The Urban Futures Spire of Excellence

Rethinking, Reimagining and Reshaping the Cities of Tomorrow

During the past several decades, the ongoing process of urbanization has accelerated at an unprecedented rate, globally and nationally. Globally, nearly two-thirds of the earth’s population are expected to be urban dwellers by 2050; in the U.S., that number is already at 84 percent and is expected to rise to almost 90 percent over the next 30 years. Recent research by Yale University faculty indicates that, within a decade, urban areas will occupy nearly 10 percent of the earth’s total land mass.

Concomitant with this demographic migration phenomenon, life in human settlements is also being transformed largely through technological innovations that are increasingly expected to engender ‘smart cities.’ (1) Big Data, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and the rise of a technology-driven surveillance culture are among a host of “advancements” that have implications for our social and physical world. Due to the meteoric advances in disruptive technology and poorly managed and/or poorly planned change, many urban areas are evolving through a process of happenstance, delivering outcomes that are sometimes desirable and sometimes not.

MIT faculty member Catherine D'Ignazio noted in a recent BBC article that "our discourse on smart cities hasn't been very inclusive, in terms of gender, race and accessibility. We are designing cities that work really well for elite white men and not very well for the rest of us…. Too often corporate vendors are coming into cities and saying 'we can do X, Y and Z' and city governments, starved for resources, are like, 'great, let them handle it'. And both the tech company and the city government are elite, mainly white men and miss out on deeper community engagement." In addition to designing solutions that may not serve all community members, vendors aim to “lock” cities into exclusivity using their technology, leading to high costs and lack of flexibility to add or tailor services that best meet community needs.

To be sure, negative externalities associated with public and private decision-making abound and touch on every aspect of daily life. They take the form of social and educational inequity, economic segregation, lack of affordable housing, a growing homeless population, inadequate resources and support services, dangerously crowded roadways, insufficient public transit, environmental degradation, food deserts, challenges in accessing healthcare, and urban sprawl. The list goes on.

Our Urban Futures Spire of Excellence ---

Enabling Positive Change Through Collaborative Thinking and Empowered Planning

In recent years, major universities, think tanks, research institutes, urban planners, government agencies, community leaders, policy makers, public ethicists and others have begun collectively envisioning a new concept of what cities can and should be. Known as the Urban Futures Movement (UFM), this effort represents a direct, powerful and necessary response to the vast challenges posed by public and private deficiencies in managing the vicissitudes of human settlements. Analogous to the “whole person approach” advocated in the promotion of human well-being by some physicians, the UFM, in our construct, conceives of the goals and needs of human settlements holistically — encompassing social, environmental, physical, technological, economic and other domains that collectively constitute urban or rural areas. UFM eschews narrow notions of  ‘the city’ and instead embraces and exploits the full complexity and interconnectivity of constitutive assemblages, both material and non-material.

Urban Futures is, by definition, inclusive and intentional, collaborative and purpose-driven, imaginative and practical. In order to fully succeed, it engages all segments of society, all aspects of a community, and all disciplines within the academy. It emphasizes group efforts rather than autonomous actions, social well-being rather than extreme economic divides. The ultimate goal is to enable the emergence of human settlements that are smart, environmentally and economically sustainable, healthy and livable, and joyful places in which all can thrive.

An Urgent Challenge for Society, an Exciting Opportunity for UM-Dearborn

Within this context, UM-Dearborn is poised to make a positive and powerful difference by being a leader in the Urban Futures Movement locally and beyond.

As part of one of the world’s leading centers of learning and research, we are able to capitalize on expertise that spans science and engineering, business, education, healthcare, human services, policy and governance, the humanities and arts, architecture and urban planning, and design. Our affiliation with the University of Michigan campuses in Ann Arbor and Flint strengthens both our resources and our capacity to make meaningful contributions to the process of rethinking and re-envisioning urban areas.

At the same time, we are small and agile enough — and the energy barriers between and among disciplines are low enough — that every program will have the opportunity to contribute and collaborate. In addition,  we will be able to build uniquely qualified teams that can address the fullness, complexity and emergent nature of the challenges posed by the interconnectedness of our future environments. The breadth of our academic programs, from business and engineering to education, health, and liberal arts, is well matched with the range of disciplines that contribute to the UFM.

Critically important to the launch of this initiative is the work that many of our UM-Dearborn urban-focused scholars are already doing. Our long tradition of community engagement and metropolitan impact will be a cornerstone for a truly successful Urban Futures venture. Further, our location in Southeast Michigan provides us with “willing collaborators” that include not only Dearborn but Detroit, Ann Arbor,  Flint, among many others, all of which present diverse sets of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.

For all of these reasons, as UM-Dearborn re-imagines its own destiny, we believe a university-wide Urban Futures spire of excellence capitalizes on an established foundation of work, capturing the history, spirit and mission that characterize our campus.

An Institutional Commitment: Preliminary Planning and Initial Steps

This early, exploratory phase will require careful, inclusive and collaborative planning; long and thoughtful conversations with executive leadership, faculty, students and other UM-Dearborn stakeholders; a clear sense of desired outcomes; and an openness to new approaches, perspectives and alliances.  

We expect that this initiative, through urban-focused basic and applied scholarship and development of innovative and exciting degree and certificate programs, will have wide-ranging impact across our university, the region and the country. Our bold effort to see human settlements with new eyes and begin working toward the future in an intentional way will inevitably induce a multitude of changes, attracting new faculty, students and resources to the campus.

This initiative will, for instance, lead to innovations in our teaching and educational programming as we integrate Urban Futures into the student experience, introducing new courses, curricular options and career paths, and implementing relevant internships and service-learning opportunities. 

Urban Futures will challenge all of us to be daring and involved, as we consider how the trajectory of our disciplines and the focus of our work fit into this multi-phased, multi-faceted process, and how we can best build on the U-M’s culture of collaboration to make discoveries, advance ideas and contribute to a new future.

Each discipline will discover different entry points and niches, as well as new venues and opportunities for engaging not only with fellow scholars but with government, business, K-12 schools, service agencies, city planners, community organizers, urban technologists and others.

To pave the way for this initiative, each college at UM-Dearborn has been asked to launch searches for senior Urban Futures scholars, and to encourage collaborative efforts with other university units and the wider community.

In addition, plans are underway to identify a senior-level scholar and administrator to serve as a university wide coordinator for UM-Dearborn’s Urban Futures initiative.

Anticipated Outcomes

Looking ahead, we anticipate that this proposed Urban Futures venture will be self-evolving and self-sustaining and will yield significant benefits for both the university and the communities we serve.

This endeavor will be a key differentiator for UM-Dearborn and, as such, will attract students, faculty members and resources to our campus. It will enable us to grow our curriculum in exciting, strategic and creative ways. It will generate new energies and alliances among faculties and campuses. It will strengthen our already formidable culture of collaboration — both within the university and with the communities we serve. It will yield novel approaches, perspectives and technologies. It will transform the way we think about urban and rural life. It will deepen our commitment to the university’s mandate of serving the public good. Above all, it will make significant contributions to the shape and lived experience of tomorrow’s human settlements, and will assure that our ever-expanding metropolitan landscapes are sustainable, accessible, equitable and life-affirming.

(1) Though numerous definitions have been put forth to pin down this elusive concept, for the purposes of our work, we will define a “smart city” as a human settlement that uses broadly distributed sensors connected through the Internet of Things to acquire real-time data and through the use of algorithms, artificially intelligent or otherwise, optimizes the management of assets, resources and services. This can include management of transportation systems, utilities, crime detection, education, healthcare, arts and entertainment, recreation and other community activities.

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