Here Comes the EcoDistricts Protocol

I confess that I ‘geek-out’ on rating tools. I’ve used them, built them, researched them, and educated people on them. They are a powerful force, when used correctly. They have transformed the way we plan, design, finance, build, and operate horizontal and vertical infrastructure and the spaces in-between them.

Rating tools now touch every aspect of the built environment: buildings, sites, neighborhoods, public works and infrastructure, and entire towns and cities. Six stars, Platinum, and Outstanding ratings are available, for the top of class. At the corporate level, they have scored us, encouraged us, and provided a platform for marketing our success. Our products, hotels, and even pollination programs can be rated. The use of rating tools to certify our performance is alive and well.

Today, we released a Scoping Paper for the EcoDistricts Protocol, which you can find on our website. I encourage you to read it, and give us feedback. It’s something I think you will find interesting. It’s also something that sets a path for rating tool synergy. A uniting force, maybe. We certainly hope so.


Why this Protocol?

Scoping Paper Image for Protocol BlogIt’s all about getting strategies deployed, rescuing them from spreadsheets, and seeing them implemented. It’s about activating those long lists of great ideas, programs, and projects, not letting them go to die in planning documents.

Seems like a ‘no-brainer’, right?

But we are dealing with the world of urban regeneration, a full contact sport in every sense. Politics, finance, fragmented ownership, no ownership. Entrenched business models requiring instant satisfaction. Policy barriers at every turn. City-wide targets, corporate targets, but nothing in between.

Despite the growing urgency and knowledge around district-scale projects, talented and dedicated players are continually bogged down in the type of brain-hurting discussions and stakeholder engagement that can age you five years in a few months. If you’ve tried any of this, you know what it sounds like: the ‘in-the-trenches’ battles between the city and the developer. “We’ll see you in court.” Conditions of approval that kill the project. It’s the market, stupid! Negotiations that last 12 months, then you find out you don’t have the right people at the table that can make the best decisions. You know what I’m talking about, right?

That’s why this tool, TheEcoDistricts Protocol, uses collaborative governance as a key starting point, and collective impact as a guiding principle. From start to finish, it looks and smells different from your average criteria-based quantitative rating tool. The Protocol is concerned with upstream process and performance, establishing the conditions for successful project delivery.

Why the EcoDistricts Protocol? Well, because we need this Protocol!

And so do the rating tools. Because every good performance-based, outcomes-focused rating tool needs a comprehensive process-based management tool. Or at least that’s what we think. Every rating needs to be attached to a project that has a plan for execution, a methodology for bringing the ‘right’ stakeholders together, have an integrated set of metrics agreed across a holistic sustainability spectrum, and a pipeline of strategies that are prioritized and are fundable.


The Change We Need

There are some interesting definitions for the word ‘protocol’, if you want to spend the time searching. Some of those I encountered include:

“…the established code of procedure or behavior in any group, organization, or situation” (

“…the rules and customs of a group or a standard procedure” (your

“…a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations” (

“…set of rules for the correct way to behave on formal occasions(

Some highlight words stick out for me, in particular ‘procedures’ and ‘behavior’. I think if the EcoDistricts Protocol can influence the way we approach urban regeneration and the Protocol Image for Protocol Blogbehaviors we bring to the process, I think we can move the needle. But this is by no means an easy feat.

Behavior change, and change management has been a stalwart in the sustainability field for years, particularly in relation to the corporate sustainability agenda. But when it comes to delivering integrated sustainable urban regeneration projects, I think we have been working on the fringes. Our efforts, and the behavior changes we achieve, need to run much deeper. Nibbling at the edges is just that.

As we have seen from the success of rating tools, particularly those in the green building world, behavior change can run very deep. In many cases it has been transformative. And we at EcoDistricts continue to be inspired by this movement, and the role that market-based tools and frameworks can play in transforming practices, and the market.

To this end, the EcoDistricts Protocol objective is quite simply “to provide an implementation blueprint for cities to accelerate district and neighborhood scale sustainable development”. Simple, yet extremely challenging.


The Tale of Two Giants

Guiding both process and performance remains an aspiration of the Protocol. A simple tool to support and reward district-scale projects in two key areas: setting rigorous performance goals and institutionalizing effective “process management.”

At its core, theProtocol is a powerful “integrated design and delivery” process framework to align key stakeholders and investors interests, build robust governance, promote rigorous and holistic assessment, and accelerate catalytic district-scale projects over time.

By design, it seeks to address many common challenges that have emerged in our efforts to regenerate our communities successfully. The lack of strong governance and performance metrics continue to create significant barriers to deploying integrated sustainability strategies across green building, smart infrastructure, and civic entrepreneurism.

While having two parts to the tool may challenge some who are used to black and white metrics only, it is essential that we also roll up our sleeves and work through the mucky space of collaborative governance, integrated goal setting, and project financing that meets new criteria.

And so we look forward to a new era of planning, district governance, and project development, that takes a ‘neighborhood first’ approach. For it is this approach that will help us build sustainable cities, from the neighborhood up.