Fossil fuels are the biggest cause of climate change and yet are still our primary source of energy. Cities consume over two thirds of the world’s energy and contribute to more than 70% of global CO2 emissions. This is why What Design Can Do is focussing its second Climate Action Challenge on urban energy issues. Together with IKEA Foundation and many local partners, we invite designers and creative entrepreneurs to rethink how we produce, distribute and use energy in our cities.  

Everyone in the world should have access to enough energy to live a comfortable life, with access to clean water, nutritious food, shelter, healthcare, education and economic opportunities. Many in the world have this, but at the cost of the climate. We need to end our reliance on fossil fuels, while also ending energy poverty by providing access to reliable and affordable energy to everyone.

To achieve this, we need to generate more energy overall, and it needs to be clean and green — meaning renewable, passive, kinetic; anything but fossil fuels. We will also need to use energy more wisely: more efficiently, and with less waste. We have to think differently about how we source our energy and how we use it.


Cities are home to more than 50 percent of the global population and consume the majority of the global primary energy supply — a lot of which still comes from fossil fuels. Cities emit 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide — likely even more when consumption-based emissions are accounted for. Cities therefore offer a huge opportunity to transform the way we generate and use energy: to end dependence on fossil fuels, radically expand usage of renewable energy, conserve energy and secure clean energy for all.

We have worked closely with researchers, experts and designers in 5 globally influential cities to craft locally specific challenges informed by real stories, global key issues and local design capacity. Across São Paulo, México City, Delhi, Nairobi and Amsterdam we found that key elements of sustainable urban energy systems include clean and energy efficient transportation, waste management, building practices, food supply chains and public spaces.

We would like to mobilise the power of both local and global creative communities to take on the challenges in these 5 cities. Designers and creative thinkers from all over the world are encouraged to apply. So even if you don’t live in one of the 5 cities, you can still make a difference!


It is hard to imagine a world completely without fossil fuels: we rely on them for nearly everything in our lives, from heating or cooling our homes to producing our food, transporting us from place to place and delivering our drinking water. And energy demands are growing due to population growth, development and the increasing complexity of data-heavy systems. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to cover energy demand, we are likely to lock in 4 degrees of global warming, which spells devastation for the planet and the civilisation we know today.

Many of us use oil, gas and coal in a way that is excessive and indulgent, going well beyond what we need and damaging our climate. This we call ‘carbon decadence’. We need to change the way we power our daily lives.

On the other hand, we also need to provide energy to the billions of people who don’t yet have reliable or affordable access to it. These people live in ‘energy poverty’, which means that they don’t have enough access to energy for their basic needs and development. Energy poverty comes in different forms: it can either mean that someone can’t afford energy, or that someone uses energy that pollutes their immediate environment (such as a wood, coal or kerosene stove at home); or someone who doesn’t have reliable access to electricity. This means that even those connected to an electricity or gas grid can experience energy poverty if they consistently experience blackouts.


Clean and green energy comes from natural sources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, plants, algae and geothermal heat. Unlike fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, clean and green energy is renewable, naturally replenished and has a much smaller impact on the environment.
Clean energy is not just about transitioning to renewables; it’s also about rethinking the way we use energy. Saving energy and using energy more efficiently are key components of a post-fossil fuel future. We need creative ways to get as much useful power from as little energy as possible, wasting as little as we can.

With this in mind, we are seeking design interventions that include a range of renewable, energy saving and energy efficient approaches.


While we eagerly await political revolutions and technological breakthroughs, design can help accelerate the transition by supporting activism, by scaling existing technologies and by challenging the status quo. For example, designers can help mobilise people to become activists through persuasive communication and services that bring people together. And designers can help spread technologies and existing initiatives by making these more attractive, desirable, affordable or accessible.  

Designers can also help to reframe energy: how we use existing forms of energy, where we get it from, how we distribute it, how much energy we need, what we use it for and and how we can utilise naturally occurring forms of energy such as light, heat, gravity, water and even our own kinetic energy (e.g cycling or using the stairs).

Design can make a big difference in many ways. In 5 detailed briefs, we have brought together the most pressing issues in the 5 cities with existing efforts, creating 5 great opportunities for you to show what design can do.