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A Letter From the Director, One Year In at Urban@UW

Published on October 7, 2016

Image Credit: GNU Free Documentation: Wikimedia Commons: Joe Mabel


Cities are increasingly viewed as exciting, hip, and thriving places to live and work. At the same time,
racism, climate change, widespread homelessness, and degradation in the health of our communities and
environment make for a pretty daunting set of challenges. The pursuit of equity, health, resilience, justice,
and well-being in these complex places can seem a far off dream. And yet these challenges, no matter howcomplex, can be addressed in parts and step by step. But it is unlikely to be one individual who solves anyone of these problems, or even one discipline that mounts a viable and productive response. Instead, weare coming together, as researchers, teachers, professionals, and civic leaders to find new ways to havethe greatest and most productive, combined impact on the world around us. This is the vision ofUrban@UW, an initiative of UW’s Office of Research and CoMotion, launched in Summer 2015.

Faculty engaged in Urban@UW are catalyzing a collaborative response, by identifying the big and wicked
questions and then pulling together innovative teams to design and implement inclusive solutions. With
almost 400 faculty members, researchers, and teachers on our 3 campuses focused on urban questions,
we have an unprecedented opportunity to be boundless in our thinking, our creativity, and our responses.
As a public university, we are called to harness the brilliance of our community to address the greatest
urban challenges and opportunities.

In our first year Urban@UW explored such grand challenges with faculty, staff, and students, and with
community leaders. During our inaugural workshop we discussed topics from food security to big data to
natural disaster preparation and response. Over the course of subsequent conversations, we collectively
identified five initial areas where Urban@UW could facilitate great work of UW scholars to catalyze robust
responses. These topics engage some of our best faculty and students while building on the immense
knowledge of our city partners from government, industry, and across the community.

Urban Environmental Justice: One of the greatest challenges ahead is building environmental
resilience and justice in a time of increasing urbanization and climate change. Communities of color
and those struggling with poverty have been marginalized in most climate mitigation and adaptation
conversations. We must design climate resilience plans that address the priorities of people
disproportionately harmed by climate impacts. Leaders from UW’s Climate Impacts Group are coming
together with faculty and community leaders in the environmental justice fields (from colleges and schools
across campuses) to improve plans and policies. In addition, we partnered with the Impact Hub global
network on their Unlikely Allies conference, engaging with communities around the world. And, we are
hosting a symposium and launched a lecture series featuring a breadth of national and international leadersin the fields of just sustainability, climate equity, economic justice and urban development.

Homelessness: In 2016 the crisis of growing homeless populations is a challenge faced by most any city
across the nation, with Seattle hosting one of the largest populations of homeless individuals. Addressing
the needs of diverse homeless populations requires a collaborative effort on the part of practitioners,
leaders, those with a lived experience, and researchers to determine inclusive knowledge-driven
responses. A collective approach allows us to move beyond the question of how many shelter beds we
might need, to focus on culturally systemic dynamics that lead to homelessness. Efforts led by a core groupof faculty from six colleges seek to address this, one of the most pressing social issues of our time.

UrbAnalytics: We are assisting in the design, scoping, and project sourcing for UrbAnalytics, a campuswide effort to advance municipal big data projects being established by Bill Howe (iSchool, eScience Institute, and Urban@UW). Bringing ‘big data’ to address significant urban challenges — from clean air to housing to transportation to healthcare, UrbAnalytics will bridge the expertise of the eScience Institute, the Center for the Study of Demography and Ecology, and faculty in the Urban@UW network. Funding from the MacArthur Foundation supports initial work including the ongoing leadership of the summer Data Science for Social Good program. By linking research centers, faculty from the social
sciences, engineering, urban planning, and the humanities we push the boundaries of urban data science
to address the very real, human-centered challenges faced by cities everywhere.

MetroLab Network: In 2015, President Obama announced the creation of MetroLab Network, with Seattle and the UW as founding partners, to build better, smarter cities across the nation. UW and Seattle have taken a lead to define our contribution as building a more just and inclusive smart city. We are calling this a shift from the smart to the wise city, where technological systems are positioned to foster human and environmental health and wellbeing. Building on the UrbAnalytics effort, we are pursuing projects that build capacity in urban data science for smart cities. A workshop this winter will launch the Big Data + Human Services Lab, bringing both city and civic leaders together with academic researchers to develop innovative approaches to human service challenges.

Livable City Year: As a public university we have the privilege and responsibility to prepare the next
generation of leaders. With hundreds of courses addressing urban-related topics, students have
opportunities to learn about cities and urban dynamics from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Buildingon this strength, in collaboration with the College of Built Environments, Undergraduate Academic Affairs,and the UW Office of Sustainability, Urban@UW is a foundational partner in UW’s Livable City Year. This isan innovative program that pairs UW faculty with projects self-identified by one Washington city for oneacademic year, addressing their sustainability goals through the work of multiple student classes. In itsinaugural year Livable City Year is partnering with the city of Auburn, and catalyzing opportunities forstudents to get involved in civic initiatives such as community and cultural engagement, parks and trailconnectivity, siting and development of new civic infrastructure, and many others.

To successfully build impact that is both holistic and inclusive, Urban@UW is focused on productively
addressing the grand urban challenges through deep partnerships and innovative responses with faculty
and with research centers including the West Coast Poverty Center and the Pacific Northwest National
Labs. Building on the work of CoMotion, each area is being developed as lab led by faculty teams who
bring academic research into urban practice. The labs are multidisciplinary and community engaged,
offering opportunities for transformative learning among all participants. Urban@UW provides initial
leadership, funding, and administrative support as well as facilitating bringing the right people to the table.
We will also seek to catalyze collaboration among the labs, bringing data science to the challenges of
homeless populations to better meet the needs, sharing social science and climate science approaches to shape equitable change policies, and creating opportunities for students to learn in all contexts.

Across these projects, Urban@UW faculty leaders are building on existing strengths and integrating new
opportunities to generate real, collective impact. Urban@UW as an initiative seeks to be nimble in our
capacity to identify, catalyze, incubate, and accelerate research and teaching that will steward more
resilient, sustainable, and equitable cities and communities. We are inspired every day by what we can do
together- join us in this exciting adventure.


Co-founders: Thaisa Way, Thom Dunning, Bill Howe, Vikram Jandhyala, Margaret O’Mara,

Executive Committee:
Scott Allard, Professor, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance
Thom H. Dunning Jr, Battelle Fellow, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Bill Howe Associate Professor, I-School; Associate Director of the eScience Institute
Vikram Jandyhala, Vice President for Innovation Strategy; Executive Director, CoMotion
Susan P. Kemp, School of Social Work
Margaret O’Mara, Associate Professor History, College of Arts & Sciences
Radha Poovendran, Director, Network Security Lab; Professor and Chair, Electrical Engineering , CoEng.
Thaisa Way, Professor, College of Built Environments

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