Future Earth Initial Urban Research Activities: Request for Participation

Project leads of the Future Earth Initial Urban Research Activities are seeking interested participants to attend a workshop focusing on fine-tuning content and proposal development for the upcoming Belmont Forum Sustainable Urban Global Initiative (SUGI): Food-Water-Energy Nexus call and to explore other funding sources for two projects associated with the Future Earth Livable Urban Futures (LUF) initiative: Urbanization, Food-Energy-Water Nexus Security and ExtreMe HazArd RiSKs (UNMASK) and Alternative Urban Futures within Planetary Boundaries (AUF).

Deadline for Submissions EXTENDED: Wednesday, November 2nd


In 2014, the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC) Project in partnership with the Stockholm Resilience Centre were awarded funding to lead a Future Earth Cluster/Fast Track initiative, Livable Urban Futures. The objective of this initiative has been to ultimately define critical pathway(s) for co-produced interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary urban research within the Future Earth framework.

The design of initial urban research activities is an integral component of the broader framing of how cities and urbanization are addressed within Future Earth. These activities are concrete research actions, which can provide substantive clarity and recognition to its urban agenda. To date, four project ideas have been envisioned and advanced to various stages, largely as a result of workshops held between 2015 and 2016. They have been developed collaboratively by workshop participants with the goal of closing identified gaps in urban and global environmental change research, and in the spirit of Future Earth principles such as global North/South collaboration, co-design and interdisciplinarity.

These initial activities are examples of what Future Earth can pursue in terms of large-scale, integrative global research efforts. They are not intended to be the only ones, but a basis from which additional opportunities can emerge and be included in Future Earth’s diverse urban portfolio[1]. They are:

  • Alternative Urban Futures within Planetary Boundaries (AUF)
  • Dynamic Urban Regions
  • Urbanization and Air Quality
  • Urbanization, Food-Energy-Water Nexus Security and Extreme Hazard Risks (UNMASK)

We encourage and welcome wide participation in these projects so as to be as inclusive as possible of our large, diverse urban research networks. Project leads of UNMASK and AUF are currently seeking to build teams of interested participants from relevant urban communities and stakeholders, regions and disciplines to a) fine-tune the project ideas towards fully-developed proposals; b) identify funding mechanisms and solicit those sources; and, c) actively engage and carry forward the goals and objectives of the projects.

Project Descriptions

Urbanization, Food-Energy-Water Nexus Security and Extreme Hazard Risks (UNMASK)

Project Description
Cities and urbanizing regions are increasing demands for food, water and energy resources that in turn stress resource supplies, creating risks of negative impacts to human and ecological wellbeing. Shifts in climatic conditions, along with extremes such as floods, heat, and droughts, are threatening the sustainable availability of adequate quantities and quality of food, energy and water (FEW) resources needed for resilient cities and ecosystems. Given the interconnected nature of food, energy and water systems, changes in one part of the system will have impacts on the larger systems dynamics, affecting the security of the whole – i.e., FEW nexus security.

We define FEW nexus security as the sustainable availability of adequate quantities and quality of food, energy and water systems for resilient urban populations and communities in the face of uncertain climate change. By so doing, we underscore the importance of equity as part of security and emphasize our focus on resilience. Climate variability and climate change pose risks to the different dimensions of human security. Of particular relevance for FEW are risks to livelihoods and culture.

While urbanization and climate change shape environmental and human risk in numerous ways, governmental and private actors and actor-networks have emerged in many cities to pursue opportunities and options to enhance the security of FEW systems in innovative ways, such as community food and renewable energy initiatives. These emerging innovations represent a potentially effective avenue for responding to FEW security concerns. Research is, however, needed to better understand the nature, dynamics and interactions between knowledge, actions and outcomes in the enhancement of FEW nexus security in different urban and regional settings, including: megacities, smaller rapidly growing cities and peri-urban areas both in the global North and South. This is particularly important because FEW systems, including their supply chains and supporting infrastructures, have dynamic multi-scale linkages with implications for FEW nexus security in cities and urban metropolitan regions. However, we lack interdisciplinary and co-produced studies that examine the interdependencies of actions and actor networks in urban areas as well as urbanization processes shaping food-energy-water nexus security in the face of changing climate and development conditions. New research in this area offers both untapped analytical potential (research of FEW security) and opportunities for mobilizing capacity to advance the emergence of structural transformations to achieve improved and integrated security across the urban FEW nexus (actions for FEW security).

We will apply transdisciplinary and co-production processes to investigate the dynamic interactions of urbanization, the FEW nexus and extreme hazard risks, with the overarching research questions: Do existing and emerging actions intended to enhance populations’ food, water and energy security have the capacity to ensure FEW nexus security in the face of changing climate and urban development conditions? Can we identify a common set of social, ecological and technological conditions across a diversity of urban regions that support the emergence of innovations that can lead to structural transformations for enhanced FEW nexus security?

UNMASK has four modules: Module 1 (M1) analyses the social and environmental conditions of FEW security for urban populations and its drivers. M2 examines the actions and actors involved, the framing of FEW security issues, and the sources of mobilization, legitimation, domination and signification of knowledge and action. M3 researches how actions and conditions shape outcomes and dynamics of FEW security. M4 is an integrative module that will use participatory approaches to explore the interactions between knowledge, actions and outcomes seeking to enhance FEW nexus security and social learning. Developing UNMASK’s modules will require participants with expertise in urban ecology, climate and hydrology, urban studies, sociology, geography and social sciences, and participatory approaches to knowledge co-production.

Alternative Urban Futures within Planetary Boundaries (AUF)

Project Description
In a rapidly urbanizing world, the need to advance urban sustainability is now at the forefront of international, national and regional/city policy and planning efforts.  There is now broad acknowledgement of the breadth and depth of the challenges facing the world’s cities and metropolitan regions – e.g., climate change impacts, disaster risks, resource depletion, land conversion and ecosystem degradation, poverty, informal settlements, lack of basic services, and growing inequality. Despite this attention, efforts to date have largely been top-down (often led by central governments with little or no substantive role for citizens), have not been visionary or transformational, and have largely been ineffective (e.g., environmental and social conditions have been worsening in most cities, especially those in rapidly urbanizing developing countries).

The Alternative Urban Futures within Planetary Boundaries project seeks to overcome these shortcomings of past sustainability/urban planning efforts by employing a new approach – one that utilizes transdisciplinary and co-production processes to create scenarios of alternative urban futures.[2] While scenarios have been employed in a number of urban sustainability planning efforts, rarely have these been co-produced. Similarly, co-production methods have been employed in a variety of contexts (e.g., medical and agricultural research), but not in the context of exploring alternative long-range urban futures. Whereas transdisciplinarity, co-production and scenario planning are often regarded merely as research tools/methods, and therefore amenable to deployment in diverse contexts and perspectives, each embodies a series of assumptions. When used in combination, however, these methods need careful alignment and their underlying assumptions fully transparent, particularly in relation to normative values.

By explicitly building on local knowledge of stakeholders, collaboration in the co-production of urban scenarios will better reflect the local cultural, economic, and natural conditions. And the use of scenarios will help address the complexity and uncertainty in contemplating alternative urban futures.  Together, this approach will explore the potential for transformative change and lead to new forms of learning and problem-solving actions by different parts of society and academia.

This research is driven by a set of practical questions, to be answered in a co-produced manner by academics, government, civil society organizations and members of the public. These include: Does the combination of approaches go beyond what is possible with either scenario/co-production alone?; How do the processes of co-producing scenarios unfold in different urban contexts?; What kinds of futures are people creating; what futures do they want (and what are their priorities)?; What tradeoffs (e.g., economic, social, environmental) do participants make and why; and how do they vary across and within cities?; As a result of their experiences in the project, do participants’ views of sustainability change?; Have the results of the scenario development process been taken up by local decision-makers or affected other planning processes? Is there any interest on the part of the partner organization(s) to institutionalize these processes?; Is this approach scalable and how can the co-production of alternative urban future scenarios be used to advance sustainable urbanization more broadly?

Application Instructions

Selected participants will be invited to join a small workshop to develop a funding proposal(s) for UNMASK and AUF.  This may take a programmatic approach resulting in one proposal or could develop into separate ones. Those selected will be fully funded for the duration of the workshop including lodging, travel and meals. The workshop will tentatively take place between January 9-13, 2017 and potentially in London, UK; Boston, MA, USA; or New York City, USA. Exact dates and location will be determined once participants are selected.

We seek applicants who have a strong commitment to working on assignments that will emerge at the end of the workshop until completion of the proposal (ca. 2-3 months). UNMASK seeks participants with expertise in urban ecology, climate and hydrology, urban studies, sociology, geography and social sciences, and participatory approaches to knowledge co-production. AUF seeks participants with background in social sciences and humanities and an expertise in urban planning, urban studies, scenario backcasting, participatory/co-production approaches, governance of sustainability transitions, and urban resilience.

Interested parties are asked to:

  • Prepare a brief statement (no more than one page) describing the nature of your interest. This must include the relevant expertise and qualities you possess, the project (UNMASK, AUF or potentially both) of interest, and the proposal development components to which you can specifically contribute.
  • CV (no more than 2 pages)

Successful applicants will be able to communicate a clear interest in the objectives outlined in this request for participation; demonstrate that their experience and disciplinary expertize best fits the needs of the project of interest; and clearly show how their participation will provide a substantial contribution. Regional and gender diversity is desirable and will be factors for consideration during the review process.

Please email the requested materials to Mark Watkins, UGEC Project Coordinator:  mark.watkins@asu.edu

Deadline for submission is Friday, October 28. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by mid-November. If not selected specifically for this opportunity of the workshop there will be future opportunities for wider participation in the projects.

[1]   Note: Although a sponsor of the Livable Urban Futures initiative, Future Earth is not in a position to support these projects financially, hence, funding sources must be identified by participants.

[2] There are many definitions for scenarios and for co-production. In the context of this project, Scenarios are stories about how the future might unfold (acknowledging deep uncertainties and the importance of human choices not yet made) that help us imagine what could be. They can stimulate our imagination, alert us to potential dangers, and inspire corrective action. Co-production refers to an interactive and participatory approach to knowledge production in which researchers collaborate with various stakeholders in government, business, international organizations, and civil society throughout the entire research process.