Special Session on Livable Urban Futures: Transitioning 'Urban' into Future Earth

Session Abstract

In February 2014, London, UK, the UGEC Project organized a Scoping Meeting with the goal to share and discuss ideas for shaping and moving forward a new urban initiative (or initiatives) that would fit within the Future Earth framework. The meeting included participants representing a variety of disciplines, communities of practice, regions and perspectives with diverse experiential knowledge and research expertise. In June 2014, the UGEC International Project Office and Stockholm Resilience Centre were awarded funds from Future Earth and the National Science Foundation to further advance the urban research agenda within the Future Earth framework. Building upon the February 2014 meeting and as part of the awarded proposal, a series of workshops will take place throughout 2014 and 2015 including the development of the Urban Transition Team (UTT). This group is tasked with overseeing the process, providing the overall intellectual direction and establishing the frame-work for the long-term goal of creating a Future Earth urban initiative. The aim of this session was to share the progress of this important effort and to obtain input regarding the key elements of this initiative's design including: a) Research gaps and needs for future urban research; b) Key urban research and policy relevant questions to be addressed moving forward; c) Potential key partners to advance a new urban international research agenda; d) Other critical components that must be considered in the design phase; and e) How to best incorporate local and regional science and policy communities.


David Simon, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK & Mistra Urban Futures, Sweden

Patricia Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA

Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden


Key Discussion Points


  • Are we truly moving beyond the ‘funding council’ model for giving out money for research to a process of supporting the transition to sustainability (i.e., a very different model than the funding model)?
  • Funding is not conducive to co-production as it is not something one can predict.  How do we get around the fact that in doing sustainability research (co-design/production), the outcomes and timeframes are uncertain, yet, funders want specificity of these areas?  
  • Arts funding may be an unexplored opportunity.
  • A good funding mechanism would be akin to the competitions designed to help cities and mayors, e.g., slim-city knowledge cards – one side is picture; on the other, best practices, a figure or graphic.  The research community needs new formats and different deliverables.
  • Future Earth could provide a platform to identify and coordinate funding mechanisms between cities and countries to further develop international cooperation and could be a lens to enhance funding from government agencies and international organizations. 


Research/Flagship Activities

  • How do we identify what is contributing to sustainability at the urban scale?  Do we have this knowledge?  How do we define processes that enable researchers to engage in actual helping on-the-ground sustainability?
  • Competitions could get people thinking differently and to pay attention to Future Earth.  For example:  Map 2050 – visuals of 'wow-trends' that we need to address with one map.
  • Multi-city comparisons. What kinds of urban can we compare (typologies)?  In what contexts is knowledge comparable?
  • Systematic comparative research - Distilling out underlying principles or guidelines, not best practices (top-down) but good practices, recognizing context specificity but identifying what works, what didn’t and why, and try to adapt this knowledge.  This can only be done if one looks at multiple examples of the phenomenon or process. 
  • Meta-analysis/knowledge approaches with identifying pathways or prototypes for selecting cases for better study of these bigger issues. Not only asking what the findings were but also what questions were asked, what assumptions were made, and what criteria were used to compare cities.  
  • Mapping out barriers or challenges to engagement. The issue is that others will solve the problems - so how can ‘they’ engage ‘us’?  UGEC or Future Earth could be the process by which we are engaged with what is happening.  How do we overcome the internal academic cultures that make it difficult to talk with other disciplines as well as other stakeholders? 
  • Linking cities at the global level - Future Earth could provide the service of linking cities at the global level.  In the US, for example, local sustainability plans (with the exception of CO2) tend to fail to link to other global scale processes.
  • Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) as an entry point – DDR work gets communities involved, which is taking place in Africa by the ICSU Regional Office (e.g., 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction– these activities are well-connected to people who make decisions). 
  • Innovative data.  Social media or other technologies, cellphones, big data and mobilizing this data could produce a portal for collection and dissemination as well as offer a way to educate and empower communities.
  • Intervention and innovation.  Frame these flagship activities in a way that does not focus on observation and trends, but more proactively about the interventions, innovations (technological and social innovation).
  • Broadening the conversation.  The stakeholders we generally talk about are never here.  Why is this and how can we broaden the conversations?  Raise funds to bring in stakeholders. 
  • Regional urban challenges - Organize a targeted, well-facilitated number of workshops capitalizing on the distributed Future Earth Secretariat.  Questions to ask – What are the practice challenges at the urban level?
  • Design for the high income world.  Let the Global South come up with solutions for developed world problems (suitable for SDGs).  The more affluent usually find solutions for bottom of the pyramid - what if this were reversed?
  • Visioning and design.  The research community must be better at marketing or branding and could be a guiding force for future generations (e.g., urban planning innovations such as Frank Lloyd Wright design, etc.)
  • Overcoming path dependency. The challenge is to link to the communities, but to do it in a new way based on our understanding of how sustainability can be strengthened and reinforced. Sustainability will look different in different parts of the world and strategic thinking must be taken to consider the kinds of challenges and to opportunities from what regions (what’s feasible?) Thinking through the different scales of networks requires priority setting to consider where to start drawing conclusions, followed by the application to other settings. 

Engagement and Stakeholders

  • What do we mean by 'engage' and what level of the hierarchy are we concerned about?
  • How do we engage cities and other stakeholders with often shortsighted objectives and maintain their engagement through often long processes?
  • How do we identify ourselves as enablers of the process towards sustainability? How can the academic community play an enabling role to enhance sustainability by building upon and engage with other communities, public/private sectors and NGOs that are doing work in the local communities (co-production)?
  • Economics. Many developing countries will contribute to much GDP and urbanization occurs quickly in non-OECD countries, but we don’t seem to have tools and mechanisms to keep up with that speed.  Co-production takes much time, but cities are developing so fast (big gap); engaging with economics could help (e.g., World Economic Forum).
  • Disenfranchised populations. How do we bring in the voices of Asia, Africa and Latin America that do not have resources to attend conferences and other venues? Include volunteer groups, e.g., Peace Corps, etc.
  • Ensuring that all stakeholders affected by urban projects and decisions are included in the process; e.g., rural people often very much affected by urban decisions. 
  • Politics. Better understanding of the interplay of international negotiations and cities (politics is not necessarily rational or about long-term challenges, often issues are narrowly focused).
  • Education and educators, including young people and the general public must rethink how urban issues are being taught in universities (e.g., architecture).
  • Local governments must work directly with local governments in cities and could provide a platform to get movement quickly.  This is an opportunity to link up with communities closer to where urban development decisions are made.
  • Network of stakeholders. Future Earth wants to develop more in terms of a networking structure, i.e., need to ensure that sustainability locally does not erode it elsewhere.  We should work with stakeholders in a networked fashion that has a vast reach. 


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