Macomber says, however, that private investors won't pile into eco-cities unless there are clearer incentives to do so. "Models are emerging, but in a way they are utopias built by pioneers," he says. "The question is: Is this investment a luxury pet project or could it go mainstream?"
Other experts express skepticism about eco-cities as investor magnets. "Researchers think that (in general) there is no direct relationship between investment in green tech and financial performance," says Oklahoma City University Business School professor James Ma, an expert in socially responsible investing. He adds: "Green investment is not cheap. It is considered an extra to begin with, while the economic crisis is shifting the focus back to job creation."
Job-creating potential has attracted the interest of governments. "In the past 12 months, legislation has caught up and (governments are) adopting the green building agenda," says Guy Battle, an engineer for London-based architecture firm Battle McCarthy and founder of consulting firm dcarbon8. "While some developers are backing off, governments are raising the bar and saying 'We have to do this.'"
Major companies are getting involved, too. IBM, for instance, is participating in a variety of eco-city-related projects in Amsterdam, Stockholm, Singapore, and elsewhere. "Worldwide, we're seeing that government is taking the role as the leader in innovation," says Rizwan Khaliq, director of IBM's global government strategies. "Private industry, while it hasn't backed off (these investments) entirely, is still in the process of figuring out if they can continue to generate revenue from these projects."
Global consulting firm Accenture has developed its own "smart tech" department, which is focused on carbon emission-reducing initiatives. Lead strategist Simon Giles says he thinks the current environment will attract more measured private investors. "As long as projects have very clearly defined parameters and are well managed," he says, "they will attract investment."