Sustainable Cities Symposium shows the need for cross-disciplinary research

By Louise Guibrunet, on 12 November 2013

Sustainable Cities SymposiumAs a student just starting my PhD on sustainable resource management in cities, I have been struggling to narrow down my topic to a manageable research question for a four-year investigation, considering the incredibly wide range of issues relevant to the field of sustainable cities. This is why I was very eager to attend the Sustainable Resources for Sustainable Cities symposium held last week at UCL, hoping to learn more about the field and find out what research gaps could my investigation cover.

The Sustainable Resources for Sustainable Cities Symposium was held on 5th & 6th November. It was organised as part of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities/UCL Grand Challenge Symposium Series. The symposium series was established in 2012 as a forum to bring together a variety of stakeholders integral to the debate around issues of global concern.

The UCL Grand Challenges, a university wide project relating the research conducted within UCL to world’s keys issues. The objective driving the Grand Challenges is two-fold:

First, it is considered essential that UCL researchers adopt a utilitarian approach, which means that their research ought to focus on current world issues and present insights into solutions.  Dr Ian Scott (principal facilitator of the Grand Challenges) argued in his introductory speech that UCL has a tradition of producing liberal, radical and pragmatic thinking. Research is considered as a means for global change and not only as an end in itself. As such, the researchers are encouraged to study cities in a way that their findings be a stepping stone to building sustainable cities, in particular influencing policy making and technological innovations.

The second objective of the Grand Challenges is promoting cross-disciplinary research within UCL. Indeed, cities is a field of study where a cross-disciplinary focus is extremely relevant: The city is a territory which entails social, technical, environmental, economic, political and cultural processes; and can be studied adopting a variety of approaches.

The symposium’s presentations illustrated the researchers’ willingness to engage in utilitarian and multi-disciplinary research: The topics and issues raised were extremely diverse, from researching the genetic engineering of algae to produce biofuels, to studying urban mobility, monitoring biodiversity in urban settings, explaining why biodiversity is essential to human health, or developing tools to reduce households’ energy use. The research presented was conducted in various departments, among other the Engineering Department, Development Planning Unit, Centre for Urban sustainability and Resilience and the Institute of the Americas. Perhaps more interestingly, some of the research was conducted across departments; involving inputs from different disciplines within UCL or in collaboration with other UK universities. The projects also involved working in close relation with non-academic actors, from the private sector but also government officials in the UK and abroad.

The complexity of the field was also illustrated by the variety of challenges that the participants identified as key for cities’ sustainability: including environmental concerns (climate change and environmental pollution, the depletion of natural resources), city design and resilience (adaptation to natural disaster, urban morphology) and human well-being (health, urban poverty, informality and access to services).

From the presentations and debates emerged to key aspects of urban sustainability:

Firstly, it was pointed out by most participants that technology has a key role to play in building sustainable cities, especially in improving resource productivity. In particular, energy was discussed as a field where research is needed to develop the use and viability of renewable energy (biofuel is an example); as well as energy saving devices (such as thermal storage materials). Yet, as much as technological innovation, the social aspect of innovation was identified as a key study field. In particular, it was considered essential to research how technologies’ efficiency is greatly determined by the end-user, and in particular its capacity and willingness to use the technology proposed.

Governance was another theme that emerged during the symposium. Many participants, one way or another, touched on the topic of public policy making and how institutions shape urban change. Participants highlighted the need for a strong, informed and coherent decision-making process; and that more research needs to be done to understand how strong governance is created.

From the symposium I take back this: The field is a lot more complex and wide-ranging than I thought, and these two days definitely did not help me narrowing down my PhD research topic. However, I did learn that working towards sustainable cities, which is arguably one of the big challenges of this century, will require knowledge and experience from different academic disciplines. A cross-disciplinary focus is essential if we want to design the solutions for the future of world cities.

Podcasts and slides from the symposium will be available on the UCL ISR website in due course.
Download the conference proceedings.