Urban metabolism: Collaboration uses big data to look at health of cities through food, water, and energy systems

September 19, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – The health and sustainability of cities depends, in part, on how well a city manages its food, energy, and water systems. But the flow of those key resources within a city is marked by complex interactions between these systems. Making changes or improvements to one system may cause issues for another.

Rapid population growth in the world’s urban centers calls for a greater understanding of these complex interrelationships between the systems, also known as the food-energy-water nexus (FEW).

The National Science Foundation recently announced $750,000 in funding for a project led by Luis Rodriguez, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois, to find data-driven solutions to challenges associated with the FEW nexus.

Co-principal investigators on the project include Yanfeng Ouyang, George Krambles Endowed Professor in Rail and Public Transit in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at U of I, and Shaowen Wang, professor of geography and geographic information science at U of I and founding director of the CyberGIS Center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies, which hosts the project to promote transdisciplinary research and education. 

“Using this food-energy-water-based approach to analyze urban challenges, we would make the case that food, energy, and water are effectively the key resources flowing into any given city that drive the metabolism of that city. We’re hoping to use that as a perspective to gauge and measure the health of that city or the quality of its metabolism,” Rodriguez says.

The project, entitled, “Intelligent Urban Metabolic Systems for Green Cities of Tomorrow: An FWE Nexus-based Approach,” brings together research and expertise from across the globe to find solutions to food-energy-water-nexus challenges. The NSF funds will be used to support U.S. participants, working with partners at Taiwan’s National Taiwan University, Japan’s Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, and Brazil’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, under the Belmont Forum, an international partnership that mobilizes funding for environmental change research. Participants from other countries are funded through their national funding organizations.

The project brings together natural scientists, social scientists, and research users (e.g., civil society, NGOs, and industry) to identify the key factors driving our urban metabolism, understand the complex interactions from the FEW-nexus perspective, and improve the cost-effectiveness of FEW consumption.

“We see an opportunity to improve those supply chains, especially because we recognize that they are intertwined with one another. We have a basic hypothesis that there are residues generated—wastes—from all three of those supply chains, and that inherently presents the opportunity to improve their efficiency.

“We want to analyze the residues generated in these systems and see how we can optimize the systems to begin to reduce the loss of those residues, and see how they can be redeployed elsewhere. And in doing so, begin to assess the urban health of these different cities.”

To achieve this, the project will identify critical FEW-nexus factors and define pathways of food-energy-water delivery to urban centers using advanced tools such as artificial intelligence, cyberGIS, data mining, system dynamics modelling, agro-logistics, network control and optimization, and scenario analysis. By understanding the intertwined nature of food, energy, and water in terms of production, processing, delivery, consumption, and disposal, the researchers hope to inform the development of intelligent urban metabolic systems for cities, as well as strategies to manage the FEW nexus in the light of future global urbanization.

“We want to study these systems from a perspective of a number of different types of cities. Many cities are stressed from things like urban migration. Cities like Chicago, Kyoto, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Taipei are growing rapidly. Other places are stressed from natural disasters, with the frequency and intensity of such disasters varying by geography. Our aim is to learn what would be some of the hallmarks of truly resilient cities in all of those scenarios.”

The project team plans to harness rich data for improving the current understanding of food-energy-water flows into various cities and then innovating optimization tools to redesign and manage these cities to avoid waste and predict urban health.  

This effort is inherently transdisciplinary, thus the project will also meet its education goals by supporting the INFEWS-ER, a virtual environment that provides a transdisciplinary experience for students interested in solving problems related to the FEW-nexus to engage in research.


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