The second speaker at our Workshop on City Science was Andrew Wisdom from Arup, talking about Cities as Systems of Systems. Andrew began with the observation that cities are increasingly under pressure, as the urban population continues to grow, and cities struggle to provide adequate infrastructure for their populations to thrive. But a central part of his message is that the way we think about things tends to create the way they are, and this is especially so with how we think about our cities.

As an exercise, he first presented a continuum of worldviews, from Technocentric at one end, to Ecocentric at the other end:

  • In the Techno-centric view, humans are dissociated from the earth. Nature has no inherent value, and we can solve everything with ingenuity and technology. This worldview tends to view the earth as an inert machine to be exploited.
  • In the Eco-centric view, the earth is alive and central to the web of life. Humans are an intrinsic part of nature, but human activity is already exceeding the limits of what the planet can support, to the point that environmental problems are potentially catastrophic. Hence, we need to get rid of materialism, eliminate growth, and work to restore balance.
  • Somewhere in the middle is a Sustain-centric view, which accepts that the earth provides an essential life support system, and that nature has some intrinsic value. This view accepts that limits are being reached, that environmental problems tend to take decades to solve, and that more growth is not automatically good. Humans can replace some but not all natural processes, and we have to focus more on quality of life as a measure of success.

As an exercise, Andrew asked the audience to imagine this continuum spread along one wall of the room, and asked us each to go and stand where we felt we fit on the spectrum. Many of the workshop participants positioned themselves somewhere between the eco-centric and sustain-centric views, with a small cluster at the extreme eco-centric end, and another cluster just to the techno-centric side of sustain-centric. Nobody stood at the extreme techno-centric end of the room!

Then, he asked us to move to where we think the city of Toronto sits, and then where we think Canada sits, and finally where we feel the world sits. For the first two of these, everyone shifted a long way towards the technocentric end of the spectrum (and some discussion ensued to the effect that both our mayor and our prime minister are a long way off the chart altogether – they are both well known for strong anti-environmentalist views). For the whole world, people didn’t move much from the “Canada” perspective. An immediate insight was that we (workshop attendees) are far more towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum than either our current city or federal governments, and perhaps the world in general. So if our governments (and by extension the voters who elect them) are out of step with our own worldviews, what are the implications? Should we, as researchers, be aiming to shift people’s perspectives?

One problem that arises from one’s worldview is how people understand messages about environmental problems. For example, people with a technocentric perspective tend to view discussions of sustainability as being about sacrifice – ‘wearing a hair shirt’, consume less, etc. Which then leads to a waning interest in these topics. For example, analysis of google trends on terms like global warming and climate change show spikes in 2007 around the release of Al Gore’s movie and the IPCC assessment, but declining interest since then.

Jeb Brugmann, the previous speaker, talked about the idea of a Consumptive city versus a Generative city, which is a change in perspective that alters how we view cities, changes what we choose to measure, and hence affects the way our cities evolve.

Changes in the indices we pay attention to can have a dramatic impact. For example, a study in Melbourne created that VAMPIRE index (Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses), which shows the relative degree of socio-economic stress in suburbs in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. The pattern that emerges is that in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, there are few jobs, and many people paying off mortgages, all having to commute and hour and a half to the east of the city for work.

Our view of a city tend to create structures that compartmentalize different systems into silos, and then we attempt to optimize within these silos. For example, zoning laws create chunks of land with particular prescribed purposes, and then we end up trying to optimize within each zone. When zoning laws create the kind of problem indicated by the Melbourne VAMPIRE index, there’s little the city can do about it if they continue to think in terms of zoning. The structure of these silos has become fossilized into the organizational structure of government. Take transport, for example. We tend to look at existing roads, and ask how to widen them to handle growth in traffic; we rarely attempt to solve traffic issues by asking bigger questions about why people choose to drive. Hence, we miss the opportunity to solve traffic problems by changing the relationship between where people live and where they work. Re-designing a city to provide more employment opportunities in neighbourhoods that are suffering socio-economic stress is far more likely to help than improving the transport corridors between those neighbourhoods and other parts of the city.

Healthcare is another example. The outcome metrics typically used for hospital use include average length of stay, 30-day unplanned readmission rate, cost of readmission, etc. Again, these metrics create a narrow view of the system – a silo – that we then try to optimize within. However, if you compare European and American healthcare systems, there are major structural difference. The US system is based on formula funding, in which ‘clients’ are classified in terms of type of illness, standard interventions for that illness, and associated costs. Funding is then allocated to service providers based on this classification scheme. In Europe, service provides are funded directly, and are able to decide at the local level how best to allocate that funding to serve the needs of the population they care for. The European model is a much more flexible system that treats patients real needs, rather than trying to fit each patient into a pre-defined category. In the US, the medical catalogue of disorders becomes an accounting scheme for allocating funds, and the result is that in the US, medical care costs going up faster than any other country. If you plot life expectancy against health spending, the US is falling far behind:

The problem is that the US health system views illness as a problem to be solved. If you think in terms of wellbeing rather than illness, you broaden the set of approaches you can use. For example, there are significant health benefits to pet ownership, providing green space within cities, and so on, but these are not fundable with the US system. There are obvious connections between body mass index and the availability of healthy foods, the walkability of neighbourhoods, and so on, but these don’t fit into a healthcare paradigm that allocates resources according to disease diagnosis.

Andrew then illustrated the power of re-thinking cities as systems-of-systems through several Arup case studies:

  • Dongtan eco-city. This city was designed from the ground up to be food positive, and energy positive (ie. intended to generate more food and more clean energy than it uses). The design makes it more preferable to walk or bike than to drive a car. A key design tool was the use of an integrated model that captures the interactions of different systems within the city. [Dongtan is, incidentally, a classic example of how the media alternately overhypes and then trashtalks major sustainability initiatives, when the real story is so much more interesting].
  • Low2No, Helsinki, a more modest project that aims to work within the existing city to create carbon negative buildings and energy efficient neighbourhoods step by step.
  • Werribee, a suburb of Melbourne, which is mainly an agricultural town, particularly known for its broccoli farming. But with fluctuating prices, farmers have had difficulty selling their broccoli. In an innovative solution that turns this problem into an opportunity, Arup developed a new vision that uses local renewable energy, water and waste re-processing to build a self-sufficient hothouse food production and research facility that provides employment and education along with food and energy.

In conclusion, we have to understand how our views of these systems constrain us to particular pathways, and we have to understand the connections between multiple systems if we want to understand the important issues. In many cases, we don’t do well at recognizing good outcomes, because our worldviews lead us to the wrong measures of success, and then we use these measures to create silos, attempting to optimize within them, rather than seeing the big picture. Understanding the systems, and understanding how these systems shape our thinking is crucial. However, the real challenges then lie in using this understanding to frame effective policy and create effective action.

After Andrew’s talk, we moved into a hands-on workshop activity, using a set of cards developed by Arup called Drivers of Change. The cards are fascinating – there are 189 cards in the deck, each of which summarizes a key issue (e.g. urban migration, homelessness, clean water, climate change, etc), and on the back, distills some key facts and figures. Our exercise was to find connections between the cards – each person had to pick one card that interested him or her, and then team up with two other people to identify how their three cards are related. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking exercise, that really got us thinking about systems-of-systems. I’m now a big fan of the cards and plan to use them in the classroom. (I bought a deck at Indigo for $45, although I note that, bizarrely, Amazon has them selling for over $1000!).

We held a 2-day workshop at U of T last week entitled “Finding Connections – Towards a Holistic View of City Systems“. The workshop brought together a multi-disciplinary group of people from academia, industry, government, and the non-profit sector, all of whom share a common interest in understanding how cities work as systems-of-systems, and how to make our cities more sustainable and more liveable. A key theme throughout the workshop was how to make sure the kinds of research we do in universities does actually end up being useful to decision-makers – i.e. can we strengthen evidence-based policymaking (and avoid, as one of the participants phrased it, “policy-based evidence-making”).

I plan to blog some of the highlights of the workshop, starting with the first keynote speaker.

The workshop kicked off with an inspiring talk by Jeb Brugmann, entitled “The Productive City”. Jeb is an expert in urban sustainability and climate change mitigation, and has a book out called “Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World“. (I should admit the book’s been sitting on the ‘to read’ pile on my desk for a while – now I have to read it!).

Jeb’s central message was that we need to look at cities and sustainability in a radically different way. Instead of thinking of sustainability as about saving energy, living more frugally, and making sacrifices, we should be looking out how we re-invent cities as places that produce resources rather than consume them. And he offered a number of case studies that demonstrate how this is already possible.

Jeb started his talk with the question: How will 9 billion people thrive on Earth? He then took us back to a UN meeting in 1990, the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future. This meeting was the first time that city governments around the world came together to grapple with the question of sustainable development. To emphasis how new this was, Jeb recollected lengthy discussions at the meeting on basic questions such as how to translate the term ‘sustainable development’ into French, German, etc.

The meeting had two main outcomes:

  • Initial work on Agenda 21, getting communities engaged in collaborative sustainable decision making. [Note: Agenda 21 was subsequently adopted by 178 countries at the Rio Summit in 1992. More interestingly, if you google for Agenda 21 these days, you're likely to find a whole bunch of nutball right-wing conspiracy theories about it being an agenda to destroy American freedom.]
  • A network of city governments dedicated to developing action on climate change [This network became ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability]. Jeb noted how the ambitions of the cities participating in ICLEI have grown over the years. Initially, many of these cities set targets around 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Over the years since, these target have grown. For example, Chicago now has a target of 80% reduction. This is significant because these targets have been through city councils, and have been discussed and agreed on by those councils.

An important idea arising out of these agreements is the concept of the ecological footprint - sometimes expressed as how many earths are needed to support us if everyone had the same resource consumption as you. The problem is that you get into definitional twists on how you measure this, and that gets in the way of actually using it as a productive planning tool.

Here’s another way of thinking about the problem. Cities currently have hugely under-optimized development patterns. For example, cities with seven times more outspill growth (suburban sprawl) compared to infill growth. But there are emergent pressures on industry to optimize use of urban space and urban geography. Hence, we should start to examine under-used urban assets. If we can identify space within the city that doesn’t generate value, we can reinvent it. For example, the laneways of Melbourne, which in the 1970′s and 80′s were derelict, have now been regenerated for a rich network of local stores and businesses, and ended up as a major tourist attraction.

We also tend to dramatically underestimate the market viability of energy efficient, sustainable buildings. For example, in Hannover, a successful project built an entire division of eco-homes using Passivhaus standards at similar rental price to the old 1960s apartment buildings.

The standard view of cities, built into the notion of ecological footprint, is that cities are extraction engines – the city acts as a machine that extracts resources from the surrounding environment, processes these resources to generate value, and produces waste products that must be disposed of. Most work on sustainable cities frames the task as an attempt to reduce the impact of this process, by designing eco-efficient cities. For example, the use of secondary production (e.g. recycling) and designed dematerialization (reduction of waste in the entire product lifecycle) to reduce the inflow of resources and the outflow of wastes.

Jeb argues a more audacious goal is needed: We should transform our cities into net productive systems. Instead of focussing on reducing the impact of cities, we should use urban ecology and secondary production so that the city becomes a net positive resource generator. This is far more ambitious than existing projects that aim to create individual districts that are net zero (e.g. that produce as much energy as they consume, through local solar and wind generation). The next goal should be productive cities: cities that produce more resources than they consume; cities that process more waste than they produce.

Jeb then went on to crunch the numbers for a number of different types of resource (energy, food, metals, nitrogen), to demonstrate how a productive city might fill the gap between rising demand and declining supply:

Energy demand. Current European consumption is around 74GJ/capita. Imagine by 2050, we have 9 billion people on the planet, all living like Europeans do now – we’ll need 463EJ to supply them all. Plot this growth in demand over time, and you have a wedge analysis. Using IEA numbers of projected growth in renewable energy supply, to provide the wedges, there’s still a significant shortfall. We’ll need to close the gap via urbanrenewable energy generation, using community designs of the type piloted in Hannover. Cities have to become net producers of energy.

Here’s the analysis (click each chart for full size):

Food. We can do a similar wedge analysis for food. Current food production globally produces around 2,800kcal/captia. But as the population grows, this current level of production produces steadily less food per person. Projected increases in crop yields, crop intensity, and conversion of additional arable land, and reduction of waste would still leave a significant gap if we wish to provide a comfortable 3100kcal/capita. While urban agriculture is unlikely to displace rural farm production, it can play a crucial role in closing the gap between production and need, as the population grows. For example, Havana has a diversified urban agriculture that supplies close to 75% of vegetables from within the urban environment. Vancouver has been very strategic about building its urban agricultural production, with one out of every seven jobs in Vancouver in food production.

Other examples include landfill mining to produce iron and other metals, and urban production of nitrogen fertilizer from municipal biosolids.

In summary, we’ve always underestimated just how much we can transform cities. While we remain stuck in a mindset that cities are extraction engines, we will miss opportunities for more radical re-imagings of the role of global cities. So a key research challenge is to develop a new post-”ecological footprint” analysis. There are serious issues of scaling and performance measurement to solve, and at every scale there are technical, policy, and social challenges. But as cities house ever more of the growing population, we need this kind of bold thinking.

My first year seminar course, PMU199 Climate Change: Software, Science and Society is up and running again this term. The course looks at the role of computational models in both the science and the societal decision-making around climate change. The students taking the course come from many different departments across arts and science, and we get to explore key concepts in a small group setting, while developing our communication skills.

As an initial exercise, this year’s cohort of students have written their first posts for the course blog (assignment: write a blog post on any aspect of climate change that interests you). Feel free to comment on their posts, but please keep it constructive – the students get a chance to revise their posts before we grade them (and if you’re curious, here’s the rubric).

Incidentally, for the course this year, I’ve adopted Andrew Dessler’s new book, Introduction to Modern Climate Change as the course text. The book was just published earlier this year, and I must say, it’s by far the best introductory book on climate science that I’ve seen. My students tell me they really like the book (despite the price), as it explains concepts simply and clearly, and they especially like the fact that it covers policy and society issues as well as the science. I really like the discussion in chapter 1 on who to believe, in which the author explains that readers ought to be skeptical of anyone writing on this topic (including himself), and then lays out some suggestions for how to decide who to believe. Oh, and I love the fact that there’s an entire chapter later in the book devoted to the idea of exponential growth.