Introducing the Connected Cities Lab

By Sophie Hill

The connected cities lab is a new centre based within the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Launched in January 2019, the lab seeks to tackle the more-than-local issues which underpin urban governance in an increasingly urbanised world, focusing on the international dimension of cities and city leadership. Connected Cities Lab director Michele Acuto shares his insights into how the lab came into being and the research focus heading into the future.

What led to the development of the Connected Cities Lab?

Increasingly, any work or research into cities in this day and age really needs to be done in an international context. Many challenges facing our cities these days are very much inter-connected with the global community.

What happens in Melbourne is often determined by what happens in any other major city. For example, Melbourne is currently experiencing a recycling crisis. This has come about partly due to a decision by the Chinese government to impose a ban on the importation of some of Australia’s recyclables, but international politics is only one component.

The crisis is also the result of the global political economy of resources and materials, and the fact that Australia itself has poor recycling infrastructure in general, which in turn is also affected by the fact that Mexico produces glass in a way that’s cheaper than what it costs to recycle it here.

The Connected Cities Lab is trying to develop a centre of expertise on these kinds of globally-oriented conversations and considerations. That is, thinking of cities internationally, not just as individual places existing in their own space.

The University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and the Faculty, who supported the establishment of the Lab, wanted to facilitate research that explored cities in an international context, and contributed dynamically to global discussion and research.

How do cities shape the way we live and how does the lab begin to address the issues faced by cities?

There has been a growing interest in the rapid urbanisation of the world. More and more people are living in cities and there has been a realisation that many of the problems the world is facing, like climate change, resilience and health equality, are fundamentally shaped by cities, given that cities account for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 60% of the global consumption of energy, but also nearly 80% of the world’s GDP.

Over the last few years, this attention to cities and their significance in shaping a sustainable future has been formalised through many major global agendas, like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the establishment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, but also the steep rise in formalised international city collaborations, or ‘ city networks’.

The Lab is following on from these agendas to put the spotlight on the global role of cities.

The main spirit of the Connected Cities Lab is to broaden the mindset of people that work in or on cities and expose them to a more globally-oriented approach to thinking about urban issues and solutions.

We want to go further than finding best practices. We want to explore different contexts where similar problems have occurred, and facilitate an understanding that for people living in an urban age, the urban condition in, for example, Melbourne is not unique.

Great solutions to our current local challenges also do not always come from London and the ‘West’; many cities in the Global South having much to teach us about urbanization. There are other cities that will be facing similar or different challenges and we need to recognise that it’s worth working with them rather than in parallel to them.

What research is currently being produced by the Lab?

The Connected Cities Lab is set up so that almost all the research projects involve partnerships with other institutions, for example, with local governments, with the private sector or with other universities. The purpose of the Connected Cities Lab is not to be a purely academic research centre, it is to be a dynamic, globally focused centre of expertise. We consciously chose to start the Lab with actual projects which are actively doing things, rather than with just a statement of principal.

The Lab’s research is also set to support, as a hub for ‘urban governance’ in partnership with the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General, the Local 2030 program, which is a global multi-stakeholder initiative to support the local-level implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations. In this sense we are aiming to support international research and capacity building on city leadership that can make tangible difference at the street level. Partnering with relevant multilateral institutions is an important factor in realising this.

For example, our “Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality” (KNOW) program, sponsored by the UK Department for International Development and in partnership with University College London, is working with urban experts and local government in Cuba, Sierra Leone, Peru and Southeast Asia to think of the ways research-practice connections can contribute to more equal cities.

Similarly, we have recently led an international expert panel endorsed by Nature Sustainability on “Science and the Future of Cities” looking at the ways urban research can shape how we tackle pressing challenges for cities. Gathering 30 of the world’s best minds on urban research across many disciplines, from art and history to engineering and planning, the expert panel has advocated for the development of a more ‘global’ urban science and establishment of scientific advice for cities.

We have seven ongoing projects underway at the moment, four PhD researchers and a total of 13 staff making up the core lab team, with collaborations across the faculty and internationally. We were very specific about being called a “lab” as we strive to incubate projects where we can experiment with international thinking about cities.

The general ethos of all the projects is to aim to produce globally relevant evidence which does not only apply to one specific place but can give you a sense of the global landscape of international urban issues. Instead of studying one city network we look at what it means to be a network, a city connected to other cities.

You are technically trained in international politics and international law. How did you become involved in working in the realm of urbanity and cities?

I became interested in cities because I was working with the European Commission in the aftermath of what was the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic flu, just before the period of the H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009.

To understand why SARS became a global phenomenon, you really had to understand how cities were connected to each other.

Figuratively speaking, a new virus develops in the outskirts of China. Someone catches that virus and travels to Hong Kong and becomes sick whilst staying at their hotel. There are other people in that hotel who pick up the virus, and travel on from Hong Kong to Toronto, to Singapore, to London or any other city. All of a sudden, hospitals need to be shut down or contained in Singapore and all of a sudden, the media is reporting grim images of apocalyptic pandemics.

I realised that it was important to find new ways of thinking about cities as more than stand-alone entities.