Charting a system for urban sustainability

Using fuel cell buses and data on urbanization can reduce pollution and our dependence on oil


The tops of Beijing’s skyscrapers can just be made out from the ground though the thick smog that shrouds the city. It’s December 2015, and the Chinese government has issued its first ever “red alert” for the city’s air quality. The smog has halted construction work and led to the closure of many of the city’s schools, education being one of the many areas pollution is now affecting.

Beijing is hugely influential in the global economy. With 52 of the Fortune Global 500 companies and 100 of China’s biggest companies located there, the megacity’s GDP is CN¥1.95 trillion (US$314 billion). It has a flourishing startup scene and is attracting more and more venture capitalists who have plenty of investment opportunities in places like Zhongguancun – dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley.”

Putting the city’s fast growth and economic development on pause for the smog, even for a few days, could be costly. Fast-forward three months and the Chinese government announces a change to the threshold at which “red alert” is reached – instead of three consecutive days of the heaviest pollution levels, it will now be four.

Beijing and many other cities in the region are facing challenges like poor air quality as millions of people continue to move to urban areas. But these cities are important for the world’s sustainable development: they have the potential to contribute to environmental problems or provide solutions, concentrate poverty or broaden the distribution of resources.

Moving the air pollution goalposts seems to be one way to deal with the problem; megacities must adapt to the influx of people. But perhaps adaptation to each problem isn’t the best approach.

A systems approach to urbanization

TProf. Dongping Fang, PhDo ensure sustainable development, urbanization must not go uncharted. Meeting Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” – will require interdisciplinary collaboration and a more holistic view of sustainable development. Such a view can only be found by approaching cities as systems of systems, according to Dr. Dongping Fang, Professor and head of the Department of Construction Management at Tsinghua University in China. He explained:

Urbanization has improved the living standard in China tremendously, but at the same time we suffer from the negative impacts of urbanization – bad planning, bad design, even bad policy that created rough rather than refined growth. Lots of researchers are looking at the problems, but always from their own perspectives, so their results only address part of the issue. We are looking at the urban system as a system of systems, like transportation, healthcare and education, all interacting with each other.

Dr. Fang’s idea is to use this approach to pull together existing knowledge in a new way, providing a more accurate picture of what’s happening in cities and how the negative effects of urbanization can be mitigated. By charting the impact of one system on another and vice versa, parties can spend less time assigning blame for the problems and more time working together to solve them.

To tackle this issue we need multidisciplinary teams – people from engineering and science, IT, sociology and social science. This can also translate into practical solutions based on shared knowledge that can improve quality of life in cities.

<p>At Elsevier, understanding the systems of science, technology and health through big data and analytics is what we do. Whether charting the course of <a href="">sustainability science</a> or organizing the <a href="">Urban Transitions Global Summit 2016</a> in Shanghai, we&rsquo;re committed to global sustainability. For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit <a href=" ">Empowering Knowledge</a>.<small><em><p>Photo of Prof. Dongping Fang.</p></small></em>At Elsevier, understanding the systems of science, technology and health through big data and analytics is what we do. Whether charting the course of sustainability science or organizing the Urban Transitions Global Summit 2016 in Shanghai, we’re committed to global sustainability. For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.

Photo of Prof. Dongping Fang

One manifestation of this approach is the interdisciplinary team working on disaster resilience. Dr. Fang and professors from different departments at Tsinghua University in collaboration with a team at UCL in the UK look at the impact of a disaster like an earthquake on city systems. People from geoscience, earthquake engineering, medicine, structural engineering, economics and sociology are working together to look at the interplay between a natural disaster, healthcare and resilience. If it’s successful, they will apply the methodology to other combinations of system interplay.

Healthcare has more challenges than other systems. We chose it because it’s crucially important in the recovery phase after a disaster: hospitals save lives and give people confidence that if the healthcare system survives they can survive after a shock; if there is no surviving hospital, people will lose their confidence.

This resilience is one focus of Dr. Fang’s work – it forms the foundation for sustainability, and it is a fundamental issue for society today. It may influence how sustainable a city is, in other words, more resilient equals more sustainable.

Tsinghua University has recently established a new university-led institute to enable interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in this area: the Institute for Future Cities and Infrastructures. The group will continue to feed research findings into policy recommendations and solutions for societal change. It’s an area influenced heavily by technological developments, which are also changing the outlook for urbanization.

Steering sustainable cities

Using big data to understand the interplay of systems, innovative technology is transforming cities as we known them. Take the city bus, for example: it emits more than 800 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilometer traveled. Add to this the other constituents of exhaust and you have a major contributor to smog.

Prof. Liangfei Xu, PhDIn Beijing, new technology in the form of hydrogen fuel cells is providing an alternative to the fuel-hungry buses found all over the city today. When he was a PhD candidate, Dr. Liangfei Xu, Associate Professor in the Department of Automotive Engineering at Tsinghua University, developed real-time control algorithms for distributed vehicle control systems for three fuel cell buses deployed during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in the city. The systems were then demonstrated in 2010 at the Shanghai Expo and the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. These buses represent a step towards a more sustainable future, he said:

I’m interested in the sustainable development of people, cities and countries. One major problem is air pollution. Research has shown it’s in large part down to the emissions of traditional vehicles. So how can we replace themes? If we can use fuel cell vehicles instead of internal combustion vehicles, air pollution can be greatly reduced. At the same time, using more fuel cells will reduce our dependence on oil, which is becoming increasingly scarce.

After developing the bus fuel cell applications, Dr. Xu took a deeper dive into the technology, moving on to model-based optimization and control of the fuel cell system itself. Dr. Xu and his colleagues work on designing novel components and mechanisms to make the fuel cells better suited for city transport. For example, they are designing a novel mechanism to recycle the hydrogen and air within the fuel cell system. “Importantly, we want to build this prototype using most of components we can buy in China,” said Dr. Xu. “So if this prototype works it can be put into mass production with our own intellectual properties.”

The technology could be applied much more widely than a handful of buses: Dr. Xu foresees a whole city transport infrastructure based on hydrogen fuel cells.

My goal is to understand the internal heat, mass and electro-chemical behaviors of the system more clearly so we can measure, judge and evaluate the performance more easily and conveniently. I think this problem can be solved in five to ten years. Firstly, we can solve the working lifetime so the performance of fuel cell vehicles can be equivalent to traditional. Then we can look for ways to reduce the price of the whole system, making the sustainable development of big cities more feasible.

Collaboration and information to support growth

Dr. Xu’s work is relevant for cities around the world, not just Beijing: according to the UN, cities account for 60-80 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions, despite taking up only 3 percent of the land. Half of the people in the world – 3.5 billion – already live in cities, and that’s set to rise to 60 percent by 2030. Taking technologies like hydrogen fuel cells to these cities could have a huge impact on quality of life and the environment, through pollution reduction.

Making sure technologies, knowledge and experience are transferred between cities is key to their sustainable development. Dr. Fang is working on Elsevier’s Urban Transitions Global Summit 2016 to facilitate this. As the Co-Chair of the Local Organising Committee, Dr. Fang is helping to bring researchers from all fields and all regions together to discuss how to make urban futures economically competitive, sustainable and resilient and digitally supported, and to ensure societies are equitable and inclusive. He commented:

I think this conference will have a huge impact on the academic community. It will also have an impact on Chinese society. Urban issues are already very hot topic in China, in society and the community. How can we move forward and let people understand more about the scientific issues in this area, and how can industry support research in this area? This conference will play a very important role.

Sustainability-in-a-Global-Landscape-coverIn addition to bringing people together to facilitate sustainable development, Elsevier uses its cutting-edge analysis techniques to provide the information that supports decision making. In 2015, Elsevier Analytical Services launched its first report in a series supporting the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape “contributes to the understanding of sustainability science as a research field and the dialogue between science and society in sustainable development.”

The report looks at the characteristics of research carried out under six themes mapped to the SDGs: Dignity, Justice, Partnership, People, Planet and Prosperity. The findings show how countries are using their scientific capacity to address sustainable development, but this sort of analysis can also be applied to cities.

Elsevier has collected data on 80 cities: their economic performance, researchers, PhD students, scientific output, citation impact and collaboration. The pilot report on Amsterdam reveals the city’s strengths in medical sciences and computer science and is an example of the analysis that could help megacities in developing countries too.

Dr. Lei PanElsevier’s Content and Analytics Product Manager Dr. Lei Pan, who worked on the analysis, explained:

The sustainability science report gives us a good idea of how science is contributing to sustainable development and shows how we can use analytics to highlight opportunities. Knowing where research strengths are is important for a city’s strategy and planning, including using the intelligence to attract companies. All this leads to more sustainable development instead of just building factories that don’t fit in – authorities can understand what a city is good at and build on that.

Dr. Pan and her colleagues on the Analytical Services team are now working on projects that aim to contribute to sustainable development, including a global gender report highlighting the differences between male and female researchers in terms of their citation impact and collaboration.

Analyzing huge datasets like Scopus in this way will help measure the progression of work towards the SDGs. Although the 17 goals have 169 targets among them, not all of these targets have easily measurable indicators that can be used to track progress. Reports like Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape and the forthcoming science and legislation report can highlight successes and areas where science can make more of a contribution to development, ultimately supporting the achievement of the SDGs.


Urban Transitions Global Summit 2016

With the theme “Towards a better urban future in an interconnected age,” the Urban Transitions Global Summit 2016 will bring together researchers, policymakers, government representatives and practitioners to review four topics:

  • Economically competitive urban futures
  • Sustainable and resilient urban futures
  • Equitable and inclusive urban societies
  • Digitally supported urban futures

Parallel sessions supplemented by large poster sessions will include a number of structured networking opportunities and round table discussions to synthesize discussions and make recommendations for the future.

The summit, organized by Elsevier, is September 5-9 in Shanghai, China.

Prof. Dongping Fang

Dr. Dongping Fang is a Professor at Tsinghua University, China, where he is head of the Department of Construction Management in the School of Civil Engineering and Executive Dean of the Institute of Future Cities and Infrastructures. Prof. Fang is a former vice president of the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB) and current theme leader of the CIB priority theme Resilient Urbanization. He has been on the boards and committees of many international and national organizations of government, industry and academics. He has been honored as a visiting professor in Australia, Sweden and the UK and invited as keynote speaker at many international conferences. Prof. Fang is an expert on construction safety and sustainable urbanization. He serves as a member of the editorial board of several international journals and is the (co-)author of more than 200 books, book chapters, journal papers, conference papers and reports.

Prof. Liangfei Xu

Dr. Liangfei Xu is Associate Professor at the State Key Lab of Automotive Safety and Energy in the Department of Automotive Engineering at Tsinghua University, and Visiting Scientist at the Forschungszentrum Jülich Institute of Energy and Climate Research Electrochemical Process Engineering (IEK-3), where he works on fuel cell modeling. He joined Tsinghua University in 1999 and obtained bachelor and PhD degrees in 2003 and 2009 in the department of automotive engineering. He has since worked at Tsinghua as a postdoc, assistant professor and associate professor. Since 2010 he has been the academic secretary of US-China Clean Energy Research Center – Clean vehicle Consortium.

His research interests include multi-physics modelling and control of fuel cell systems and powertrains for electric vehicles. He is the primary investigator for several research projects financed by the Chinese government and industrial partners. He has published more than 80 papers, has an H-index of 13 and has 12 Chinese patents. He was the winner of the 5th ProSPER.NET-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development (2013) and won the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Rersearchers (2015-17).


Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

After a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.


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