb climate change is narrowing, and more aggressive actions are needed to fundamentally change urban systems. A systems approach exploits the links connecting multiple infrastructures, enhances integrated governance and finance, and deepens engagement among diverse stakeholders, thereby maximizing the cobenefits of climate actions.

Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique opportunity to accelerate the adoption of a systems approach to confronting the climate crisis. Despite broad interest, such an approach has not been comprehensively defined, especially in terms of the practicalities of planning and implementing net-zero carbon and climate-resilient urban infrastructure. Drawing on experiences from a wide range of stakeholders, this report outlines a roadmap for cities to take a systems approach to urban infrastructure in service of a green and just recovery.

The main message of each section of the report is summarized below:

What is a systems approach to urban infrastructure delivery? A systems approach treats the multiple infrastructure sectors that determine the structure and function of cities as components of a larger working system. To address climate change, it builds upon effective sectoral actions, but takes advantage of interconnections and interdependencies among multiple infrastructure sectors. It asserts that treating sectors as parts of a whole system leads to better outcomes than optimizing each sector individually.

Why do we emphasize a systems approach to urban infrastructure delivery? A systems approach is ideally suited to city-scale actions because cities are both the primary locus of demand and the level at which most infrastructure and services are provided. Such an approach simultaneously addresses multiple goals – in this case seeking to reduce climate change-related risks while maximizing co-benefits for public health and economic growth, among others. As such, a systems approach is well suited to creating liveable cities that improve residents’ well-being.

How can cities implement a systems approach? They can do so by promoting integrative governance structures, encouraging multi-objective planning, supporting legitimate participatory processes involving all relevant stakeholders, and adopting net-zero carbon and climate-resilience targets. Implementing a systems approach would also require comprehensive multilevel governance and deep collaboration among a diversity of social actors, as well as sufficient financial resources from both the public and private sectors.

What are the most serious challenges for cities taking a systems approach? The challenges of taking a systems approach include: 1) natural resource constraints and legacy infrastructure; 2) lack of technical and political capacity; 3) lack of multi-objective urban planning; 4) limited local regulatory power; 5) weakness of city government in regards to the multilevel governance system; 6) weak collaboration among multiple social actors; 7) limited access to finance and resources; and 8) lack of policy-relevant data and knowledge.


Cities alone will not be able to achieve a systems approach to net-zero carbon, climate-resilient urban infrastructure delivery. Rather, each city must engage with relevant stakeholders from government, business, academia and civil society that interact with the urban value chain. It must also use its hard and soft powers to accelerate action – for instance, by creating working groups to accelerate a green recovery or by declaring a climate emergency. This report provides a five-step action plan to guide cities in adopting a systems approach to urban infrastructure delivery. Recommendations are also provided to help cities transition from the current sectoral approach to a systems approach.

Access the full report here:

or download the attached PDF version of the report.