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System demonstrators for climate-neutral cities

The transition needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 requires bold new approaches to fundamentally change our entire social and economic systems. Together, we must work in new ways and find solutions that encompass all dimensions that affect our lives.

System demonstrators for climate-neutral cities are expected to play an essential role in cities' ability to accelerate the transition to climate neutrality by 2030. They are expected to generate high visibility and engagement locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

The overall mission of Climate City Contract 2030: Climate-neutral cities by 2030 with a good life for all within the limits of the planet is the basis for the system demonstrator initiative.

What are system demonstrators and why do we invest in them?

Viable Cities, Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and others government agencies within Climate City Contract 2030 are investing in system demonstrators to create new approaches to contribute to the mission of Climate Neutral Cities 2030 with a good life for all within the planetary boundaries.

Achieving climate neutrality by 2030 requires bold new approaches that target change in multiple parts of a system simultaneously. This is what system demonstrators are meant to do, as a force for mobilization for transition within the long-term process of Climate City Contract 2030.

The action aims to enable radical measures for transition with a focus on scaling up and creating the "new normal" in areas that are important for making transition happen in practice.

System demonstrators in Sweden

  • All cooperation
  • International cooperation
  • National cooperation
Viable Cities System Demonstrator

The City of Stockholm and its partners will work for a comprehensive transition of travel habits, land use and vehicle fleet in Stockholm's inner city. This is a step towards an emission-free inner city and a climate-positive Stockholm in 2030. In the system demonstrator, the environmental zone planned in central Stockholm will be used both as an engine and a window of opportunity in the quest for a transport-efficient and emission-free transport system that eventually extends far beyond the boundaries of the zone.

Viable Cities System Demonstrator

In one of Sweden's most densely populated areas with heavy traffic, Lund, together with a number of stakeholders, will create a mobility system with reduced emissions while maintaining accessibility. The mobility system will also be linked to a local climate-neutral energy system in the area where energy is produced and shared between the properties.

Why is a new approach needed?

The concept of system demonstrators has emerged from the realization that previous initiatives, such as pilots and test beds, have rarely led to the systemic changes that a transition to climate neutrality requires. In particular, solutions and lessons learned have often been difficult to scale up on a large scale. An important underlying idea with system demonstrators is that they should overcome the often recurring limitations of other initiatives when it comes to system change. These include, for example:

  • that interventions often take the form of isolated projects focusing on individual solutions and limited contexts;
  • that project duration is often short (3-4 years), while system change requires a longer time;
  • that the mandate to pursue innovation is often limited and leaves out issues related to policy, behavior and financial logics;
  • that underlying structural challenges are not sufficiently addressed
  • they do not aim to change underlying relationships, power structures and value flows in existing systems.

One of the clearest characteristics of the system demonstrator is the clear emphasis on systemic perspectives, which is clearly reflected in the emphasis on taking systemic dimensions into account in the analysis of the current situation and in the design of measures.

What is a system demonstrator for climate-neutral cities?

System demonstrators for climate-neutral cities are a new form of intervention that aims to address deep structural challenges within a designated and delineated system, thereby accelerating and amplifying the transition to climate neutrality. A system in this context can be both a specific physical location and one or more interconnected thematic domains (e.g. mobility or energy). What should be crucial in defining and delineating a system is its potential to create the 'new normal' - locally, nationally and internationally.

Visualization of some of the key components of a system demonstrator in practice

Ecosystem of actors

Ecosystem of actors

Participating actors in the system demonstrator are involved in planning and implementing actions. The actors mobilized represent a wide range; public and private sector, academia and citizens / civil society.

Multidimensional portfolio of interventions

Multidimensional portfolio of interventions

Together, the actors develop a portfolio of interventions with the potential to change the system based on ideas, concepts and solutions, which are combined into innovation interventions. These are designed to be system-changing in one or more dimensions, such as governance, management and regulations, culture, behaviors and values, infrastructure and technology, and financing, purchasing and business models. As the interventions are implemented, developed and deliver results, they can be analyzed and revised, based on how well they lead to the mission and what impact they have on the system as a whole and on individual actors.

Geographical location

Geographical location

The innovation actions are implemented in practice in the system demonstrator, anchored in a geographical location or real environment to evaluate its impact and results. Learning by doing and continuous reflection means that the results of the interventions are monitored and analyzed over time, in order to adapt interventions, add actors and change direction if necessary to scale the changes to the system level.

Learning and scaling up

Learning and scaling up

Learning as a continuous activity is needed to understand and develop the system, to identify new skills and abilities needed and to enable scaling up and creating the "new normal" (in the city, nationally and internationally). This type of learning should include both what works and what does not. It is also important to enable learning between different actors in the system.

Creating the new normal

Creating the new normal

The purpose of system demonstrators is to find possible pathways that build new capabilities and structures that become the "new normal" climate-neutral way of living, dwelling and working in our cities. When new business models, collaborations, technologies, processes and regulations are scaled and broadly influence our values, norms and change our behaviors, the perception of what is normal shifts. The system has then switched to a new climate-neutral normal.

System demonstrators pave the way for large-scale transformation of systems and communities by illustrating in practice how a neighborhood or area can look, feel and function differently.

How are system demonstrators designed and built?

Dimensions of change

To change social systems, several dimensions of the system need to be addressed, such as governance and regulations, infrastructure or financing, procurement and business models. These dimensions can be seen as leverage points or hindering/enabling factors. If the conditions are in place, it is easy, but if they are missing or sub-optimized, more is required to bring about the change, or it is hindered completely.

The role of digitalization in a system demonstrator

There is widespread agreement that digitalization plays an important role in the path to climate neutrality. The World Economic Forum has estimated that digitalization can contribute up to one fifth of the needed carbon reductions by 2050 in energy, materials and mobility.

Digitalization should be a central tool in both the establishment and operation of system demonstrators. For this reason, it is important that a system demonstrator has expertise in digitalization, an understanding of its role in a system demonstrator for climate-neutral cities and a plan for how digitalization will be used. It is important that the person(s) with digitalization skills have a central role in the orchestration of the system demonstrator.

It is the hope of Viable Cities and the Climate City Contract 2030 authorities that system demonstrators will lead to a general strengthening of digitalization skills and understanding of its potential for the transition to climate-neutral cities.

Climate Investment Plan

The system demonstrator should have clear links to the climate investment plan that the city will have according to Climate City Contract 2030. It is also important that the lessons learned from the system demonstrator influence the design and further development of the climate investment plan. One ambition of the system demonstrator initiative is also to generate lessons from work on climate investment plans that can be shared with other climate contract municipalities. A climate investment plan as part of Climate City Contract 2030 covers both municipal investments and investments made outside the municipal sector, including the private sector.

Four-step model

Four overlapping, iterative steps help structure the process of designing and building system demonstrators and offer guidance to partners with questions and support. The 4 steps consist of key activities that help set the direction for an effective implementation of the system demonstrator.

Key actors are co-creating a mission specifically for the system demonstrator based on the overall mission of climate-neutral cities with a good life for all within the boundaries of the planet. Climate City Contract 2030 is an important entry point in the process.

Together with partners, map and analyze the current system based on the system dimensions.

A mapping and analysis of the system in question is carried out jointly by the actors involved, based on five system dimensions:

  • Business models, financing and procurement;
  • Policy and regulatory framework;
  • Behavior, culture and values;
  • Infrastructure;
  • Technologies, products and processes.

Key actors in the system jointly identify structural barriers and challenges to achieving the system demonstrator's mission based on the five system dimensions.

Based on the system analysis, the mission and identified challenges and barriers, the actors in the system demonstrator co-create a portfolio of plans and actions, linking several actions into a larger whole.

Actions for system demonstrators for climate-neutral cities in Sweden

In a close collaboration between Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and Viable Cities, and in consultation with others government agencies involved in Climate City Contract 2030, three calls have been created to enable system demonstrators in Sweden.

Design phase

The first step in the initiative on system demonstrators for climate-neutral cities was Viable Cities and Vinnova's call #11 System demonstrators for climate-neutral cities, design phase. The design phase, which has already been completed, was open to the first nine cities that signed Climate City Contract 2030, and could be applied for in spring 2022.

Six projects were supported in the call, aiming to develop ideas and proposals for system demonstrators, mobilize stakeholders, identify barriers and deepen the understanding of the system. The project duration was September 2022 to February 2023.

Planning phase

The second part of the initiative on system demonstrators is structured in two calls from Viable Cities and Vinnova: call #12 System demonstrators for climate neutral cities, planning phase.and System demonstrators in practice (upcoming call).

The aim of the Planning Phase was to create the processes, structures and functions necessary to establish a full-scale system demonstrator for climate-neutral cities. Completion of the Planning Phase is a prerequisite for receiving support in the System Demonstrators in Practice.

System demonstrators in practice

In the System Demonstrators in Practice call (future call), the system demonstrator moves from planning to establishment and implementation. The larger budget included in this phase makes it possible to gather stakeholders on a broad front and implement the measures identified to achieve the system demonstrator's mission. Based on the system demonstrator's mission, actions are designed and implemented in an iterative way.

System demonstrators in practice will run for three years. Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and Viable Cities' ambition is to be able to extend the period beyond these three years. Two projects were granted in the Planning phase. Only the same two projects that were granted support in the Planning phase can apply for and be granted support in System Demonstrators in Practice.

System demonstrators in the world

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Lund, Sweden

Lund, Sweden

Bogotá, Colombia

Bogotá, Colombia

Bristol, United Kingdom

Bristol, United Kingdom

Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba, Brazil

Makindye Ssabagabo, Uganda

Makindye Ssabagabo, Uganda

Around the world, system demonstrator-like initiatives are underway. Viable Cities is collaborating with UN-Habitat on system demonstrators for climate-smart cities in four non-EU countries under the joint Climate Smart Cities Challenge.

Sister initiatives and partnerships

UNDP Strategic Innovation

UNDP embraces different ways of working with a unique approach to systems transformation. In a rapidly changing world, learning helps us improve development outcomes and accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.


NetZeroCities supports Europe and in particular European cities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through various climate actions to achieve climate neutrality, one of the biggest challenges our societies face today.

Mission Innovation Urban Transition

The Urban Transitions Mission (UTM) helps cities identify needs-based solutions and offers the opportunity to apply innovation, test, pilot and scale up solutions and approaches.

Dark Matter Laboratories Limited

Dark Matter Labs

Dark Matter Labs works to create institutions, instruments and infrastructures for a more just, caring and sustainable future.

More information

Related calls

Call #11 System demonstrators for climate-neutral cities, design phase went out to the cities that were the first to sign Climate City Contract 2030, with the ambition that the system demonstrators would strengthen cities' ability to accelerate the transition to climate neutrality by 2030.

Call #12 System demonstrators for climate neutral cities, planning phase laid a foundation for establishing ambitious system demonstrators.


Read more in the white paper by Vinnova and Viable Cities.

Latest news

  • All calls
  • System demonstrators
Viable Cities System Demonstrator
28 June 2022

In response to the climate crisis, the world's cities must make a huge transition. The whole notion of urban life and how we travel, eat, shop, work, build and heat homes must change to address climate change. This requires a systemic transformation that involves new...

Wide range of people at the Urban Future conference
6 June 2022

The Vinnova and Viable Cities workshop "Essential system transformation" brought together a wide range of people at the Urban Future conference in Helsingborg on June 1. Co-facilitated by UN-Habitat and Dark Matter Labs, experiences from the work of the Climate Smart Cities Challenge were...

Fictional stories of system demonstrators in practice

System demonstrators may sound complicated. To explore what they could achieve in our cities and towns, we have created these three speculative examples from 2035. Each one tells the story of the impact of successful system demonstrators in fictional cities, but based on real-life experiences.

Click on an example to travel into the future and discover an interactive timeline showing how these fictional system protesters evolved.

Reconstruction of blocks

How do we achieve a step change in the pace of modernizing our neighborhoods and cities so that every citizen has a healthy, affordable and climate-resilient place to live?

This story explores how an imaginary town, Cradockville, got there in 2030, by exploring how it designed and implemented a "system demonstrator".

Read more

Urban tree pitcher

How do we achieve a step change in the pace of modernizing our neighborhoods and cities so that every citizen has a healthy, affordable and climate-resilient place to live?

This story explores how an imaginary town, Cradockville, got there in 2030, by exploring how it designed and implemented a "system demonstrator".

Read more

Mobility shift

How do we achieve a step change in the pace of modernizing our neighborhoods and cities so that every citizen has a healthy, affordable and climate-resilient place to live?

This story explores how an imaginary town, Cradockville, got there in 2030, by exploring how it designed and implemented a "system demonstrator".

Read more
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Viable Cities is a strategic innovation program with the mission Climate neutral cities 2030 with a good life for all within the planetary boundaries. The program is funded by the Swedish Energy Agency, Vinnova and Formas and is coordinated by KTH.

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