Future Cities – Part 4: Research at the University of Leeds

In this final part of the series looking at the Future Cities Conference hosted by Leeds Social Sciences Institute, we will cover the University of Leeds research showcased

iBuild: Infrastructure Business Models, Valuation and Innovation for Local Delivery

iBuild attempts to investigate new business models for infrastructure business models at local and urban scales. Its focuses are:

Reducing the cost of infrastructure delivery through understanding the interdependencies between physical, social and financial systems
Rethinking the way infrastructure is valued in terms of social, environmental and economic opportunities
Reconciling scale priorities between local, regional and national needs

It is then intended to test the new approaches to infrastructure financing developed on case studies.

The aim is to change how city infrastructure is procured and update some of the valuations used by the Treasury

Future Cities – Big Data

This presentation focused on the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, which is a partnership between the Medical Research Council and the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre.

Three examples were given to show the use of Big Data in a Leeds context

Combining geodemographic classifications and spatial microsimulation, local variations in obesity can be identified which can be used to target weight loss interventions in areas with the highest obesity
Using mobility profiling data, we can better understand full journeys on public transport, which can be used to improve service planning and target incentives for sustainable travel
Spatio-temporal clustering can be used to understand footfall volume, which can be used to quantify the number of potential crime victims in an area and target police resource

FESSUD: Financialisation, Economy, Society and Sustainable Development

FESSUD aims to forge alliances across the social sciences, working on interdisciplinary economics to understand how finance can serve economic, social and environmental needs. The project’s work packages are connected to the recent financial crisis, and the impact of the (UK) Government’s Localism Agenda on cities.

Among the topics under study are the spatial and temporal variegation of economic processes such as financialisation, and assessing the economic and financial models that underpin business cases.

The Economics of Low Carbon, Climate Resilient Cities

This project attempts to forecast energy demand and emissions profiles in a number of cities around the world, and is already well known locally for the “mini Stern Review” for Leeds City Region which was published in late 2011.

As with the Leeds City Region report, the aims are to identify the current and future emissions profiles, low carbon and climate resilient actions which can be economically viable, and the impact of those interventions on emissions at city level. Overall, the project would identify which measures are most attractive and should be prioritised. A ‘Top 10’ of most attractive measures is then produced, ranked by both cost effectiveness and carbon effectiveness.

The overall impact of implementing the cost effective strategies should be a 9-19% reduction in emissions, which could be replicated globally. The results are intended to be presented at the next COP

Partner cities are:

UK: Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Hull
China: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing
India: Kolkata
Malaysia: Johor Bahru
Indonesia: Palembang
Peru: Lima
Brazil: Recife

The project was under the auspices of the Centre for Low Carbon Futures, from where the reports are available


It’s really good to see a lot of interesting work happening locally on urban sustainability and the future city, and while it is nice to see groups taking the same platform to promote their work, even though the limited overlap between them and presence in different departments might mean cooperation between the projects is minimal. Regardless, iBuild could well lead to changes in how infrastructure is valued socially, and possible erosion of the dominance of Cost Benefit Analysis on investment will hopefully yield a greater level of investment in less wealthy areas.

The potential of Big Data has been debated for some time, and as usual with datasets and numerical modelling, the issues of whether the data is suitable for the type of modelling undertaken and of data quality. In essence, the issue is whether we can get over the hype of Big Data (presumably on Big Iron, aka large supercomputers) and just think of it as ‘data’. The more ominous side of what was presented is the targeting of anti-obesity interventions, an issue which is potentially very contentious given the sociodemographic distribution of obesity.

On financialisation, the distribution and access to money is of key importance in the regeneration of areas of poverty and lack of opportunity – especially as investment mostly seems to benefit those who already have some money, and there is a massive potential for entrepreneurship and small business growth to create sustainable jobs and wealth (in a way which inward investment, with its removal of profit abroad, cannot) – though the people who could benefit the most from this are often those who have no access to finance to support their businesses, or may only have access at extortionate rates, several times that of their counterparts in wealthier areas.

The Economics of Low Carbon Cities group have already come to public attention in Leeds with the launch of the so-called “Mini Stern Report” in 2013. This took the approach of Nicholas Stern’s review on the Economics of Climate Change to the city region level with Leeds City Region, the ten local authorities covering Leeds and its commuter belt. The national and international comparisons that arose from taking the methods elsewhere are rather interesting, particularly in relation to the sheer level of growth in CO2 emissions in many developing cities. What’s interesting about their approach is that there is an emphasis on carbon reduction projects which are cost-effective, which is of course of paramount importance to overstretched and cash-strapped cities the world over.

In all, the presented projects are very interesting, but, far from presenting a unified and integrated set of urban research competencies at the University (as was intended), continue to show the traditional approach of a number of separate projects only slightly spilling out from interdisciplinary silos. Since the structures of both Universities and project funding arrangements don’t allow these silos to be easily broken through, it remains to be seen how well the University can integrate the many and various projects it is undertaking (only a subset of which were presented here)


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