Since the 1990s, a recurrent trope of the ‘global sustainable city’ has emerged in popular and professional discussions of globalization, sustainable development and urban innovation. Published in commercial publications and grey literature on policy, design and global trends, the trope is also articulated in a genre of trade books by urban consultants and in public showcases that project the city as a socially, economically and environmentally beneficial entity – a sustainable complex system that is even promoted to be humanity’s best hope for solving the global ecological problems of the twenty-first century. This article traces how urbanist Jane Jacobs’s notion of urban complexity becomes an allusive reference in examples of popular global sustainability discourse that present the city as an evolutionary self-organizing entity of systemic networks and physical flows. It examines urban economist Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, and Greener (2011), urbanist Leo Hollis’s Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis (2013) and urban strategist Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution (2009), as well as the smart building showcase of engineering multinational conglomerate Siemens, The Crystal. The article demonstrates how the trope of urban complexity is mobilized to project the city as a generic scalable entity of creativity and energy efficiency. It becomes the basis of an infrastructural imaginary of neoliberal innovation that supports entrepreneurial and ‘smart-eco’ agendas of urban design and governance that promise – but have yet to deliver – planetary ecological amelioration.