Earth Institute Collaboration Projects

Collaboration at the Earth Institute

In the Fall 2013 semester, the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) solicited proposals from across the Columbia University community to conduct systematic reviews of the state of sustainability science from both sectoral and disciplinary perspectives.  AC4 provided small grants to four research groups from the fields of Urban Sustainability, Water Quantity and Quality, Dynamic Modeling and the Role of Institutions in Policy Development.  These projects are funded to create a review detailing the definitions, assumptions, metrics, and limitations of sustainability from their respective disciplines. Knowledge generated will be synthesized to assess the current state of the art and map intersections and points of divergence across the range of sustainability sciences.   The four projects funded this semester are described below.

Parameters of Sustainable Human Development:  A Review of the Literature in Political Science

PI:  Marion Dumas

Co-PI:  Johannes Urpelainen

This review will lay the theoretical foundations for the application of institutional theory to SHD, focusing on the role of institutions in allowing the realization of procedural and substantive collective goals. It will draw on political economy studies across multiple policy domains that share characteristics with SHD decision problems, paying particular attention to the challenges posed by the long-term nature of SHD problems, the multiple scales spanned by the life support systems that we seek to manage, as well as the high level of unpredictability inherent to SHD decision problems.


Exploring the Essential Parameters of Sustainable Human Development: The Role of Water in Sustainable Human Development

PI:  Tess Russo

Co-PI:  Katherine Alfredo

Co-PI:  Upmanu Lall

There is no agreed upon scientific definition of water sustainability. Sustainability is often a concept used to frame motivation for hydrologic research, or used somewhat arbitrarily to describe water management practices.  We define three divisions within which characterizing water sustainability will be relevant for human development, (1) Urban, energy, and industrial water management, (2) Agricultural water management, and (3) Maintenance and restoration of natural ecosystems.  Though the third may not as obviously serve human development, ecosystem services have been shown to have significant economic value and must be considered as part of SHD.  Water sustainability definitions, metrics, and models will be discussed within each of the water use divisions listed above. In each division, we will address water quantity and quality, in both developing and first world nations. We will review the time scale (e.g. seasons, years, centuries) and spatial scales (e.g. tap, distribution system, sub-basins, watersheds, cities, countries) over which sustainability is defined, the models used to characterize and project sustainable development practices, and identify major gaps and discrepancies.


Insights from Modeling Complex Systems in Diverse Disciplines and Implications for Understanding Sustainable Human Development

PI:  Christoph Meinrenken

The basic approach to the proposed research is to identify key characteristics that describe “complex systems” and how models have to be designed in order to allow concrete conclusions. First based on the PI’s experience, and then in a second step, based on a literature review addressing similar systems and modeling challenges. In a third step, and ultimately together with the PI’s research collaborators and other participants in the Complexity Science seminar, the PI will attempt to draw lessons learned and implications for tackling modeling challenges in the area of Sustainable (Human) Development.


Sustainability and the City: An Exploration of Concepts, Metrics and Practices

PI:  Jacqueline Klopp

Co-PI:  Elliott Sclar

Co-PI:  Danielle Petretta

Current theorizing reflects the fact that the city is a complex entity with parallels to a living thing that is dependent on a wider ecosystem and set of resources, produces waste and acts back on this same eco-system.  Like any complex thing a city can be explored at multiple scales.  What is not yet clear is the extent to which a coherent concept and theory of sustainability is emerging.  Thus, whether theorizing coheres at these different scales is an interesting question.  Further, the tensions and the explanatory power of growing “urban sustainability” theories, models and metrics deserve more interrogation.  Overall then, this project will directly speak to the questions animating the Columbia University’s Complexity Science, Modeling, and Sustainability Seminar and the search for more holistic thinking around sustainable human development, while grounding this discussion in a specific and important empirical entity – the city.


These projects are coordinated by AC4 Post-Doctoral Scholar, Joshua Fisher, PhD.