Charting a system for urban sustainability
Using fuel cell buses and data on urbanization can reduce pollution and our dependence on oilBy Lucy Goodchild van Hilten
July 29, 2016
The tops of Beijing’s skyscrapers can just be made out from the ground though the thick smog that shrouds the city. It’s December 2015, and the Chinese government has issued its first ever “red alert” for the city’s air quality. The smog has halted construction work and led to the closure of many of the city’s schools, education being one of the many areas pollution is now affecting.
Beijing is hugely influential in the global economy. With 52 of the Fortune Global 500 companies and 100 of China’s biggest companies located there, the megacity’s GDP is CN￥1.95 trillion (US$314 billion). It has a flourishing startup scene and is attracting more and more venture capitalists who have plenty of investment opportunities in places like Zhongguancun – dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley.”
Putting the city’s fast growth and economic development on pause for the smog, even for a few days, could be costly. Fast-forward three months and the Chinese government announces a change to the threshold at which “red alert” is reached – instead of three consecutive days of the heaviest pollution levels, it will now be four.
Beijing and many other cities in the region are facing challenges like poor air quality as millions of people continue to move to urban areas. But these cities are important for the world’s sustainable development: they have the potential to contribute to environmental problems or provide solutions, concentrate poverty or broaden the distribution of resources.
Moving the air pollution goalposts seems to be one way to deal with the problem; megacities must adapt to the influx of people. But perhaps adaptation to each problem isn’t the best approach.
A systems approach to urbanization
To ensure sustainable development, urbanization must not go uncharted. MeetingGoal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” – will require interdisciplinary collaboration and a more holistic view of sustainable development. Such a view can only be found by approaching cities as systems of systems, according to Dr. Dongping Fang, Professor and head of the Department of Construction Management at Tsinghua University in China. He explained:
“Urbanization has improved the living standard in China tremendously, but at the same time we suffer from the negative impacts of urbanization – bad planning, bad design, even bad policy that created rough rather than refined growth. Lots of researchers are looking at the problems, but always from their own perspectives, so their results only address part of the issue. We are looking at the urban system as a system of systems, like transportation, healthcare and education, all interacting with each other.”
Dr. Fang’s idea is to use this approach to pull together existing knowledge in a new way, providing a more accurate picture of what’s happening in cities and how the negative effects of urbanization can be mitigated. By charting the impact of one system on another and vice versa, parties can spend less time assigning blame for the problems and more time working together to
“To tackle this issue we need multidisciplinary teams – people from engineering and science, IT, sociology and social science. This can also translate into practical solutions based on shared knowledge that can improve quality of life in cities.”
One manifestation of this approach is the interdisciplinary team working on disaster resilience. Dr. Fang and professors from different departments at Tsinghua University in collaboration with a team at UCL in the UK look at the impact of a disaster like an earthquake on city systems. People from geoscience, earthquake engineering, medicine, structural engineering, economics and sociology are working together to look at the interplay between a natural disaster, healthcare and resilience. If it’s successful, they will apply the methodology to other combinations of system interplay.
Healthcare has more challenges than other systems. We chose it because it’s crucially important in the recovery phase after a disaster: hospitals save lives and give people confidence that if the healthcare system survives they can survive after a shock; if there is no surviving hospital, people will lose their confidence.
This resilience is one focus of Dr. Fang’s work – it forms the foundation for sustainability, and it is a fundamental issue for society today. It may influence how sustainable a city is, in other words, more resilient equals more sustainable.
Tsinghua University has recently established a new university-led institute to enable interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in this area: the Institute for Future Cities and Infrastructures. The group will continue to feed research findings into policy recommendations and solutions for societal change. It’s an area influenced heavily by technological developments, which are also changing the outlook for urbanization.
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