In Search of Resilient and Sustainable Cities

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Written by Peter Edwards

The UN’s’ 11th Sustainable Development goal (SDG) is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The essential context for this goal is the extraordinary demographic revolution now underway, with ever more people living in cities. By the year 2050, the estimated world’s urban population will have grown by 3 billion, which is equivalent to building one new city of a million people every 5 days for 30 years. In practice, however, most of these new urban dwellers will be accommodated through the expansion of existing cities, many of which are growing very rapidly. Indeed, by 2030, the world is projected to have 41 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants.

Is the 11th SDG attainable? Most rapidly growing cities in the developing world confront huge problems of poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate infrastructure. Even prosperous cities of the developed world face challenges of growing inequality, crime, traffic congestion and environmental pollution. However, there are also reasons for optimism; as Rees and Wackernagel (1996) have argued: “Cities as presently conceived are inherently unsustainable, yet cities are the key to sustainability.” Indeed, cities as diverse as Curitiba and Copenhagen have shown remarkable creativity in finding innovative solutions to these challenges of an urban lifestyle.

It is clear that new ideas and knowledge will be needed to achieve the 11th SDG; and here universities have a major role to play. A recent report, “Making Sense of the New Urban Science,” describes how the world’s leading universities have embarked upon a “building boom for urban research” (Townsend, 2015). “Since 2005, more than a dozen new labs, departments and schools have been launched with a common purpose—to pursue deeply quantitative and computational approaches to understanding the city.” One of those new institutions is the Singapore-ETH Centre, a collaboration between ETH Zurich, as well as other Swiss and Singaporean universities, funded primarily by Singapore’s National Research Foundation. The Centre sees itself as a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary research platform for major research programs related to global sustainability.

The Centre’s first research program, the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) that launched in 2010, produces knowledge and ideas to help cities develop sustainably. Its second program, Future Resilient Systems (FRS) that began in 2014, aims to make interconnected urban infrastructure systems—such as information and communication technologies, electricity and transport systems—more robust and resilient. Highly multidisciplinary, both programs involve close collaboration with stakeholders to develop practical solutions to real-world problems.

The Centre’s research has four main areas of focus. The first is to increase scientific understanding of cities, as the essential basis for making them more sustainable and resilient. As Geoffrey West, former director of the Santa Fe institute remarked, we “desperately need a serious scientific theory of cities—relying on underlying generic principles that can be made into a predictive framework.” The FCL focuses especially upon the ‘metabolism’ of cities, studying them as complex systems characterized by stocks and flows of resources, including energy, water, capital and information. The FRS, on the other hand, relies heavily upon complexity theory, studying urban infrastructure systems as complex socio-technical systems composed, not only of engineered structures, but also of the people who make up the subsystems of users and operators.

Technology is the second area of focus. FCL researchers have developed new systems for air-cooling that use around half as much electricity as conventional systems. The new systems need less space for ducting, making it possible to construct buildings with fewer materials. The diverse research at the Singapore-ETH Centre reveals many other opportunities for new technologies, for example in reducing traffic congestion, diminishing the urban heat island effect, re-using waste materials, recycling nutrients in sewage and improving air quality. Perhaps the most important technologies are those that reduce dependence upon a very large infrastructure, and enable implementation in small towns and even in rural areas. For example, “green roofs” planted with vegetation can be used to reduce storm-water runoff, and “blue roofs” achieve the same effect using various kinds of flow controls to regulate and retain water. The water retained by these structures can be used directly for purposes such as garden irrigation, flushing toilets and recharging aquifers. Using “greywater” in this way not only reduces the demand for clean water—by as much as half for residential versus commercial buildings—but also reduces the amount of wastewater that must be conveyed and treated. As these technologies develop, we will see many more buildings equipped with their own treatment plants for recycling both water and nutrients, and therefore able to operate more or less independently of centralized water services.

Design is the third area of focus, as an essential step in translating scientifically sound solutions into environments where people can live and work. The design component of the research focuses on quality of life—wellbeing, comfort, convenience, security and satisfaction—and sharpens the discourse about the kind of urban future we want.

Digital technologies shape a new urban science by providing not only huge sources of information, but previously unthinkable analytical power. As a final focus area, the Centre develops ways to manage and use big data. At the heart of FCL is a sophisticated digital laboratory, “Value Lab Asia,” with state-of-the-art tools for modeling and visualizing 3-D and multi-dimensional data. In addition to being an essential research tool, this laboratory also provides an important means for engaging with practitioners. Architects and planners, for example, can visualize the changing plumes of heat swirling around buildings as wind speed and direction changes, and explore how new designs might affect a city’s heat balance. Transport planners can simulate the city’s traffic streaming through the streets, and test the effect of traffic flow by adding a new bus route or providing motorists with more information about congestion.

Through its programs, the Singapore-ETH Centre explores new ways of conducting academic research that contribute to the goal of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Nevertheless, the road is not easy. Researchers have to leave the relative comfort of their own discipline and collaborate with people with different sets of knowledge and approaches. Continually challenged by questions that most academic researchers do not have to face, such as, “How far should one depart from one’s own field of expertise to meet the wishes of stakeholders? How much effort should be devoted to implementation as opposed to research? To what extent should one advocate particular solutions rather than remaining academically neutral?” Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is to translate promising research into practice. Most researchers have little experience in the potential applications of their discoveries, while developers are understandably reluctant to try out untested technologies. The Centre therefore works closely with industry and government agencies to develop prototypes and demonstrators for testing and refining new ideas in “living labs”.

Despite these challenges, the overall balance is very positive. The Centre maintains constructive relationships with government agencies and industrial partners throughout Southeast Asia, and the trans-disciplinary approach has paid dividends in ensuring that the research remains focused on real-world needs. Furthermore, students who receive their training within these programs benefit from working in a unique environment that strengthens their skills in communicating across disciplines, across sectors, and across cultures. Perhaps the most encouraging of all, the Singapore-ETH Centre’s work receives strong affirmation and interest, not only from senior policy makers and leaders of industry, but also from the public at large.

About the author: Peter Edwards is Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre, which manages two major programs: the Future Cities Laboratory and Future Resilient Systems. He is professor of Plant Ecology at ETH Zurich and an adjunct professor in the Asian School of the Environment at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.