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The Micro Scale Panel Discussion

Published onDec 24, 2019
The Micro Scale Panel Discussion
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Discussion Summary

The micro-scale panel focused on discussions about the importance and integration of local actions into the larger systems-of-systems understanding of sustainable urban systems. It is important to recognize that local actions are related to much larger scales, whether they are midsize or reach very large scales. Therefore, the discussion tried to identify research questions that will promote research efforts that in turn will affect large-scale change. Given that the panel consisted of a mix of designers, artists, and scientists, the initial discussion focused on how research can engage all three groups and bridge the gap between the micro-scale and larger scales. The overall goal was to tackle sustainability issues at the urban scale while integrating the micro and thus the human scale.

Lee Running is an artist who highly values the work she conducts in collaboration with scientists. She teaches at a small liberal arts college (Grinnell) where she and the students have access to scientists typically not available at larger institutions. In the past, she used biological microscopes to document seeds and insects on the micro-scale and also taught courses with a chemist. The Center for Prairie Studies, for example, enables an art studio that functions inside a 370-acre restored prairie. It is a representative of places in which science can open up lab space as potential studio space and where scientists and artists can share their respective view of the world.

Craig Colten related micro-scale to the issues in coastal Louisiana where the dead zone, a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, was initially seen as a local issue, very much a matter of fisheries and water quality. However, it expanded both temporally and geographically, and we now understand the zone as a result of the interactions along the broader Mississippi River Basin and the delivery of nutrients from the agricultural fields in Illinois, Iowa, and other places. Subsequently, scientists began questioning the role of historical processes, such as when did farmers begin to use specific types of agricultural chemicals and what was the long-term process of delivering these chemicals to the Gulf.

The second main discussion topic, which later crossed into other scales, addressed the ability to communicate the interconnectedness of systems along the Mississippi River Watershed to the broader public. In most cases, scientists have been very effective in communicating the larger impacts using a variety of graphics and illustrative material. These efforts typically require collaboration between water chemistry, historical geography, art, and graphics.

Baskar Ganapathysubrmanian is an engineer and referred back to the notion of scientific process and the creation and collection of data in order to formulate hypotheses. After being tested, these hypotheses add to our scientific knowledge and the conclusions are disseminated to broader society. However, in their efforts to the impact of their results, scientists and engineers would benefit from interactions with people who are much better at explaining complicated issues to the public. This is the junction where collaborations with artists are very important. The panel suggested that NSF should incentivize these collaborations: proposals should have a component in which essentially a communication art piece should be commissioned.

Referring back to Andy Kitsinger’s presentation, the panel suggested that the common denominator the interdisciplinary collaboration to redesign the urban rural interface should be the design approach. Design thinking is complementary to the scientific approach and can facilitate the process of testing of theories and the feedback loop to the public.

This discussion led to reflections on graduate and undergraduate education and students in STEM, where change in perception and practice should start. Training our engineers how to write code may lead to writing a scientific paper, but there is more required to enable successful communication outside the scientific silo. Everyone should appreciate the importance of a public component to the work. Institutions could do a better job of helping convey and disseminate best practices throughout stakeholder communities and society at large. Currently, the public component—outreach⁠—is not sufficiently rewarded or incentivized in order to develop the world's best graduate training program (Dtanier).

Audience member Shoemaker turned the discussion to the development of a new science of urban areas and focused the discussion on the micro-level characteristics that make an urban place a sustainable system. Andy Kitsinger reflected on the topic of health and the various attempts at a definition for healthy places and how those will relate to healthy people. Attributes listed for healthy places were access to fresh food, a functioning food system with a working and connected economy, places that people can access by foot, that have good impacts on their life, and the fact that sustainable places are healthy places.

Lee Running, in response, advocated for publicness and addressed the fears regarding the sprawl of the American city and the diminishment of public spaces. Specifically, places where people can be, be leisurely, be inquisitive, be safe, be healthy. Art often makes places likable and invites people to engage with inquiry.

Craig Colten highlighted the need for balance between people and ecosystem services. Leading to a critical investigation into the balance between demands of affluent urban residents and those of the surrounding hinterlands and region.

Then the discussion turned to market forces and how investments into climate change mitigation could unleash a massive market drive that may lead to the creation of unplanned spaces. Currently, urban society relies on very few systems and processes in terms of participatory engagement or planning to control unwanted development. However, sustainable places are managed or under control – in other words, they control their destiny. Urban systems, including economy, are powerful systems with many forces pulling at them and the control of these forces is the challenge.

In addition to access to food, energy, and water, security and mental health are other key indicators of a system that can withstand disruptive events. Our vision for design for the future has to reflect the interrelatedness of these aspects and be resilient and robust.

Certain skills required for artists represent the same type of skill set that is desired in a lot of engineering programs, although not well articulated and taught in these programs. Why are efforts to bridge the gap between engineers, architects, and artists rarely successful?

Unfortunately, there is a lot of gatekeeping with regard to science and technology. We need to break these gates down and allow other types of problem solvers to become part of the solution. It is important to realize that it is not necessary to be formally trained formally in an area to contribute to the solution of specific problems. Convergent science approaches represent this new way of changing practices and gaining system solutions. It is also important to remember that serendipitous creativity is something we have to include. We need to allow for discovery and unplanned things that are not seen as systematic.

Projects should engage people on the ground: people who live in communities and can share their local knowledge about the landscape around them. This kind of information we can use to help inform models. Bringing this knowledge the other direction is really important for scientists and to incorporate it into the work we do.

Anu Ramaswami highlighted her work with the City of Minneapolis. Minneapolis is actually going to recruit artists during the planning process to include the community. Air pollution is another topic, the city will address in their collaboration noted in the keynote. She noted huge interest in looking at the fine scale variability, which leads to the next scientific research question how to model measure that fine scale effectively.


This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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