Reflections on the first Actionable Science for Urban Sustainability (un)conference 2020

The first Actionable Science for Urban Sustainability (un)conference tipped the conference concept on its head, putting discussion and action at the forefront of urban sustainability science. The (un)conference experiment, organized by a group of researchers based in Asia, North America, Europe and Africa, who met as part of the Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS) section of the International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) and hosted in close collaboration with Metabolism of Cities, was held entirely online and hosted 56 participants from across the world through 13 time zones. It was inspiring to spend several days with more than 50 dynamic scientists, academics, students and real world practitioners examining how we approach urban sustainability, how we try to embed sustainability in our cities and how this relates to the broader communities to which we belong.

The conference had many high points, including a starting keynote address from Jessica Seddon, former Director of Integrated Urban Strategy at the World Resource Institute, and a final keynote on the last day of proceedings from Paul Zimmerman, Councillor for the Southern District in Hong Kong and CEO of Designing Hong Kong. Drawing on insights from economics, sociology, and behavioural science to create a narrative around actionable science, Jessica’s address focused on creating broader ideas using new concepts and metrics that can radically change the way we approach sustainability in cities. In a fitting start to the final day of proceedings Paul ZImmerman offered perspective on practical experiences of implementing interventions in Hong Kong, and how challenging it can be to pose consideration from the public on matters of waste, walkability and conservation in a dense and fast-paced urban hub. Perhaps most important, however, was what the participants produced in their small group discussions: a rich set of joint experiences, resources and approaches that can serve as an endearing roadmap for all of us to follow as we approach greater actionable science led interventions in cities.

Putting the traditional practicalities of presentations and presentation introductions in a spectacular gallery of videos the discussions were put at center stage, maximising the engagement and cross-pollination of ideas and approaches. Enabling viewing presentations and presenters through their self-introduction videos, as well as pre-conference meeting activities, enabled participants to get to know each other better and promoted more in-depth discussions during the sessions. The simultaneous use of various communication means including video, text chat, online shared documents ensured that each participant could provide inputs without feeling restricted by the time schedule.Making use of the WoW Room, developed, and kindly made available, by the IE Business School, participants had the opportunity to talk face to face and make use of the interactive digital learning environment creating and engaging and stimulating space for discussions. While attempting to create an engaging visual platform, the WoW Room had some limitations and there were the all too familiar sensations of “we can’t hear you” - “I can’t see you” that accompanies most virtual meeting platforms. Putting the platform through its paces, this experiment demonstrated that there is room for improvement and flexibility in creating functioning break out rooms and ensuring universal ease of access and troubleshooting. Technical difficulties aside, sessions ranged in topics that span the multifaceted nature of sustainability in cities, from urban governance, data portals, smart cities to urban waste, circular economies, participatory governance and future cities. With the discussion outputs being informative, engaging and constructive the most notable engagements were those recognising commonality across multiple disciplines and countries and collaborating around these topics. All the insights from these sessions will now be written up into an actionable document or white paper for online publication by the organisers.

Bolstering this engagement were the digital cocktail bars, where participants could talk and engage beyond the sessions, creating a hive of energy and optimism to relegate this “experiment” into a regular affair. With plans to release the Action documents from the sessions in the next few months, the AscUS community looks forward to continuing the conversation in 2021.