Humphrey School News—January 18, 2018

New Report Led by Humphrey School Professor Anu Ramaswami Outlines Long-Term Research Agenda on Sustainable Urban Systems

Advisory committee report to National Science Foundation addresses unprecedented impact of urbanization


Professor Anu Ramaswami
Professor Anu Ramaswami

How can we harness big social, technological, and infrastructural changes arising in cities today, in ways that can benefit society at all scales—local, national, and global? A much larger urban systems perspective is needed, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Advisory Committee on Environmental Research and Education to the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The report articulates a long-term research agenda on sustainable urban systems aimed at understanding how cities are connected to their rural hinterlands, and to networks of cities, small and large, across the globe. Professor Anu Ramaswami, bioproducts and biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, serves on the committee and led the development of this report as chair of the Sustainable Urban Systems subcommittee.

The report calls for developing a new sustainable urban systems science to address key emerging societal questions, for example:

  • How the sharing economy—sharing of cars, offices, and living spaces (such as Airbnb)—can  transform urban areas
  • How the future of employment in cities is evolving in response to increased automation
  • How renewable energy, shared autonomous electric vehicles, and green infrastructure innovations affect life in and around cities, as well as global environmental sustainability 
  • How trade across urban-rural areas impacts the economy and quality of life in both locations
  • How networks of cities and their hinterlands can innovate, coordinate, and learn from each other to address regional water stress
  • How large interconnected urban areas and their hinterlands can cope and recover from hurricanes and natural disasters
  • How massive new urbanization expected in Africa and Asia will affect the world
  • How urban changes to improve livelihoods or local air pollution square with regional and global environment, human health, and development goals

Developing the science to answer these questions has the potential to bring society-wide benefits related to economic development, equity, and improved environment and health outcomes. “Our lives and our planet could transform in positive ways, if only we understood how to stimulate and leverage urban innovations,” says Ramaswami.

To harness this opportunity, the report specifically calls for developing a new type of “convergence science” that is both deeply interdisciplinary and engages from the start with communities and practitioners to inform actions on the ground.

The authors recommend not just studying individual cities, but also groups of cities that are similar or connected to each other, and the collective impact of all urban areas in a nation or world-region on people and on the planet. Within each of these perspectives, key elements are identified, aimed at understanding how urban systems function today, the key levers of change into the future, and how the potential positive and negative impacts of such changes (across local to national to global scales) can be managed by society through new types of partnerships, citizen engagement, business arrangements, and policy innovations.

Read the report

Read the NSF news release

Ramaswami is the Charles M. Denny Jr. Chair of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Humphrey School. The STEP program integrates science with public policy, community action, and multi-sector governance. 

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