2015 is a year of utmost importance for the global sustainable development agenda, and cities will play a pivotal role. Landmark global decisions over the next 12 months provide opportunities to unlock the potential of cities and improve quality of life for billions worldwide.

TheCityFix sat down with Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and speaker at the upcoming Transforming Transportation 2015 conference, to learn more about the unique solutions cities can offer to combat climate change, boost economic prosperity, and catalyze smart urbanization.

1. Why are cities so crucial to action on global climate change and sustainable development?

We often talk about how much cities contribute to climate change, accounting for 70 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, for example. But this overshadows the fact that cities are also incubators for the solutions to climate change. Overwhelmingly, the most ambitious and innovative actions to reduce emissions and improve quality of life are happening at the city level. The Climate Action in Megacities 2.0 report from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group provides multiple examples of these actions.

This is possible because cities are home to the institutions that give rise to productive collaboration. The tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are out there, but making these solutions a reality requires cooperation across sectors and stakeholders. Take bus rapid transit (BRT). It’s a relatively simple way to reduce emissions and create a number of other benefits for city residents, but it requires strong collaboration. There is the technical question of how to integrate the system with existing infrastructure, the financial question of how to raise capital, the economic question of how to engage with local businesses, and the behavioral challenge of changing deep-seated cultural preferences for car ownership. None of the solutions to climate change come from a single actor, and that is why cities are powerful forums for creating coalitions that address climate change.

2. What types of tools and resources do city leaders need to make sustainable urban development a reality?

The most important knowledge that city leaders need is not what to do; it’s how to do it. City leaders need to understand how to build support among citizens and decision-makers working together towards a common goal. Helping cities in this process needs to be a priority for organizations like WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Our role is to create tools that provide clear evidence to help city leaders mobilize citizens and decision-makers.

Cities also need common metrics that help them measure progress and communicate results. The World Resources Institute—together with ICLEI and C40—recently released the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories (GPC), the first global standard for measuring emissions from cities. Common standards like the GPC—together with other tools to inform policymaking and good urban governance — can foster knowledge sharing and collaboration across cities. As a community, we still need to do more to develop tools that help city leaders connect technical policies with on-the-ground impact and human welfare.

3. The theme of Transforming Transportation 2015 is Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity. For you, what does a city have to do to be considered smart?

The smart city has become quite a buzzword, but there’s still not enough clarity around what it means for a city to be truly smart. Too often, people think that being a smart city is just about technology. A smart city is not an automated city. Being a smart city is about having leaders, businesses, and citizens make smart, informed decisions.

Technology can be an important part of a smart city. It can provide insight into citizens’ needs, and help improve transport, energy use, urban design, and more. But technology is only useful to the degree that it gives cities confidence to make evidence-based decisions and gives citizens the resources to hold their leaders accountable. Without good governance and the right priorities, a city can’t be smart.

4. If you could ask participants at Transforming Transportation 2015 to do one thing to build better cities, what would it be?

There is a consensus building around the science of sustainable cities that are connected, compact, and coordinated. Connected cities rely on sustainable mobility and prioritize the needs of people, not cars. Compact urban growth means that cities don’t lock in sprawling, inefficient infrastructure development. Lastly, achieving connected, compact growth requires coordinated governance where city leaders collaborate and are held accountable to clear goals. Following this roadmap for sustainable development is the best way for leaders to find low-carbon solutions that shape more inclusive and prosperous cities.

While we know this to be true at the global level, adapting these solutions to best meet local needs remains a core challenge. No two cities are the same, and being connected, compact, and coordinated means something different in Beijing than it does in Bangalore. To strike the balance between global best practice and local context, we need to focus on how city leaders can make sustainable solutions a reality not just in a few cities, but worldwide. We need to help cities find the locally crafted solutions that can help them become connected, compact, and coordinated. This is the key challenge I hope to make progress on at Transforming Transportation this week.

Learn more about how smart urban development can unlock sustainable growth and catch Ani Dasgupta at Transforming Transportation 2015: Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity (#TTDC15).