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Urban-Rural Nexus Science Across Scales for a ‘Coupling’ and ‘Leapfrogging’ of Integrated Services for Smart-Healthy-Resilient Cities, Communities, to Regional Competitive Advantage

Published onDec 24, 2019
Urban-Rural Nexus Science Across Scales for a ‘Coupling’ and ‘Leapfrogging’ of Integrated Services for Smart-Healthy-Resilient Cities, Communities, to Regional Competitive Advantage

Extended Abstract

The design and re-design towards smart-healthy-resilient urban, urban adjacent and rural communities offers a critical opportunity for the Mississippi River corridor to harness agile, trans-disciplinary urban-rural nexus science (TURNS), and perhaps new finance and competitive advantage toward transforming and integrating cross-sector, cross-scale infrastructure and institutional systems. By focusing attention on assessing the emerging risks and opportunities for energy-water-food-mobility-connectivity and other related systems integration with small and mid-sized cities and communities, new innovative, transformative approaches and solutions to the challenges of the urban-rural interface can be advanced to develop more resilient and sustainable urban systems. Currently, urban areas are interconnected demand centers and hubs for people, water-energy supply chains, food, buildings and housing, mobility and other conveyance infrastructure (e.g. for freight). Therefore, the integration of multi-sector infrastructure (as social-built-natural-information systems) design, planning, operations, decommissioning, regeneration, to new leapfrog-enabling decisions and investments associated with energy and water production to service consumption are all critical.

Today, small, modular and decentralized approaches to services are emerging in contrast to the traditional centralized management for the transport of people, energy, and water that often covers vast distances. By exploring the synergies and risks of current and new typologies of settlement types – how they adapt and respond to complex challenges - will offer important new insights into the differences among designing and utilizing historical, current, to future systems across micro to macro scales; moving from siloed, to increasingly integrated systems; or agile, distributed to more centralized systems. Coordination on new ‘urban nexus science to solutions’ (UNS2) frameworks offer an area for applying data-driven discovery to key societal challenges. These complex systems challenges, as identified in the workshop may range from questions of how communities can best harness significant social, technological, infrastructural changes arising in urban to rural areas today, in ways that can benefit society at all scales, from local to regional, to state-wide, national, or even global.

By bringing together broadly integrative and inclusive perspectives to future sustainable urban systems research—that is inherently inter/transdisciplinary, cross-sector, and cross-scale in nature—will help to expand valued research, development, demonstration (R2D) and upscaling of the deployment of applied UNS2 with diverse communities on improving health, sustainability, and intelligence around cyber-physically secure and resilient systems; and with advances for competitive advantage of communities and people aiming to create a global, open-minded workforce that can work across different cultures, environments, and on problems of high importance to improving quality of life, health and well-being, and livelihoods for all. The below extended position statement reflects on, and connects with, the initial thinking in advance of, sessions and interactive discussions during, as well as proceedings following our workshop at Iowa State University.

Note: The following text focuses on integrated responses to the three questions posed in advance of the workshop:

  1. How may future collaborative efforts to design and redesign sustainable urban-rural interfaces within the Mississippi River Watershed be informed by transdisciplinary approaches, such as those used by social, natural, and data scientists, architects, planners, engineers, and industry and community professionals?

A few terms that may interest and align with transdisciplinary innovation:

  • The term “coupling” has been applied across interfaces of rural to urban, district-city-national-to global scale, to social-ecological-infrastructural systems, or even across public-private-research sectors - that together can effectively enable new synergies between industries, technologies, infrastructure or policy trajectories that maximize economic prosperity (or productivity) while enhancing environmental, resource, and service sustainability (or resilience), respectively.

  • Similarly, “decoupling” can refer to the positive outcome of increasing economic prosperity while reducing environmental health impacts and unsustainable resource use.

  • The term “leapfrogging” has also been applied to cities and communities that have adopted a new form of infrastructure technology by bypassing traditional progressions of development, e.g., from no phones to cell phones—bypassing landlines all together.

  • The term ‘smart-healthy-resilient communities’ as enabling improved living experiences for people and upscaling concrete examples of new capabilities to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce forward rapidly by adapting and learning in the face of disruptive acute shocks and chronic stresses.

For the first time in history, these terms bring to light the types of transitions and transformations (perhaps even ‘leapfrogging’ opportunities) that may exist for sustainable energy, water, and mobility services in cities and rural to urban areas. At NREL, we are keen to explore some of these terms and phenomena within the context of emerging data-driven discovery, technologies, integrated models, and unique analytical insights for diverse geographies, use cases, and a focus on the competitive advantage characteristics of this watershed, and enabled by transformations in natural- built -social-to digital services for smart-healthy-resilient cities/communities enabled by linking scales or systems. Among the workshop participants, reflection on one connecting theme was keen interest in typologies of vulnerable, ‘locked-in’, and disconnected communities to smart, healthy, resilient communities (including societal issues by age, income, race, tenure, rural-to-urban).

While humanity is experiencing new frontiers in globalization, urbanization, and water-energy-mobility connectivity, many rural and urban areas are also enabling new dynamics via disruptive technology-policy innovations, market-based solutions, incentives, to increased competitiveness by attracting talent, business and enabling new ‘leapfrogs’ or decoupling of economic prosperity and environmental damage. Setting triple bottom line goals—social, economic, environmental—by harnessing new technology/infrastructure services, behaviors/decisions, and multi-level governance approaches that help best meet rising demands for services, respond effectively to changing environmental-economic conditions, while not being hampered by legacy, ageing, or deficient systems - abilities to adapt may offer competitive advantage within a regional and global economy and environment that will be increasingly urban and uncertain, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Equity, vulnerability, and risks are therefore key dimensions to address via ‘leapfrog’-based dynamics, and this requires involving those with interests and expertise in social-ecological-technological-economic-governance systems, whether data scientists, architects, planners, engineers, artists, government, industry and/or community-based practitioners.

In summary, human and community-centered data collection tackling key questions on transitions emerging across rural to urban areas are key—from sharing/caring economies, to distributed infrastructure innovation, renewable energy, shared-electric-connected-automated mobility , resilient urban-rural dynamics, and more.

  1. How might you situate your work and the interests of your discipline within the climatic/ecological scales of micro, meso and macro (which could also be described as the scales of neighborhood, city, and region), and how does your work help to define the boundaries of these scales and their interactions within the watershed?

Upon reflection after the workshop, it may be harder than before (!) to connect the most important dots and synthesize best alignments with colleagues. Recalling a quote: ‘the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.’ Perhaps as a few humble elements to advance and catalyze within this framing, are the coordination of like-minded as well as currently disconnected communities/networks, using mixed methods, quantitative and qualitative, or as bridging interests across key similarities and differences through the ‘empathetic convergence’ of embracing different ways of knowing or generating knowledge (e.g. from rural to urban perspectives, the arts to physical modeling, and/or from those focused on smart, healthy, resilient or sustainable urban systems—as perhaps equally important representations of desirable transitions), to new ways of addressing linkages/interactions among types of cities and communities. Exploring key synergies, tradeoffs, and co-benefits —as a new conceptual framework or set of interdisciplinary methods by bringing together multiple sectors, scales, outcomes - may be another approach.

At least one continued theme of interest around both equity and competitive advantage is that of the ‘typology of innovations.’ While traditional progressions and research have focused on innovation diffusions from affluent to underserved, new case study examples may be valuable that first focus on the bottom of the pyramid (rural to urban poor and underserved?), as these dynamics, settlement types and geographies of less centralized, legacy systems may be less ‘locked-in’ to relatively constrained development patterns. Indeed, development trajectories—that NREL is investing in through its mission—for renewable energy and electric mobility that’s enabled by digital, shared, and ‘caring’ economy principles may be another approach to enable more flexible, nimble and distributed solutions for various emerging Mississippi watershed economic markets. Perhaps urban-rural innovation diffusions or ‘leapfrogs’ may also be relevant to affluent or all populations. Overall, how would it be best to assess collective impacts and inform co-designed upgrades across multiple communities, in ways that are sensitive to context and aspirations?

Examples include how the Mississippi watershed (or corridor), the U.S., and global micro-mobility systems may learn from informal on-demand mobility systems in emerging economies or rapid growth in mobile banking that has dramatically improved access to micro-credit for entrepreneurs and has enabled scale up of new micro-grids, to other energy/mobility products/ services. Other examples may be the use of networks of networks, including cities (Iowa League of Cities), rural areas (e.g. agricultural and manufacturing stakeholders) or state-level green banks (e.g. see Green Bank or Coalition for Green Capital). These new emerging practices are in turn creating familiarity with new mechanisms for sustained finance for transformations, the importance of consumer choices, as well as higher levels of risk tolerance for investment in smart businesses or infrastructure projects (e.g. at district-or micro-scale, to meso- or macro-scales).

Perhaps one critical question ahead has to do with how we collectively advance human-centered design and finance of a new set of upgraded infrastructure systems. These can be imagined as built-natural-social-information systems that reliably, affordably, and sustainably provide water, energy, transport, housing/building systems, waste management and communication/connectivity services to more than half of the world’s population living in cities today. With rapidly increasing human populations, projected resource scarcities and vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, cities and rural communities alike require new, high-performing, cost-effective, and economic/environment-friendly infrastructures. In the past, an over-arching question addressed here has been: “What are the inter-connections between infrastructure engineering, urban planning, policy, health and behavior that must be explored today to design effective and sustainable urban infrastructure systems and decisions for the future?” To answer, a multi-disciplinary approach to linking emerging technologies, urban-rural development patterns, economic instruments, diverse policy strategies, and decision factors for design, operations, and enabling of future infrastructures and institutions is key.

  1. How can coordinated Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS) research in the Mississippi River Watershed contribute to ongoing and increasingly urgent efforts to address large-scale, multi-state, multi-system problems such as flooding, nutrient runoff, erosion, urban heat island effects, and urban sprawl?

A new focus on urban nexus science - from lived experience (evidence-based decisions and deliberative processes, interface of human-technology frontiers) to transdisciplinary approaches for sustainable urban-rural infrastructure systems (defined broadly to include the built, natural, social, digital)—is needed. This can be an approach that both informs and can be informed by specific ‘rural-urban dynamics of innovations.’ Examples include rapid integration of cross-sector infrastructure and institutional systems to meet goals via emerging technologies, governance mechanisms for increasingly smart/competitive-healthy-resilient cities, new business models for shared economy services (e.g., Uber, Airbnb), shifts from earlier siloed planning for water-energy-food-land-climate interactions (or land lines directly to smart phones, private gas vehicle ownership as not the norm to on-demand shared or high occupancy electric mobility)—that may all lead to very different futures informing ‘(de)coupling’ and ‘leapfrogging’.

As near-term priorities, I offer three areas for sustainable urban systems research and development and innovation in the Mississippi watershed, exploring ‘leapfrogs’ forward to rural and urban futures that are inclusive, equitable, affordable—and enabling regional competitive advantage by setting ambitious goals and targets, such as:

  1. Leapfrog #1 for Energy: Towards 100% Renewable Energy-Driven Electricity Services In Global Networks of Smart, Healthy, and Resilient (SHR) Cities (REDESIGN- SHR Cities)

  2. Leapfrog #2 for Electric Mobility: Connected and increasingly Affordable, Shared, Electrified Services (CASES) for Cities, and with new diverse land uses (more for people, less for vehicles).

  3. Leapfrog #3—Human Security: Renewable Energy-Nutrition-Environment-Water-Waste (RENEWW) innovation zones that integrate designs, businesses, and new governance models (Fig. 1).

<p class="">Figure 1. Analysis Framework: Exploring ‘Leapfrog’ Options in Energy-, Mobility &amp; Human Systems</p>

Figure 1. Analysis Framework: Exploring ‘Leapfrog’ Options in Energy-, Mobility & Human Systems

As example trends, in 2016 alone, renewables accounted for almost two-thirds of net new power capacity and one million electric vehicles (EV) were sold. By 2017, other converging and disruptive technological factors—e.g. global take-up of smartphones (2bn+ users), mobile internet (3.6bn users), and e-business payments (375mn users)—have enabled disruptive and ‘leapfrog’-related shared-economy business models that are transforming key industries and services for hundreds of millions and soon billions of people, as on-demand services are increasingly electrified, automated, and accessible (e.g., ride-sharing mobility services such as Uber, Didi, Grab, Lyft, Ola, 99). How can these services be harnessed or adopted as affordable options in rural areas too?

A recent global survey noted that two in three consumers are willing to share or rent personal assets (e.g., cars, homes, offices, bicycles, and perhaps energy services in the near future), the current global sharing economy market is estimated at over U.S. $250bn (led by Uber at U.S. $68bn, #1 global ride-sharing); Didi Chuxing (U.S. $50bn, #1 China ride-sharing); Airbnb (U.S. $31bn, #1 global home-sharing); WeWork (U.S. $17bn, #1 office-sharing) could soon reach an estimated U.S. $2 trillion globally. These first-in-history trends in technology, growth, and demand for new shared services are motivated by economics, shifting demographics, rising consumer demand, and a world that is increasingly connected. The economics of shared economy service today also offer first-in-history lowering of price points for services that are cost-efficient and satisfying demands for leapfrogs toward more efficient use of time, added convenience, or comfort. Again, how can new finance or connected services be harnessed by all?

Joshua B. Sperling, Ph.D.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colorado

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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