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Expert Voices: John Elkington, co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans, on why city mayors are the ambassadors for the future

An ambassador, said Sir Henry Wotton, who practiced the art in the 1600s, “is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Catchy, but three things strike me as questionable about this attempt to distil the essence of diplomacy.

First, the foreign services of a growing number of nations are now being briefed by their governments to address global challenges like climate change and human rights – work that is for the good of all people and countries.

Second, some ambassadors today are not gentlemen, but women. On recent trips to Denmark and Chile I met the British ambassadors, both women. Channeling the zeitgeist, one tweeted on her way to the event where I was speaking—and both did so after we had met. Both were doing their bit to advance not only British interests but also a broader agenda around innovation, clean technology and sustainability.

Third, there is that word sent. Many people not employed by governments nonetheless act as ambassadors for the future, without being tied into knots by diplomatic protocol. As a result, they often outperform their countries’ formal envoys, wreathed in red tape much as their predecessors were draped in gold braid.

City mayors are part of this trend. Indeed, on the same day that I began this blog, C40 Director of Global Initiatives Terri Wills retweeted a photo of London Mayor Boris Johnson cycling through Jakarta in close conversation with Indonesia’s President. One more sparkling fragment of data in a kaleidoscope of evidence showing an ongoing—indeed seismic—shift in who does global diplomacy, and how. Diplomacy has often been conducted by non-state actors, including explorers, traders and investors, but get ready for a huge surge in this sort of activity.

Trained as a city planner in the early 1970s, I switched almost immediately to the world of business, sensing that this was where much of the coming action would be. But now the needle is swinging back to cities, partly because—even with the best will in the world—individual companies can only to do so much

Yes, it’s great that GE has its ‘Ecomagination’ platform and Unilever its ‘Sustainable Living Plan,’ while others are piling into ‘Net Positive’ or ‘Circular Economy’ initiatives. But these efforts must be aggregated to ensure sufficient critical mass for system change.

One answer: to work through business-to-business platforms like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, The B Team or the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals coalition. But cities have always been key aggregators of business activities of all sorts.

Now that their cities are expected to be home to perhaps 6 billion of us by 2050, mayors are waking up to wider responsibilities. Often, too, their urban economies have the most to lose from climate change. Happily, networks of cities like the C40 are already demonstrating the power of collaboration, knowledge sharing and unity of purpose in the pursuit of “city diplomacy” to accelerate climate action, align policies and enhance access to technical and financial resources.

My prediction for 2015 and beyond: growing numbers of city mayors will serve as increasingly effective ambassadors for the future in what we must learn to see as the breakthrough decade, from 2016 to 2025.

John Elkington is co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans. He also co-founded SustainAbility (where he is Honorary Chairman) and Environmental Data Services (ENDS). His latest book, The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, is co-authored with Jochen Zeitz and published by Jossey-Bass. He tweets as @volansjohn.