R&D Gaps and Opportunities
To conclude the workshop, participants divided themselves into three groups to explore cross-cutting aspects of urban systems R&D: decision-support tools and knowledge transfer, technology development, and research on and evaluation of promising practices. The results of these breakout discussions were reported back in plenary and are summarized in this chapter.
Decision-support and Knowledge Transfer
Participants in this group were asked to discuss ways of generating knowledge that is useful to urban decision makers, and to suggest ways to assure that this knowledge could be put into practice. Several of the issues that participants raised in this discussion echoed the themes of a 2006 NRC workshop on “Linking Knowledge with Action” (NRC, 2006b). Specifically, many participants emphasized the importance of engaging potential end-users up front in designing research agendas. This not only helps researchers investigate the problems that decision makers face, but it also helps with the “pull” mechanism so that the knowledge has a waiting audience. Some participants noted that this is an important function for boundary organizations—institutions that are accountable to the scientific community and end-users, and can specialize in translating knowledge into formats so that it is more readily absorbed and locally accessible.
Some knowledge has economic value (e.g., spatial data, or household energy consumption). These are areas where the private sector, through consultancies, information technology companies, and others, are engaging. Still, some knowledge has public but not direct economic value. A few participants suggested that these are areas where universities could be engaged, though incentives do not often exist to do so. One suggested remedy is to utilize an extension model with urban universities. Urban extension programs could also provide a mechanism to distribute seed funding for innovative programs in a given urban area—participants noted that large funding agencies (governments and foundations) are not always well-suited to support small-scale, experimental projects.
Other participants emphasized that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to support sustainable urban development. They pointed out that there is built-in resistance within an urban system, whether it is cultural, institutional, or economic. Many participants stressed that economics cannot be overlooked. Insufficient local revenues are a major reason that new ideas and approaches do not get implemented in cities. Some participants countered that economic research itself must improve, to better account for the lifecycle costs and external (especially public health) costs of unsustainable urban development.
The group discussing technological development was asked to consider specific technologies with implications for sustainability. The group also discussed incentives for and barriers to innovation. One recurring theme was the importance of distributed and integrated infrastructure. Most U.S. urban areas are characterized by large, centralized nodes for critical infrastructure such as power and water. However, there appear to be major opportunities for urban areas to adopt decentralized, smaller-scale technologies, ranging from small renewable power generators to neighborhood water treatment facilities. Distributed infrastructure would add flexibility and resilience, and could also be scaled to meet the needs of shifting populations. Moreover, there are opportunities to integrate some of these traditionally separate systems and make efficient use of the interactions among water, wastewater, power, transportation, telecommunications, and the environment (NRC, 2009).
Viewing the city as a natural system is helpful in this regard. At an individual technology level, biomimicry research can be applied to make technologies more efficient based on natural processes, such as passive heating and cooling in buildings. Participants also noted that industrial ecology principles can be applied to make an urban area less wasteful, and as participants had suggested throughout the day, there is a need for additional data to better understand these resource flows and monitor them in real time. This presents two additional needs: knowledge/data management tools for cities as they attempt to integrate information from different sectors, and low-cost monitoring technologies and sensors that would facilitate real-time information and rapid detection of problems. Some participants pointed out that these are areas in which private industry is now devoting more attention, particularly in the context of the “smart grid” paradigm for modernizing electric utilities.
Urban areas are full of manufactured products and materials that, once past their useful life, are considered waste. However, one participant suggested that cities could be thought of as “above-ground mines” if societies would be willing to invest in repurposing or harvesting valuable materials for reuse. Recycling programs have expanded throughout the country in the past decade, and so a next step might be to investigate approaches to recycling larger, durable goods (e.g., hard plastics or construction materials). In addition, many urban areas in the United States are suffering from outdated and crumbling infrastructure. If this infrastructure is replaced instead of continually repaired, there is an opportunity to transition to new materials that are either more durable or at least more resilient and adaptable to environmental stress.
Some participants emphasized that water issues, which have been fundamental to urban development for centuries, tend to be overlooked as energy, transportation, and
climate change issues garner more attention. However, others insisted that the fundamental role that water plays in urban systems has not diminished, and in some urbanized regions scarcity has become a potential limiting factor in future development. Thus a sharper focus on systems for water delivery, consumption, and treatment may be warranted.
Reflecting the need, raised by other participants earlier in the day, to engage the public on issues of urban sustainability, several participants remarked that communication methods could be better utilized. This would include social media, which many local governments now use, but also sophisticated visualization tools that allow residents and decision makers to see what a new park would look like, for example. Participants pointed out early examples where visualization tools had a major impact, including time-series data on urban sprawl and remote sensing images of urban heat islands.
To complement technological development, several participants emphasized that science-based standards were needed to guide this innovation, such as public health standards for wastewater treatment alternatives. On a related point, existing codes and standards likely need to be reviewed and revised so they are not an impediment to more sustainable approaches. One example cited was the Clean Water Act, which can be a barrier to innovation—cities must devote substantial resources to meeting standards which have not been substantially updated since 1987.
Looking ahead, several participants noted that these possible paradigm shifts in urban development and management will also necessitate changes in the workforce. This may not be a limiting factor, but it is still an important consideration because governments will have to invest in appropriate education and training programs, so that the workforce is equipped to manage a more flexible, integrated, and dynamic urban system.
Research and Evaluation
Participants in this group were asked to discuss major interdisciplinary research gaps and, more specifically, the opportunities for evaluating urban sustainability projects and programs. This group pointed out that more consideration must be given to the time and resources required to maintain data and information systems in this field. Participants throughout the day had suggested that a clearinghouse of best practices is sorely lacking, but such a clearinghouse would require long-term support and maintenance, especially if it is to be a dynamic database. Some participants suggested that the research community should consider how much data are “enough,” since there are costs associated with compiling and analyzing all of this data, not all of which ares directly relevant to decision makers’ needs.
Urban areas could also benefit from an evaluation template, some participants suggested, or a common set of guidelines and objective measures/indicators that would: A) assess progress in meeting sustainability objectives, B) help cities invest in measuring the right things, and C) transfer across locales, so that researchers (and perhaps state/federal agencies) could evaluate performance across regions. The Carbon Disclosure Project was offered as an analog—the UK-based organization has grown to become the largest database for corporate climate change reporting. One decision maker in the group suggested that it would be useful to consider tiers of performance or compliance, akin to
the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system for buildings, which has four tiers of compliance (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum). A baseline could include the (generally) inexpensive interventions that all urban areas could be investing in now, and ascending tiers could help put communities on a path toward sustainability. Overall, participants emphasized the need for objective evaluations if this knowledge from the field is going to be mined and made useful to a broader community.
On the subject of best practices, many participants noted that existing databases are generally sector-specific (e.g., water and sanitation) and thus are not focused holistically on urban systems. Moreover, evaluations of technologies may be viewed as incomplete if they do not include an objective evaluation of how the technology is successfully integrated into a community, in other words, an assessment of what works and why. In recent years, more and more communities purport to be sustainable, though there are not widely agreed-upon metrics to substantiate these claims. Many participants suggested that measurement protocols with flexibility built in for regional variation would be a valuable contribution from the research community. Some participants suggested that an open, web-based platform could provide a forum to share experiences and experiment results globally, at modest cost. As other participants noted, such user-supported approaches may not be rigorous enough for some applications, but it would at least provide an initial venue for place-based research and knowledge to be exchanged
Finally, spurred in part by the last panel discussion on decision makers’ needs, a few participants remarked that more research was needed to understand the incentives that can foster change in an urban area. Local budgets may not allow for major expenditures with long-term payoff, so participants wondered aloud if this can be overcome through lifecycle costing, or better communication with citizens. Participants identified three primary motivations for urban areas to pursue sustainability objectives: economics, ethics, and competitiveness. Some participants suggested that competitiveness may in fact be the strongest motivation, since metropolitan regions (and communities within a metropolitan region) do in fact compete with one another. Put another way, one participant inquired how “keeping up with the Joneses” and behavioral research more generally is being factored into the urban sustainability research agenda.
To conclude the workshop, participants discussed various ways to move a sustainable urban systems research agenda forward. At present, there is no federal office or agency that can oversee the range of research going on, and because the research community itself is still fragmented, it is difficult to identify all potential research gaps. Many participants noted that not everyone uses the terms “urban sustainability” or “urban systems” but there are elements of it implicit in the approach that federal agencies, the White House, and others are taking. From a federal perspective, one participant suggested that it might be useful for the new White House Office of Urban Affairs and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to jointly discuss how urban sustainability, however they collectively define it, could be made a priority, and then issue a directive to mission agencies to advance urban sustainability through the lens of their particular agencies. Finally, some participants noted that the research community knows how to do evaluations, and so it might be beneficial to direct future research funding into projects which help objectively evaluate progress towards urban sustainability.