Editor’s note: The author is a principal of M+D, which helped develop the Fast Government concept and may receive revenue from the partnership. With Brett Dobbs and Cyrus Hodes, he is cofounder of the World Climate Tech Summit.
At a recent event hosted by the Economic Club of Miami, a few dozen young investors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders gathered to discuss the future of real estate. When the conversion turned to planning for the city’s next phase of stratospheric growth, the vibe in the room was clear—don’t rely on government to get it right.
A couple weeks earlier, the Economist expressed similar pessimism about Miami’s ability to address the most significant threat to its booming real-estate economy—climate change. “The policy response to inundations is defined by short-termism, vested interests, inadequate resources, a Hobbesian scrum of federal, state, county and city agencies, and denial,” said the British newspaper.
The Miami Movement, as Miami Mayor Francis Suarez calls it, has been shaped, in part, by politically conservative venture capitalists disillusioned by the groupthink they see as pervading San Francisco and New York. Cultural and political diversity—along with low taxes and tropical breezes—are a breath of fresh air, they say.
But storm clouds may be approaching. Miami is “the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world,” according to the nonpartisan economic think tank Resources for the Future, “with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets under assault from winds, storm surges, coastal flooding and sea-level rise.”
So how does a city with a pro-growth, anti-regulation political environment find enough common ground to protect its actual environment? The answer might lie in private-sector solutions that leverage Miami’s surging real estate, tech, and investment economy—climate tech.
Ten years ago, Matt Haggman was working at the Knight Foundation when it started investing upwards of $60 million into Miami’s tech and startup ecosystem. “Our thesis now has largely been validated,” he said. Haggman now leads Opportunity Miami, part of the economic development organization of Miami Dade County. Last year, he led a large-scale research program to identify the greatest sources of economic growth for the city over the next ten years. “Climate tech and the transition to net zero will define Miami’s future.”
In the past few years, 49 countries and 93 Fortune 500 companies have committed to net-zero emissions targets, which has driven massive investments into everything from electric vehicles and batteries to wind, solar and nuclear, carbon capture, lithium mining, “green cement,” vertical farming, plant-based protein, sustainable fashion, and more. According to Silicon Valley Bank, U.S. venture capital firms plowed over $56B into climate tech companies in 2021.
Shomik Dutta, a former White House aide and cofounder of climate-tech venture fund Overture, points to a recent report from the International Energy Agency saying almost half of the technologies required to reach net zero by 2050 are still at the prototype phase. “That’s the most catalytic economic opportunity of a lifetime.”
As an energy crisis looms, climate-tech investments are surging across Europe, and in China and India as well. This is a good sign since climate tech is more difficult to scale than most other tech. Long development horizons and capital-intensive infrastructure requires long-term capital and creative financing to succeed.
Climate tech investors remember how much capital was lost during the Cleantech 1.0 phase of the industry, which started over 15 years ago, and still struggle with how long it takes portfolio companies to turn a profit. But Dutta says pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and other long-term capital, driven by massive consumer demand, is now stepping up to scale the next wave of climate tech. At least 43 climate tech startups are now unicorns, according to the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.
If Miami has a chance to save itself from being wiped off the map, it might start by transforming the industry that put it on the map. Real estate is the largest contributor to climate change, consuming 40% of the world’s energy and producing 30-40% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the venture firm Fifth Wall. An eye-popping $18 trillion is required over the next decade for the real estate industry to hit net-zero, it says.
The most influential real estate developer in Miami is Jorge Peréz, cofounder of the Related Group. Earlier this year, Peréz announced that his family foundation and the foundation tied to his company would become title sponsors of Aspen Ideas: Climate, a new conference that brought luminaries to Miami in May to discuss “global and local solutions to the climate crisis.”
It was a new development for a philanthropist better known for his contributions to the arts, education, and social justice. While those issues continue to be driving passions for Peréz, his sons, who have taken over running Related, are keen to keep their investments intact and adapt the real estate industry for a new era of climate risk.
Peréz’s son, Related president Jon Paul Peréz, spoke to the Miami Herald a few months ago about the challenges of investing in sustainable development without the support of government. “In our opinion, it needs to be a private-public partnership, where you’re able to get credits, subsidies, something like reduced impact and permit fees that allow you to add these more expensive features to buildings that in the long run will definitely pay off.”
The power to steer public policy in Miami is shared across Miami Dade County, which has a budget of $10 billion, as well as the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, which have smaller budgets but a lot of sway.
Miami’s climate strategy really took off in 2016 when Judith Rodin, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, brought the three municipalities together and funded the city’s first chief resilience officer. Three years later, the three mayors announced Resilient 305, a roadmap to “tackle emerging global challenges and trends such as urbanization, globalization and climate change.” Now 29 municipalities in South Florida have joined together and raised millions of dollars in additional grants to support a wide range of community resilience initiatives.
“The idea was always to build economic and social resilience into the plan for climate resilience,” said Rodin, an architect of “strategic philanthropy”, which encourages partnerships between business, government, and the philanthropic community.
As Rodin sees it, climate tech is a natural extension of the work she and Rockefeller did to develop an integrated approach to city planning. “When you take the physical environment, the socio-economic environment, and the new tech environment together, that’s what will make Miami more resilient and create jobs and create wealth at the same time.”
Mayor Suarez raised alarm bells in 2019 when he declared that Miami was in a state of climate emergency and said city government would aim for carbon neutrality by 2050. The following year, the city rolled out Miami Forever Climate Ready, to outline investments into smart infrastructure and adaptive neighborhoods and buildings. It also released a stormwater master plan that advised spending close to $4 billion on climate infrastructure—such as giant stormwater pumps, miles of sea walls, thousands of injection wells, and a network of underground pipes—over the next 40 years.
Just last year, Miami Dade County’s mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, made international news when she appointed the world’s first chief heat officer. A few months later, she announced a new Climate Action Strategy in Glasgow, Scotland, at the United Nations Climate Change conference. This one with a significant focus on technology.
The plan calls for expanding solar and other renewable energy in homes and buildings, reducing transportation related fuel consumption, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Miami International Airport, and converting water into waste.
A significant part of the report highlights Miami’s transition to a “Green Economy” and commits Miami Dade’s public procurement budgets to buy “locally sourced green products and services”; to invest in energy efficiency, solar, and battery backup; build a pipeline of green businesses and a green workforce; and create a regional “green lending” network that leverages federal and state money to finance energy efficiency upgrades like solar, electric-vehicle infrastructure, and floodproofing—especially for smaller businesses and low-income homeowners who need public support.
The new strategy also includes a list of emerging climate technologies that will “radically reduce” dependence on fossil fuels—including green hydrogen, low-carbon air travel, super-efficient air conditioning, long-duration energy storage, and floating wind turbines. It also highlights a pilot program to test a new technology to “convert biosolids from wastewater treatment to green hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and heat” and eliminate nutrient pollution in Miami’s waterways. The initiative is supported by a grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Shomik Dutta cites a number of local regulations across the U.S. that have the potential to kickstart global innovation. Brookline, Massachusetts, is working toward a ban on natural gas for new building construction, which creates demand for electric heating technologies. Multiple cities and states across the U.S. are working to ban gas-powered vehicles, which they see as a critical step toward forcing the adoption of electric vehicles. All these plans are controversial and take time to implement—electric grids still require fossil fuels and EVs require charging stations en masse—but many see these policies as steps in the right direction.
Will a city like Miami ever adopt these types of regulations to incentivize climate innovation? Last spring, all three mayors participated in a panel at Aspen Ideas: Climate to present a united front on climate. Mayor Suarez tweeted that, “We’re not just mitigating climate change, we’re investing in the technology to reverse the damage already done.” A week before that, Governor Ron DeSantis delighted environmentalists when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed utilities to impose fees on businesses and homeowners who install rooftop solar panels. He framed it as an unfair tax during a period of high inflation.
Even the $369 billion investment in climate action that just passed the U.S. Senate, which subsidizes renewable energy and carbon capture and incentivizes new clean-energy manufacturing, had to be called the “Inflation Reduction Act.” Whatever you call it, the convergence of public-sector incentives and leadership with private sector technology and innovation will further energize the climate tech movement.
Tony Cho, a pioneer of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, launched a think tank and sustainable investment platform last year called Future of Cities to promote “regenerative placemaking”—an approach to real estate development that seeks to achieve the best outcomes for communities in balance with nature.
“Miami has a unique opportunity to lead the world in rapidly prototyping climate solutions,” said Cho. “But this challenge requires cross-sector collaboration and new public-private partnerships at unprecedented scale.”
Future of Cities is actively building a venture ecosystem to drive investments into clean energy solutions, property and construction tech, urban infrastructure, and social equity technologies. They have made a number of early-stage investments, including into an ebike manufacturer called Dance. Earlier this year, Cho partnered with Endeavor Miami, the entrepreneurship accelerator, to develop its first-ever cohort of clean and climate tech startups. Next, he is launching a new innovation district in Little Haiti for entrepreneurs and investors advancing climate tech and sustainability for the built environment.
One climate tech startup in Miami, Kind Designs, has developed a process for 3D printing seawalls. Co-founder Anya Freeman estimates that Florida will need 10,000 miles of sea walls (or 20 million of Kind’s Living Seawall panels) to help combat rising sea levels over the next two decades. They are piloting projects in Miami and on Richard Branson’s Necker Island.
If Miami and other cities start to sink into the sea, perhaps residents can take refuge in the metaverse. Max Song, founder of Carbonbase and partner of the World Climate Tech Summit, is launching Greenverse, a digital platform to allow companies and individuals to purchase virtual land that supports regeneration projects on Earth. Their first pilot program is in collaboration with the carbon-negative South American country of Suriname, which is 93% forest. “Virtual real estate in the Greenverse will support carbon removal in the real world,” he said. “And NFTs are a powerful force for inspiring citizens everywhere to protect the planet from climate change.”