Cities are places where everything and everyone come together. They join together all walks of life in close proximity. Cities are the hope of the people who come join them. They represent opportunity in the economic sphere in terms of jobs, professional connections, and exchanging ideas. Cities also represent social opportunity related to friends, meeting a potential mate, and having roots that truly ground you to a place. In short, people come to cities for their lives to flourish.
Integrating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary understanding
For people leading the planning, design, and construction of cities on behalf of the people who live in them, it is becoming more frequent that interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary understanding is taken into consideration. Since cities function as interconnected systems, even a system of systems, those who lead urban development are working to understand its complexities. There are three primary ways that groups who lead urban development intentionally integrate this notion – through 1) individuals, 2) teams, and 3) processes. First, as individuals, professionals are becoming more "T-shaped." While they might have a very deep understanding of one specific area, they will also understand a number of other subjects/disciplines well enough to make connections between all of them. Second, on teams, there is an intentional practice of hiring people who fill skill gaps. Examples include bringing a biologist to work on an urban design team, a software developer to better understand planning functions, or a public health professional to clarify health impacts.
Third, progress has been made at integrating the sustainable development “three pillars” concept of economic, environmental, and social into specific processes. Two key examples in the United States are environmental impact assessments and health impact assessments. The former is led by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Pew Charitable Trusts describes the latter as “… a fast-growing field that helps policy makers take advantage of these opportunities by bringing together scientific data, health expertise and public input to identify the potential—and often overlooked—health effects of proposed new laws, regulations, projects and programs.”
Three pillars of sustainable development
The ideas behind the three pillars of sustainable development, economic, environmental, and social, were developing as early as 1987 with the publication of “Our Common Future” by the World Commission on Environment and Development (chaired by the Prime Minister of Norway at the time, Gro Harlem Brundtland). Agreeing on a common definition was, and still is, critical in order for a broad group of international partners to collectively focus their direction. As Bruntland stated, “The ‘environment’ does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles…the ‘environment’ is where we live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.” Many in practice, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), have adopted the three pillars concept. By linking economic, environmental, and social impacts together to understand “development,” even as overlapping as they are, an extremely broad group of specialists and advocates from a variety of nations and cultures were able to see themselves in the work of others for the benefit of society as a whole.
Zooming into the program/project level in the built environment, some of the economic impacts have been easy to understand related to employment opportunity and connectivity, real estate values, return on investment (ROI), etc. Environmental impacts can be understood according to land degradation, water pollution, air pollution, etc. To some extent, for lack of better tools for systems analysis, these can be understood with methods that involve looking only at a few variables at a time. For some social issues, the analysis requires a systems thinking approach even for a basic understanding. In a previous blog post, I drafted one way of thinking about the system of repeated cycles of poverty. While we have made significant inroads over the years on understanding environmental and economic impacts, perhaps the reason why we have not made as much progress on social impacts is due to a lack of structured understanding and tools. Until a more level playing field is created for understanding the tradeoffs between economic, environmental, and social impact in the built environment, the analysis will continue to shift in favor of one or the other, even though professionals might acknowledge the importance of all three working in tandem.
Democratization of data and data science
Making decisions in the complex urban environment is an incredible responsibility. The quality of decision-making is a significant contributing factor to the level of opportunities within a city, and it does influence the lives of the estimated 3.5 billion people living in cities across the world. The democratization of data has made incredible progress in the past several years and continues to do so, but data is only valuable when people know what to do with it. We need what Stephen Wolfram calls a democratization of data science, and for those of us responsible for city decision-making, we need a democratization of urban data science.
While it is true that we have incredibly helpful tools such as Geographic Information Systems (even open source versions) and physical city modeling software to guide decisions, these tools do not allow for a simplified analysis of systems and complex/multi-criteria decision-making nor are they accessible to less technical staff and decision makers. They will allow for a few variables to be analyzed at a time while others are generally understood in context, but they do not allow for a system (or system of systems) analysis that encompasses ten or more factors with intricate relationships between each other as explained in a previous blog post.
While environmental impact assessments and health impact assessments are critical to moving the three pillars forward and integrating our work, they are time intensive and specialist driven. Due to this, they are not able to scale efficiently to reach professionals who work at every scale of urban development. If more tools and processes could be created to make this type of multifaceted analysis less of a commodity, then there would be more high quality decisions to improve the lives of the 3.5 billion people living in cities. We are now in a data rich world in terms of open data, big data, census data, and others, but how do we structure this data effectively toward the most important decisions we make?
Even more than tools and processes, we need people, the kind of people who are “systems leaders.” These are the people who will lead the charge towards integrating data science between silos, disciplines, and subject matter areas for the benefit of those who are most affected by their outputs - the public at large. They understand that high degrees of collaboration are required to achieve results for the public, and they also know that there is a next step in the evolution of how decision-making occurs by working more intentionally as a system.
These could be people at high levels of government who oversee various capital programs and budgets that straddle silos. Perhaps they want spending to become more efficient and tied to more focused results. They could be focused agencies/non-profits that tackle certain problems or work on behalf of one target population, but they also realize that their problem is connected to others. They could be real estate developers calibrating return on investment (ROI) with social and environmental concerns important to them as well as the city approving permitting. They could also be private planning firms that assist all these groups with their decision-making. Each group needs tools/processes to better understand how their own work areas and the work areas of related agencies, companies, and non-profits fit together as larger systems.
While each city has its nuances and local challenges, the framework of economic, environmental, and social applies to all. There are certain qualities of cities that make them effective, because there are certain qualities of life that make living better for people. In the end, we may be more similar than we realize.