Discovering how cities can be smarter, safer, and more sustainable

Q&A with José Lobo


Note: José Lobo is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability, associate professor of research at the School of Sustainability, and faculty associate in economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business. His research applies statistics and data mining to understand metropolitan economic performance, particularly how urban size and social networks influence innovation. He has been a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute and Italy's Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia.

When did sustainability become part of your research focus?

Since my days as a graduate student, my main research interest has been invention and innovation in cities. Now that urbanization has come to dominate our planet, it is impossible to think about the future of cities without considering their sustainability challenges. The trickiest part is clearly articulating who will bear the costs and reap the benefits from policy changes. There is no free lunch, even when it comes to sustainability.

What is your most important sustainability-related research question?

Aerial view of Dubai.
Growing cities create wealth and boost innovation.

I am working with colleagues to identify and understand the complex behavior of cities. This is crucial because the 21st century will see more urbanization than in all of human history to date. By the end of this century, an additional 3 billion to 5 billion people will reside in cities, and nearly all of the increase will occur in the developing world. This new urbanization has the potential to reduce poverty and enhance human development, but the key issue is how best to accommodate urban expansion. Should we expand existing cities or build new ones? How can we make them more hospitable for all? Never before have our urban policy choices been more critical to human progress.

To address these issues and bring scientific understanding of urbanization to the decision-making process, my colleagues and I are investigating the systems involved in the urbanization process. We’re looking at what determines population size, how population size affects socio-economic activity, whether larger cities are more energy efficient, and whether the productivity advantages of larger cities are enough to offset the negatives associated with growing size. These are critical considerations. One thing we’ve learned so far: as cities grow larger they create more wealth and innovate at a faster rate than they did previously. Larger is smarter.

A crowded Moscow street.
Up to 5 billion additional people will reside in cities by century’s end.

How will your research affect policy or other important decisions?

Many people view big cities as a problem for sustainability. I would like my work to temper those views. While big cities do generate many problems, they also disproportionately create solutions. The dynamic nature of cities should make us humble about the prospect of influencing them through policy.

What is the world sustainability challenge that concerns you most?

I am most concerned about how to make cities healthier, safer, and more hospitable places for the billions of humans who reside in them, now and in the future. We need to make our cities more livable rather than smaller.