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The SUS Convergence Research Agenda (Synopsis)

Published onJan 13, 2020
The SUS Convergence Research Agenda (Synopsis)

Anu Ramaswami presented materials from the recent the Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education Report on “Sustainable Urban Systems: Articulating a Long-Term Convergence Research Agenda” (ACERE 2018), and provided insights into the Sustainable Healthy Cities Project, a network supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Sustainability Research Network (SRN) which she leads.

The ACERE subcommittee responsible for report development came from different disciplines and worked over a period of about nine months. Anu Ramsawami chaired the group, and the other committee members were Luis Bettencourt (Urban Innovation, University of Chicago), Andres Clarens (Engineering, University of Virginia), Sajal Das (Computer Science, Missouri University of Science and Technology) Garrett Fitzgerald (Practitioner, Urban Sustainability Directors Network), Elena Irwin (Economics, The Ohio State University), Diane Pataki (Biology, University of Utah), Stephanie Pincetl (Social Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles), Karen Seto (Geography and Remote Sensing, Yale University) and Paul Waddell (Urban Planning, University of California, Berkeley).

The report summarizes significant changes, socio-technological and infrastructural, that are arising in cities, which impact human well-being and planetary well-being from local to global scales. How could researchers look at those activities that arise within urban areas and look at the impact across scales and harness it in ways that are beneficial to society? The argument she made is that a much larger Urban Systems perspective is needed to accomplish this as summarized in the report. Examples of some big transitions are the sharing economy, with distributed infrastructure innovations such as vertical farms, other green infrastructure, and shared autonomous vehicles. The ACERE report she summarized formed the basis for this SUS-RURI workshop to address related challenges across urban and rural areas.

How do urban transitions and relationships to surrounding landscapes affect quality of life on both sides? How can persons within networks of cities and their hinterlands innovate, coordinate and learn to address regional issues, such as water issues? How can large interconnected urban areas cope and recover from natural disasters? How could big, massive changes related to urbanization in Africa and Asia affect the world? How does urban change improve livelihoods or other local conditions? How are those goals paired with regional and global environmental health and development goals?

Dr. Ramaswami summarized some of these significant changes happening in cities. The ACERE report then describes some characteristics of the next generation of urban sustainability research. The report also described prior research on urban sustainability, finding that it has focused on a small number of cities and has addressed only a few outcomes, not the whole range of outcomes related to the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals agenda. An additional gap identified in the report related to how different types of cities interact. In general, the report recommended moving from intense analyses of a few cities to looking across all urban areas in a region, or in a country, or in a power grid system.

The rationale for a broader systems approach is that urban areas are embedded in larger social-, cyber-, and physical-infrastructure or institutional systems, with trade networks that are much bigger than individual cities. The report thus recommends both a transboundary and multi-scale approach. At the same time, the report acknowledges that these urban areas are having huge impacts—for example, more than 70% of global GHG emissions are associated with urban areas, and just 50 of the world's largest cities are impacting 40% of the world's watersheds.

The report emphasized the narrow window of opportunity to address these issues, and the urgency of the problem—for example there is a very short time-frame within which to address the challenge of the planet warming beyond 1.5. In addition, new infrastructure systems being designed now will last for decades, and will create additional impacts over the next 30 to 40 years.

The report also provides examples of momentum for change in and on behalf of cities (e.g., the C40 Cities, the Milan Food Pact, the ICLIE [Local Governments for Sustainability]) and groups of cities coming together to seek solutions. There's huge momentum from the private sector. Companies are redefining mobility, power systems and food systems. The ACERE report identifies the convergence research agenda as a way to address all of this. In the report, “Convergence Science” is described as a new science in which “methods are generated as a function of deep integration across disciplines, and explicit consideration of how to transition from basic scientific discovery to practitioner applications.” Ramaswami described this as deep interdisciplinarity, combined with a social issue or a problem of relevance that engages people, such as practitioners and city governments, to address social impact questions. The report also defined Urban Systems as “…geographical areas with a high concentration of human activity and interactions, embedded within multi-scale, interdependent social, engineered and natural systems, that impact human and planetary well-being across spatial (local to global) and temporal scales.” She further defined Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS) as “those urban systems that are transforming their structures and processes with the goal of measurably advancing the well-being of people and the planet.”

The report also describes key features of Next-Generation SUS Science. First, it should be deeply interdisciplinary to inform societal transitions, such that knowledge co-production is not just a nod to “broader impacts.” Thus, working with communities and practitioners as part of the research itself leads to new discovery.

The report also highlighted three perspectives. The first perspective is that of an individual urban area—a city, and the downtown. The second perspective is that of multiple cities and communities, including exploring their interrelationships. This could be between suburbs and city cores, or it could be networks of cities that are connected through a watershed approach (such as the approach taken in this SUS-RURI workshop). The third perspective involves supra-aggregations, specifically scaling up to study larger aggregations of cities.

The report also addressed several key elements for SUS and SUS studies. One of the key elements is related to new opportunities for data (e.g., satellite and video, cell phone data, social media data) and how that can be brought together to think of new ways of understanding natural, human and engineered interactions in urban systems. A second key element is the long term impact (e.g., resilience, social equality, inequity, health and well-being, environmental sustainability) and how to work out relevant tradeoffs and core benefits across scales. The third key element identified is related to the question: “What makes change happen?” How can behavioral interventions use principles from behavioral economics, and how can this lead to investment in new infrastructures?

The report also addresses the science of understanding the politics of multi-level actors and governance. Change is understood as affecting the physical, engineered system, and the people, behaviors and institutions that shape it. The study of aggregates of cities leads to the question: What are the relevant city typologies that would apply from individual urban areas to aggregations of urban areas?

SUS Science can make significant contributions to fundamental knowledge and science. The report provides several examples, including better understanding of the distribution of both benefits and burdens of urban changes as well as greater fundamental understanding of human well-being. SUS Science also needs to address the processes of adaptation, disruption and change, as well as the linkages between actions taken by individual actors, policy makers, and individual cities, and how they might scale up to provide fundamental knowledge about city types.

Ramaswami then shared some of the Sustainable Urban Systems work ongoing in the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network that she directs. The Sustainable Healthy Cities Network is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Sustainability Research Network (SRN) program that includes scientists, industry leaders, and policy partners committed to building better cities. They are examining physical changes in the scale and scope of infrastructure design, the role of new technologies, and changes in public attitudes and policy that can help achieve the infrastructure transitions needed to build healthy, sustainable, and livable cities today and in the future.


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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