Cities are places were science is produced. They also need new scientific knowledge to improve.
The fifth entry point for Sustainable Development in the report The Future is Now is Urban and peri-urban development.
The first remarkable point for scientists about urban environment is that most of them work and produce knowledge there. You need ressources and colleagues to do science, and it is not a good idea to always stay away from some concentration. Also it is a vertuous move when companies build their research and development centers not far from universities: it generally produces good science (partly because of more funding), and good technology (often because of the good basic science they can tap).
Cities are hubs of innovation and creativity, with their concentration of universities and research institutions, large commercial centres, infrastructure and multiple outlets for social and cultural exchange. The trends are self-reinforcing, as highly educated individuals from rural and suburban areas are drawn to relocate to wellresourced cities, seeking professional opportunities and social and cultural enrichment. Recent studies have found that multinational corporations are investing the bulk of their research and development funds in institutions based in global cities in developed and developing countries and establishing their regional headquarters in those same urban areas.
The authors of the report come then to a major transformation in many urban areas in the world (but not in all): the rise of digital communications, and the possibilities to work remotely. The lockdown that a lot of governements and local authorities imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic gave many city dwellers a taste of what it is to work from home. Most of them were able to see that infrastructures and organizations were not really well prepared for that. Here too, some basic sciences could help.
In developed and developing countries, technology is changing the way people live, with communication and digital connectivity making it possible for people work and interact online without leaving their homes. Commerce in particular has been transformed, and online shopping for everything from groceries to medical prescriptions will continue to grow in a steep upward trend in all regions in the world, according to a recent study, with most of the growth occurring in densely populated urban areas.
Policymakers and other stakeholders need to plan in a nimble and responsive way to take full advantage of the role that technology will play in the development of sustainable cities. In some cases, that means acknowledging that some of the value added of cities – the economies of scale in providing services – will become less significant as technology enables remote and virtual service provision.
Also, science is already helping to build better cities. We mainly see the technologies that are based on it, but physics, chemistry, biology, cristallography, mathematics and so many other fields are required for these technologies to really work and be convenient.
Smart cities, where technology is leveraged to improve the lives of urban citizens and help municipal governments provide services more effectively, are growing in all regions of the world. With access to a wealth of data, city planners and policymakers can cut down on traffic congestion and accidents, increase nature-based solutions to adapt for climate change, address pollution and other health and safety risks, reduce CO2 emissions, take into account the logistical needs of a circular economy and design commercial areas that better meet the needs of consumers and business owners.
Science of cities
Finally, as they call elsewhere for the development of a “science of sustainability”, the authors of the report call for a “science of the cities”. In the history of science, many basic fields have emerged from the need to solve very concrete problems (think only about how the need to draw fields limits after every yearly flood of the Nile helped to the emergence of geometry in Egypt; other examples welcome in the commentaries). Complex issues related to cities improvement won’t be solved only by already existing technologies or even by applied science. They will need the development of new basic knowledge.
In addition to the science and innovation emerging from cities, effective urban development also benefits from a robust and comprehensive science about cities. Cities can learn from each other, and it is important that local and national governments, universities, research institutions, civil society organizations and businesses support a strengthened transdisciplinary, multifaceted urban science.
The “science of cities” can be bolstered by investing in education and training of well-qualified urban planners and other professionals ready to address the multiple challenges of urbanization. An expert panel convened by Nature Sustainability found that cities of all sizes and locations would benefit from enhanced science-policy connections at the city level that bring together experts from all relevant disciplines. The panel called for cross-regional collaboration, the development of urban observatories, and a strengthened link between multilateral organizations and cities.