Expertise and approach
The successful transition toward sustainable cities requires radical changes in the ways we design, build, operate, finance, govern and use our infrastructures.
Infrastructures and the systems
Infrastructures provide crucial services to society, such as transport, energy, drinking water provision, waste-water removal and purification, waste disposal, and communication. With an urgent need for transformations of current systems towards realising sustainable societies, the long standing and often invisible infrastructures also demand structural improvements. However, looking at the long lifetimes and rigidity in the systems, these infrastructural services are slow to change, contributing to the overall inertia, demanding more fundamental changes.
Infrastructures are generally referred to as stand-alone physical components, such as power plants, waste-water processing plants, servers in ICT networks, powerlines, gas pipelines etc. However, they are a combination of not only the physical components but also the organisational and institutional structures that provide the function together. These often invisible systems comprise of the actors, technology, regulative frameworks, an market structures that support the delivery of the infrastructural services. These systems are also referred to as infrasystems, which are considered as socio-technological systems mostly characterised by multi-actor (social) network complexity (Loorbach, Frantzeskaki, & Thissen, 2010).
Researcher: Dr Martijn van den Hurk
How do you bring actors together around one or more imagined futures, enabling them to come to share particular orientations for action? In their 2018 article in Energy Research and Social Science, Maarten Hajer and Peter Pelzer disentangle the concept of ‘futuring’. They advocate its use in regard to one of the boldest challenges that we are facing today: the climate crisis and the urgent need to shift from a fossil fuel-based society, through an energy transition, to a post-fossil world.
In this research, Martijn van den Hurk zeroes in on futuring, seeks to tie the concept together with empirical questions on transforming infrastructures for sustainable cities, and applies a theoretical-analytical lens that includes contracts. Arrangements for infrastructure development and operation, and for city building in general, are often built on contractual agreements between public sector clients and private sector contractors. Contracts have remained unknown territory in scholarship on futuring, though. Martijn finds this striking, particularly because contracts have a great potential to build new avenues of thinking about the future. Making contracts is all about making present decisions about future aspects of relationships, and so it arguably is a ‘technique of futuring’. It can mobilise futures by visualising, collectivising, and—probably more than any other technique—institutionalising imaginaries of transitions and sustainability.
However, to what extent does making and operating contracts actually deliver on its transformative potential? How do the designing of contracts and the resultant contractual arrangements incorporate and shape particular expectations about the future? And how can contracts - and how they are used - be imbued with the adaptability and anticipation we need toward building cities and communities for the future? Martijn builds an understanding of these questions by conducting in-depth empirical research of selected cases in Dutch cities and Toronto, Canada.
Within the frame of the hub Martijn is currently exploring a future mobility platform in collaboration with the City of Utrecht. In the summer of 2019 he collected and interpreted stakeholders’ perspectives on the future of Overvecht, a Utrecht neighbourhood that has been a assigned a pioneering role in the energy transition. Earlier in 2019 he reconstructed the Regent Park Revitalization, a critically acclaimed, but also controversial demolition-and-build project near downtown Toronto. In each analysis Martijn focuses particularly on the nitty-gritty of financial-institutional arrangements, public-private partnerships, tenders, and contracts. The starting point of his research is generally that, despite their potential, contracts tend to hinder urban, infrastructure, and energy transitions—whereas they could, and probably should, be front and center in making the bold steps that are required.
Researcher: Dr Gabi Schliwa
Urban co-design emerges today as a mode of governing cities. Design in the city has been traditionally associated with the creation of objects or urban form by expert designers. Nowadays, urban co-design is understood as a knowledge culture that facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration in response to perceived needs or problems. Since the 2008 financial crisis, design approaches intended for creative problem-solving and user-centred innovation in the context of business management proliferated far beyond the private sector. Public policy and urban governance actors nowadays mobilise ’design’-led approaches and use the prefix ‘co-’ to emphasise the inclusion of actors or knowledges that were previously not included in the process. This constitutes a new form of urban politics-based design knowledge.
Concerned with the long-term sustainability of emerging co-design practices, this research by Gabi Schliwa investigates the roles as well as the limitations of current urban co-design practices to transform digital infrastructures in a sustainable way. It will do so in two ways: First, this research will lay the conceptual groundwork by advancing practical and theoretical understandings of co-design in relation to socio-technical infrastructure development. Second, this research investigates ‘reflective co-design’ as a transformative technique in the context of digital transformation. The research explores in particular 5G network and application co-design in two metropolitan areas that are the seats of national government: the Rotterdam/The Hague metropolitan area in the Netherlands as well as the Berlin/Brandenburg Metropolitan Region in Germany. The outcomes of this study will enhance understandings of urban co-design as knowledge politics and thereby build decision-making capacity for infrastructural transformations in the case study cities and beyond.
Researcher: Dr Jonas Torrens
In contemporary discussions about urban sustainability, climate, and digitalisation, it is increasingly evident that urban infrastructures are expected to undergo widespread and substantial transformations. Cities around the globe have been attempting to foster innovative responses to challenges that are uncertain and ambiguous, and are increasingly reliant on urban experimentation as a crucial transformative practice for enabling transitions towards sustainability.
The sustainability transitions literature has focused on the potential for scaling up or generalising the outcomes of specific experiments or experimental settings such as urban living labs. Another strand has explored the potential for a new breed of ‘experimentalist governance’ capable of mobilising experiments on an ongoing basis to navigate challenges and continually reconfigure existing infrastructures in ‘radically incremental’ ways. However, the first wave of experimentation has revealed severe limitations due to the increased ‘projectification’ and fragmentation induced by the proliferation of small-scale and time-limited experiments.
In this research, Jonas Torrens examines current efforts to institutionalise experimental governance, to learn about the underlying strategies and rationales that guide its development. This includes three elements:
- a critical assessment of how portfolios and ecologies for experiments are being used to redress projectification
- in-depth case studies of strategies for embedding or institutionalising experimentation in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Toronto
- a survey of the dilemmas, contradictions and tensions that proponents of innovations encounter when they are pressured to institutionalise.
This research aims to contribute empirically-grounded insights to the current debates about the avenues for increasing the transformative potential of experimentation.
Researcher: Dr Shaun Smith
Understanding the relationship between resources such as water, energy, and food is crucially important for sustainable development. Traditionally, such resources have been managed separately: by distinct ’siloed’ policies and actors. While innovations in such silos can indeed bring about more sustainable practices, it is increasingly recognised that to tackle complex environmental problems such as global climate change, and to increase the resilience of urban areas, approaches are needed that transcend individual silos and work across multiple societal sectors, actors, and resources.
Thus, governments, cities and infrastructure actors are increasingly being asked to think about and manage sustainability transitions beyond previously separated domains. A ‘domain’ here can be understood as the distinct set of policies, expertise, financing, social/political interests, territorial boundaries, and physical infrastructures that surround a particular resource or service. Such factors often mean that silos are difficult to break down, and moreover, that such domains exert their own ‘pull’ on sustainability pathways. Understanding the nature of such domains, and the challenges they face in moving towards sustainability, is therefore crucially important.
While such challenges exist, many cities are already experimenting with and implementing innovative new cross-domain infrastructure governance arrangements. These include ‘nexusing’ policies, whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches, collaborative governance arrangements, whole resource policies (e.g. ‘One Water Los Angeles’), and circular city initiatives. It is also important therefore to understand and assess the experiences of such arrangements, particularly in terms of whether they increase the prospects for more sustainable management of services and effective use of governance capacity. This research by Shaun Smith is therefore concerned with examining cross-domain infrastructure governance in two cities, Los Angeles and Maputo, to understand the experiences and challenges of working across such domains in different contexts.
Researcher: Dr Mansi Jain
This research project by Mansi Jain focuses on developing frameworks to assess transformative change processes in infrastructural domains. The research builds upon the theories of urban transitions, governance, and innovations to develop analytical frameworks that can monitor and evaluate urban transformations particularly from infrastructural lenses, such as energy, water, waste, mobility. These socio-technical systems need to be studied and tackled as one of the vantage points of urban transitions towards sustainable cities. The research is being conducted within the context of redevelopment of urban areas as key sites to study such transformations, with ‘healthy city’ as a key sustainability indicator . It asks what actions and structure may be required to overcome the existing weaknesses and foster available strengths for shifting towards a more transformative approach for a healthy and a sustainable city.
The focus of this project is on Utrecht, the Netherlands, and New Delhi, India. In Utrecht, the redevelopment of the Cartesiusdriehoek district is inspired by the ambition to create a neighborhood where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. The area is set to become the healthiest, well-connected to public transport and bicycle-friendly neighbourhood in the Netherlands. Thus, this project is highly interesting to investigate from the perspective of infrastructure and frameworks to assess the pathways for a healthy neighbourhood. Similarly, in New Delhi, East Kidwai Nagar is identified as a redevelopment project proposed as the most sustainable neighbourhood development with special focus on zero energy, zero waste, and zero water principles. Studying these two cases will not only enhance knowledge on how urban transformations take place in diverse contextual settings, geography and economy, but also how these process can be assessed.