Viewing Cities and Infrastructure as Integrated Social, Ecological, and Technological Systems (SETS)
What is the problem/challenge?
Urban infrastructure systems currently face a series of confounding issues that pose serious challenges to their long-term sustainability and resilience:
- Utilization and Inflexibility: Infrastructure systems are designed to meet demands decades into the future – accurately anticipating and projecting these demands and usage is rather difficult
- Climate Change: Related to inflexibility, cities and infrastructure are designed for environmental and climatic conditions that are changing and may become inapplicable
- Complexity and Interdependency: The proper functioning of one infrastructure system is increasingly dependent on the proper function and/or location of other infrastructure and social/environmental systems. There also appears to be an overconfidence in our ability to use technological systems to tightly control complex social and ecological systems.
These challenges are often the result of the coupled interactions and evolution of social, ecological, and technological systems (SETS). Additionally, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that we typically view cities and infrastructure from a narrow, disciplinary perspective. Thus, based on a combination of conceptual framing and application, we posit that cities and infrastructure should be considered from the perspective of new, emergent, and complex arrangements and interactions between SETS.
What have we been doing to address the problem/challenge?
With the above challenges in mind, we examined how SETS thinking and perspectives can provide insight for urban planning and infrastructure design that minimizes the negative tradeoffs between S, E, and T systems in the context of resilience to climate change and extreme events. Below, we highlight some of our major efforts related to SETS thinking for urban ecology, urban/ecosystem services, and infrastructure systems.
- Explore human and ecological interactions and influences in cities from the perspective of land use change, climate change, biodiversity, nutrient and mineral cycles, and water cycles (Grimm et al., 2008)
- Evaluate the applicability of the ecological concept of disturbance (a relatively discrete event in time that disrupts the generation, provision, and distribution of goods, resources, services, and/or information within a system) to urban SET systems (Grimm et al., 2017)
- Promote the incorporation of humans (and human systems) as important components of urban ecosystems (Groffman et al., 2017)
- Analyze the array of services (e.g., air quality, water quality, heat regulation, etc.) that both natural (aka ‘green’, e.g., vegetation) and human-made (aka ‘gray’, e.g., pipes and pumps) systems provide in cities (Grimm et al., 2016)
- Consider the challenges and opportunities for understanding the complex dynamics of social, ecological, economic, and built infrastructure in urban areas (McPhearson et al., 2016)
- Assess the value of urban ecosystem services – especially in the context of social, ecological, and technological characteristics of cities (Keeler et al., 2019)
Infrastructure as SETS
- Provide conceptual framework for facilitating discussion and thinking of infrastructure systems as interdependent social, ecological, and technological systems (SETS) (Grabowski, et al., 2017)
- Develop a conceptual model for critically evaluating the SETS elements and interactions within infrastructure systems – particularly in the context of identifying and avoiding lock-in (i.e., the inability to update/modify current systems as a result of past decisions and investments) (Markolf et al., 2018)
- Outline major shortcomings with current infrastructure systems and posit how a SETS perspective may help address some of those shortcomings (Miller et al., 2018)
What have we found?
- Cities and infrastructure systems are SETS. Analyzing the components in isolation is not representative of the entire suite of services (and disservices) that cities and infrastructure provide.
- Urban infrastructure often mediates the relationships between human activities and ecosystem processes.
- People (and infrastructure) are part of, and creators of, urban systems/urban ecologies, not disturbances to the system per se.
- In urban systems, the drivers, impacts, and responses to extreme events can occur in and are influenced by the biophysical (e.g., air, water, climate, plants, animals, etc.), social, and built components of the city, as well as the linkages between these components.
- More work is needed to better understand and incorporate (especially via co-production of knowledge with stakeholders and community members) human values/concerns/perceptions of the social, ecological, and technological components of urban systems.
- SETS framing for urban and infrastructure systems can facilitate novel approaches for equitably setting goals, dealing with complexity and scale, establishing ecological-technological (green-gray) hybrid systems, performing more resiliently, and successfully evolving for changing and future conditions.
- A SETS lens for infrastructure can help identify and avoid the emergence of lock-in: a crucial barrier to resilience and adaptation efforts in urban and infrastructure systems.
- The role of social, ecological, and technological systems/context is often overlooked when valuing nature-based interventions and ecosystem services.
Where are we going?
Moving forward, we have two primary goals. First, to continue to develop and promote SETS thinking as an impactful way to conduct ‘convergence’ science which integrates knowledge systems across disciplines. Second, to move beyond methodological and conceptual framing of SETS toward more applied use and implementation of SETS thinking. Following are some ongoing efforts aimed at achieving these goals:
- Explore the SETS dynamics and trade-offs in future visions and scenarios developed by city practitioners and citizens
- Explore where, when, and at what geographic and temporal scale different S,E, and T components are most (or least) effective at supporting resilience to extreme events and analyze how these characteristics complement (or exacerbate) each other
- Develop analytical approaches for evaluating the relationship between SETS and urban resilience to extreme events in order to gain a clearer understanding of the circumstances in which SETS thinking and/or SETS strategies most effectively contribute to enhanced resilience.