The Resilient City Hub started this year successfully with the first students and organisations to work together on challenges around sustainable urban development. The hub offers student the opportunity to write a master thesis with impact in an interdisciplinary environment. How does this process look like and what is the status quo? Benjamin Sprecher, the coordinator of the Resilient City Hub, explains us what the Resilient City Hub is.
Interview with Benjamin Sprecher by Giacomo Canetta
Benjamin, let’s start from the basics, what is a ‘hub’ for you?
I would almost define it as a research direction. Every hub has a coordinator who sets up the research direction and who makes sure that the overall research has a coherent theme.
And to move more into the specific, what does the name ‘Resilient City Hub’ stands for? What is the direction you are giving to the hub?
Mainly we are looking at urban problems. There are many cities that are not sustainable and resilient at the moment. But they want to become as such, so they need to make a big transition. In this transition there are many research questions that need to be answered and problems that need to be solved. This is where the Resilient City Hub comes into the picture.
Does that mean that you are working mainly for governmental institutions?
Currently we are working with two main actors. One the one hand we have the city councils and on the other hand various companies. The companies are crucial: the municipality alone is not going to be able to make the transition. Governmental institutions set the rules of course, but the people and companies living in the city make the concrete change. Both city councils and companies come to us with questions.
So you mostly have an exchange of information with those two actors. How does it work?
They have, as already mentioned, questions and doubts about how to solve certain problems. But these are often in the form of vague ideas. That’s why we discuss and cooperate to convert these ideas into actual research questions. Those are the questions that our researchers – mostly students – will focus on.
And could you give us an example mentioning a project you are working on at the moment?
We are examining the heat-transition of cities. Almost all the urban heating systems in the Netherlands are based on natural gas. If you want to be fossil-free this has to change. And it is a really difficult challenge.
Basically it is necessary to rebuild the whole system, the entire city. There is a huge amount of infrastructure that need to be changed. And that’s obviously very expensive. So in this transition there are many options, different pathways available, and we are looking into that.
After asking for your help, what do cities expect from you?
Often they start with asking for very concrete solutions to practical problems. But that is not really the role of universities, so we sit down and talk until we find a mutually interesting research question. The issues cities come across when they try to transition to a more sustainable form are really interesting and have not been addressed enough. Often we need to start using basic industrial ecology tools.
This implies that you need time to reach your goals. I know you just started working for the hub last March, do you have more answers or questions at the moment?
Definitely more questions. We set up a lot of research projects in the past months, but most of them are just beginning. The first ones will be finished in January. Hopefully then we'll have a better balance between questions and answers!
What do you find as the most interesting aspect of how the Resilient City Hub works?
I really like our multidisciplinary approach. But maybe even more the fact that we have a really tight integration between theory and its practical application. Because we work together closely with municipalities and companies we test our theoretical knowledge immediately. We have very short feedback loops. And this is crucial when addressing such complex issues. It works really well. Students like it, but cities are appreciating this effort. I see a lot of energy in our project.
People who try to ‘change the world’ can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of problems we are facing. After some years as an environmental scientist, and some months working for LDE Centre for Sustainability, how do you feel about all those challenges?
I think now is the time to make changes. And you can really notice that companies and cities are nowadays keen to do so. There is definitely a lot of momentum. Of course our hub just started, but it is already clear that our research topics are finding fertile ground.
Before letting you go, tell me more about your team.
Besides my fellow CfS colleagues, we have at the moment roughly 15 students working at the hub. Most students are working on their master thesis, where they contribute to one single aspect or question in context of the larger Resilient Cities Hub research program. Many students come from sustainability-related background, but because of our multidisciplinary approach we need all kinds of minds: engineers, cultural anthropologist and computer scientist just to name a few. We are always looking for more students!
What if I want to join?
You can just send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). We are also present at university events where you can meet us.
About Benjamin Sprecher:
After receiving his MSc in Industrial Ecology at Leiden University, Benjamin Sprecher started working on his PhD research concerning the extraction of raw materials from waste streams, and resilience of the supply chains of critical materials. After finishing his PhD he did a one-year postdoc at Yale University. He is currently assistant professor at the CML, coordinating the Resilient Cities Hub.
Knowledge and Innovation hubs:
The resilient city hub is one of the three hubs of Centre for Sustainability. Curious to our other hubs? Read more and get involved!