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Urban STEP: Complex Analysis in Support of Distributed Urban Infrastructure that Addresses Social, Technical, Economic, and Political Challenges

Principal Investigator
Rishee K. Jain, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Co-Principal Investigators
Michelle W. Anderson, Professor, Stanford Law School
Harikesh Nair, Professor of Marketing, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Nicholas T. Ouellette, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Grand Challenge
How can we ensure that humanity flourishes in the cities of the future?
Imagine you are the mayor of San Francisco, Mumbai or any other major city. You have the daunting task of providing core necessities such as clean air, water, and energy to millions amidst the backdrop of explosive urban growth. Current approaches would drive you to design and build traditional large independent infrastructure systems at an urban scale (e.g. power generation plants, wastewater treatment plants, public transit). However, this approach is poised to fail given the breakneck speed at which your city is growing, the decades-long procurement cycles, and the large capital requirements of traditional infrastructure. Moreover, you are increasingly worried that your city is not prepared for constantly evolving climate, environmental, economic, and political conditions. If you invest too heavily in traditional infrastructure, you fear that “infrastructure inertia” will render your city unable to adapt to changing conditions.
This proposal tackles these challenges by re-envisioning cities as a network of distributed, integrated, and modular infrastructure systems built at a local scale. Recent technological advancements—ranging from high-efficiency solar panels to bioreactor-based wastewater treatment—make such distributed infrastructure modules technically feasible. For example, solar panels could produce energy locally to meet household energy demand, charge electric vehicles, and power community wastewater treatment facilities. However, successfully implementing such distributed infrastructure modules would require solving several challenging questions at the intersection of people, infrastructure, and their cities:
1. What are the “natural” spatial and temporal scales of a city?
2. How do we design flexible and efficient distributed urban infrastructure systems?
3. What governance and incentive structures are necessary to spawn adoption of new modular infrastructure but prevent the splintering of cities into areas of “haves” and “have nots”?
This Catalyst project brings together an interdisciplinary team spanning remote sensing, complex systems, civil/urban engineering, sociology, law/public policy, and marketing/economics to create a design toolkit for distributed modular urban infrastructure systems that takes our concept from theory to practice. We aim to focus our initial exploration on the energy domain but then extend our work to encompass the interactions between urban energy, water, and transit systems and broader urban sustainability.
The rise of low-cost sensing, mobile phone penetration and high-fidelity satellite imagery supports a data-driven approach to our investigation. We intend to leverage newly available data-streams to empirically derive and test our toolkit in three “living labs” spanning Palo Alto, CA, San Diego, CA, and the slum community of Dharavi, Mumbai, India. The labs will also provide a unique platform to integrate the pedagogical, civic engagement, and international collaboration goals of our project through hands-on experiences for Stanford students and partnerships with the City of Palo Alto, the City of San Diego, and the Indian Institute of Technology - Bombay.
If successful, this project will represent a paradigm shift in urban systems thinking and planning and will provide the insights and tools required to design distributed, dynamic, and adaptable infrastructure systems integral to the future of our cities.