StanfordNYC: Developing the Sustainable City of Tomorrow
Jeff Koseff (pictured above at Machu Picchu) is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
What will the city of the future look like?
What materials, technologies and processes will enable a city’s infrastructure systems to sustain its inhabitants and the environment? The best way to answer this question is to bring these sustainable urban systems into the classroom.
Or we can bring the classroom to them.
As an incredibly high-density city that continues to grow, New York will in the next few decades face the massive task of renewing its transportation, communications, energy, and water infrastructure to accommodate population increases, energy demands, climate change, and the need for secure supplies of water, food, and materials. Of all of the compelling things a Stanford campus in New York would yield, one of the most exciting is the potential of a unique interdisciplinary graduate program in which physical scientists, engineers, and social scientists collaborate closely to address the most challenging problems of the sustainable city of tomorrow.
New York City would be their laboratory.
As just one example, let’s examine the way we view waste management.
Today’s waste management systems have been designed under the assumption that centralized is always better. They are enormous, leveraging economies of scale but always seemingly missing out on opportunities for synergy and the potential for resource recovery or reuse. The results of this type of system—one that hinges on collecting and moving huge amounts of so-called refuse—are well-known and ubiquitous. However, the decentralization of infrastructure elements made possible by new engineering technology—coupled with design, control, and integration of these infrastructure elements made possible by new software and computing technology—is creating a fundamental shift in the sustainability of our cities.
Typically thought of as something you’d like to get as far away from as possible, wastewater has the potential to be a gold mine: It is a source of water, it houses all kinds of nutrients and fertilizers, and through chemical conversation it can be a direct source of energy. Developing “scalping” technologies that use wastewater locally to its full potential can dramatically reduce the investment cost for urban infrastructure and transform current operating costs into new sources of jobs and revenue while dramatically reducing their environmental impact. This kind of investment in the natural system is one New Yorkers are quite familiar with: the state’s well-protected and well-preserved watershed in the Catskills enables it to function as one of the best and only unfiltered water delivery systems in the world – avoiding the exorbitant costs of traditional systems.
On Roosevelt Island, we could literally develop and test these kinds of novel technologies that could fundamentally change the way a city works. And the physical location of the campus provides an incredible chance to create a living lab through which to explore the issue of scale. What works on Roosevelt Island could be applied to Manhattan. What works in Manhattan could be scaled well beyond the shores of the Hudson.
This type of research is just one of the many ways that a sustainable urban systems program will change New York. Further down the road, imagine mechanical devices that utilize H2 from H2O as a fuel, replacing traditional combustion engines and reducing CO2 emission to zero. Imagine new composites that replace traditional glass windows with transparent, light-harvesting displays or ‘smart’ insulators that can adapt to real-time changes in environmental conditions.
And, of course, imagine the intellectual property resulting from these efforts that becomes the basis for partnerships or start-up companies seeking to commercialize disruptive technologies. Advances in materials science and engineering fostered by this program will create job opportunities and enhance sustainability and security through the innovative use of local resources, decreasing reliance upon imported energy, water, nutrients, and materials.
In developing the sustainable city of tomorrow, Stanford and New York will be looked to as leaders. What student of the future would not want to be part of all that?
- Jeff Koseff