A few years ago, an industry friend approached me about contributing a piece to a book of essays on design and sustainability. He tasked me with examining the relationship between competition and sustainability. The question was: While collaboration certainly helps foster innovation, could competition be just as beneficial?

While prepping this issue, the link between competition and innovation popped into my head repeatedly. Sitting down to draft this letter, I fought the urge to wander down to the National Mall where this year’s entries for the biennial U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon were set up. Mere blocks from Eco-Structure HQ, the myriad experiments and gorgeous creations were quite the temptation.

The decathlon marks the end of nearly two years of individual work for participating teams. The 20 finalists duke it out in 10 competitions over 10 days, including energy efficiency, engineering, buildability/replicability, lighting, and architecture. Here, competition begets innovation as it is possible that what starts as a competition experiment may turn into a viable market offering in the years that follow. (Take a look at what happened to past entrants in “Forward Thinking.” More information also is available online at solardecathlon.org.)

On a larger scale, this month the sustainable building industry descends on Phoenix for Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, and as in the past, our November/December issue examines sustainable projects in the host city. What an array there is, from a modern-day biosciences campus that is a joint venture between collegiate rivals Arizona State University and the University of Arizona (“Good Chemistry”), to an architectural experiment nestled in the desert that, although nearly 40 years in the making, challenges modern concepts of urban planning (“Urban Implosion”). (P.S., it’s not Taliesin West.)

Of particular interest to me is the ongoing development of a plan announced by Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon in March 2009. Listen up Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland: You’ve got competition. As Dr. Robert Melnick, executive dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, explains in our Perspectives column (“Greening Phoenix"), the program seeks to make Phoenix the greenest city in the United States. Although there is no deadline, and much of the plan has yet to be fleshed out into concrete initiatives, work is under way to develop and secure funding for the first component, a program that aims to completely green a 10-mile stretch along the city’s light rail corridor.

I hope Phoenix’s program challenges other cities to step up to the plate in terms of sustainability. I also hope that other metropolises seeking the title of “greenest of them all” collaborate and take Phoenix up on its offer to share its successes and, of equal importance, its failures along the way. It’s win-win when competition results in continuous discussion of how we can improve the environmental performance of our buildings, our cities, and our countries.

Katie Weeks, Editor