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Future Earth launches a global network for urban research

In this post, Xuemei Bai, a member of the Future Earth Science Committee, introduces the Future Earth Urban Knowledge-Action Network. She is also participating in a launch event for this network on Tuesday as part of the Habitat X Change exhibit and event space for the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador.

To read about Knowledge-Action Networks more generally, read this previous blog post.

By 2050, close to 6.5 billion people could live in cities, according to estimates from the United Nations. More urban areas will be built in the next 30 years, and if we are to accommodate all of these new urban dwellers in new cities, the world will need to add more than 70 cities of a million people each and every year.

Urbanisation is much more than demographic movement. It is one of the biggest social transformations in human history, with all of sustainability challenges and opportunities that entails. The reality, of course, is much more complex and messy than building 70 brand new cities per year. Many of these new populations will be accommodated by the expansion of existing cities – with many people living in small to medium sized cities and many in urban fringes and in slums. Today, many cities already face severe air and water pollution with devastating outcomes for human health. Cities are also responsible for the majority of the global demand for resources and existing environmental impacts – cities are already contributing about 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions, for example.

In other words, the road ahead may be hard: To handle a growing urban population, we must make a vast investment in old and new infrastructure; prevent the environmental impacts of cities from exceeding planetary boundaries; and we need to build cities that can withstand current and future risks, such as those associated with climate change.

Cities are also centres of innovation – sites of technological but, perhaps more importantly, social and cultural innovations. Cities are exploring and experimenting with different ways of growing sustainably, which are shared with and multiplied by other cities. Eco-cities, low-carbon cities, smart cities and sponge cities are just some examples. Many of these urban sustainability experiments have the potential to significantly alter the current trajectories of the planet toward a more sustainable end.

Taken together, cities are playing an increasingly important role in global sustainability, via multiple social, economic and biophysical processes across all spatial and temporal scales and aggregated effects of actions taken by individual cities. In short, what and how we do in cities will determine not only the future of cities and urban dwellers, but the future of humanity. This means that urban issues can no longer be left solely in the hands of urban managers and practitioners, such as urban planners and architects, alone.

The science and research community has a vital role to play in finding solutions to the challenges of planetary-scale urbanisation. There are many disciplinary approaches towards understanding cities, including ecology, sociology, geography, environmental sciences, planning, governance and management. Yet much more interdisciplinary, integrative and transdisciplinary approaches are needed if we are to provide real world solutions. Increasingly, we are realising that cities are complex systems governed by multiple processes and interactions and are responding to policy and management interventions with uncertainties and emerging behaviour. We need much better understanding on what drives urban expansion and how the multiple process underlying urban systems interact. And we need to understand where are the potential leverages that can help us to guide urbanisation and cities towards sustainability.

We need to do so in much closer and new mode of collaboration between science and urban practitioners and stakeholders, such as municipal governments and agencies and local non-profit organisations. As Debra Roberts, a member of the Future Earth Engagement Committee, rightly pointed out in a recent interview, the time for science and cities to work together is now. Many decision-makers and practitioners view urban research as inaccessible and not well catered to their real and specific needs. On the other hand, urban research communities feel their voices are not heard or taken seriously in in local, national and global policy forums and processes.

Future Earth, a global research initiative for sustainability, will launch the Urban Knowledge-Action Network this week at the United Nations Habitat III Conference, a summit on the future and sustainable development of cities. The Knowledge-Action Networks are the primary research platforms of Future Earth, and the Urban Knowledge-Action Network is one of the first of these efforts to emerge. It aims to provide a global platform for more integrative and transdisciplinary urban science and engagement, in which researchers work with urban policy makers, practitioners and communities around the world. The goal is to meet the challenges facing urban areas and maximise the opportunities provided by the global transformations to an urban planet.

How would the Urban Knowledge-Action Network be different from the many existing networks, or from traditional global change research programmes? First, the Urban Knowledge-Action Network is a research and engagement platform that will bring together researchers from many disciplines and a wide array of knowledge that had, until recently, been put into siloes. And it seeks to bring together policy-makers at local, national and international levels and a wide range of urban practitioners.

Second, it is a research platform aiming to co-design relevant research questions with society and co-produce cutting-edge as well as actionable knowledge. The network will work to collaboratively implement solutions to achieve more sustainable urban development pathways.

Third, the Knowledge-Action Network will be much more nimble in responding to arising societal needs and will drive long-term research projects, as well as short-term working groups and taskforces that can provide timely knowledge on important urban research topics. Collectively, the Urban Knowledge-Action Network will strive to become the key source of knowledge to support the implementation of important urban goals, such as those captured in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda.

To fulfil its ambition and make a true impact, the Urban Knowledge-Action Network will build on the successes of past global change programmes and current Future Earth communities but will also reach out to much broader research and other communities. As the Urban Knowledge-Action Network works to develop its strategy over the next couple of months, the time to get involved and have your say is now.

To learn more about or find out how to get involved in the Urban Knowledge-Action Network, contact us at You can also join the Future Earth Open Network, a new online platform for collaborating on research for global sustainability. We’ll be bringing you coverage of discussions and more from Habitat III, so check in throughout the week to keep up with this important moment for sustainable urban development.


Xuemei Bai is a Professor of Urban Environment and Human Ecology at the Australian National University. She is also a member of the Future Earth Science Committee.




Further reading:

McPhearson, T., S. Parnell, D. Simon, O. Gaffney, T. Elmqvist, X. Bai, D. Roberts, A. Revi. 2016. Scientists must have a say in the future of cities. Nature, 538: 165-166.

Bai, X., P. Shi, Y. Liu. 2014. Realizing China’s urban dream. Nature, 509: 158-160.

Grimm NB, Faeth SH, Golubiewski NE, Redman CL, Wu JG, Bai XM & Briggs JM, 2008. Global change and the ecology of cities. Science 319: 756-760.