Urban Transformation

San Francisco leads the way in sustainable urban development with Yes SF

San Francisco's Yes SF Challenge unites innovators & businesses to create a more sustainable, equitable future.

San Francisco's Yes SF Challenge unites innovators and businesses to create a more sustainable, equitable future. Image: Pexels/Brett Sayles

Alison Hagan
San Francisco Managing Principal, Deloitte LLP
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This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation
  • Despite being an innovation hub, San Francisco's downtown struggles post-pandemic with low occupancy rates.
  • Launched in 2023, Yes SF invited entrepreneurs to tackle sustainability challenges and revitalize the city.
  • From green energy to waste management, exceptional ideas from 14 innovators offer solutions for a more sustainable San Francisco.
  • Yes SF fosters social equity and economic growth, emerging as a model for global change for tackling urban challenges.

For decades, San Francisco has served as the flagship hub for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. The big ideas and bold thinking that have shaped the city’s reputation are led by innovators trailblazing new forms of technology that have changed the way we do business and how we connect with one another.

However, despite being the epicentre of innovation, the city has faced stagnant recovery downtown since the COVID-19 pandemic, with occupancy at roughly one-third of pre-pandemic levels. As the city bounces back to its roots of innovation, the innovators who built it are the key to helping revitalize it.

Just who are these innovators and how do we support them? Enter the Yes San Francisco (Yes SF), Urban Sustainability Challenge, a collaboration between Deloitte, Salesforce, World Economic Forum, Citi, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and more than 20 other organizations focused on revitalizing our city by the Bay.

Launched in June 2023, Yes SF is the first location-based UpLink Challenge created in direct response to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 of making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Yes SF invited entrepreneurs to submit their revolutionary ideas and bold solutions aimed at the sustainable revival of downtown San Francisco — and innovators rose to the challenge.

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Innovating for impact

Out of a competitive field of nearly 150 entrants, 14 Top Innovators were selected by a committee of reviewers (philanthropists, practitioners, and industry experts) brought together by UpLink, the open innovation platform of the World Economic Forum.

These visionaries brought diverse innovations to sustainable construction, green energy, water conservation, waste management, vertical farming, and urban forest management, and are now in the process of deploying these solutions as part of San Francisco’s ecological and urban metamorphosis.

Each Top Innovator is supported by a unique cohort of businesses, community leaders, nonprofits, city residents and other stakeholders who have created an ecosystem where innovation can flourish.

We can already begin to see the potential speed and scale of positive social, economic, and environmental impacts — from job creation to emissions and water reduction — that these solutions will have in San Francisco once fully deployed. For example:

  • They’re smaller than the size of a pickup truck, but Moxion’s all-electric, mobile power generators reduce diesel fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by replacing traditional diesel generators to power construction sites, film sets, and even support disaster relief efforts throughout the region.
  • itselectric is working to provide off-the-grid electric vehicle charging to 240,000 San Francisco drivers and new revenue streams to commercial building owners in downtown. Their goal is for San Francisco to achieve 100% emission-free transportation by 2024.
  • And Zauben is reimagining what green roofs can do for commercial buildings to support the return to office and reduce energy bills for property owners.

These are just a few examples, but the potential collective impact of all 14 Top Innovator solutions from this cohort could be astounding. It would mean a much-needed expansion in green jobs, equitable economic growth, and sustainability outcomes for San Francisco and toward more sustainable cities and communities globally.

The significance of Yes SF is more than the obvious environmental benefits. It is a driving force for economic renewal and social equity. The solutions can help create employment opportunities, help make city living more affordable, and foster community engagement.

But they can’t do it in a vacuum, which is what makes this model of place-based change so critical. Yes SF engages the specialized expertise of local organizations to provide equal access to opportunity, ultimately creating an ecosystem that strengthens the impact of the innovators’ work and helps create lasting change for San Francisco.

And this blueprint for collective action is making a new name for the city of San Francisco on a global scale.

Yes SF takes the world stage

The challenge showed up in force at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos — driving global attention and demonstrating that San Francisco is still a leader in urban transformation, despite headlines that may try to say otherwise.

By building an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, businesses, nonprofits, and community members through this challenge, Yes SF has shown how to drive systemic change in San Francisco.

Ultimately, the hope is to apply this model of collective action and place-based change to other challenges and cities, as the World Economic Forum announced recently at Davos. Given the impact this initiative will have on San Francisco, its potential to transform other urban centres worldwide is a development we eagerly anticipate.

Have you read?

The Yes SF Urban Sustainability Challenge is more than an initiative; it offers a brighter, more sustainable future for San Francisco and beyond. It embodies the power of collective effort in addressing complex urban challenges, transforming cities into vibrant ecosystems that can equally support their inhabitants and the environment.

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Urban TransformationClimate Action
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