Urban Sustainability Observatories: Leveraging Urban Experimentation for Sustainability Science and Policy

Cities are complex systems, and sustainability is a wicked problem. How should we approach sustainable urban systems science and policy? In this paper published in Harvard Data Science Review, we discuss the concept of data-enabled urban sustainability observatories that leverage real-world experimentation for deeper understanding and better policies.

Miller, H.J., Clifton, K., Akar, G., Tufte, K. Gopalakrishnan, S., MacArthur, J., Irwin, E., Ramnath, R., Stiles, J. (2021) ā€œUrban sustainability observatories: Leveraging urban experimentation for sustainability science and policy,ā€ Harvard Data Science Review, 3.2, DOI: 10.1162/99608f92.2025202b


Humanity is experiencing revolutionary changes in the 21st century, including accelerating urbanization, the introduction of disruptive mobility technology services, and new sources of data generated and consumed by urban and mobility processes. However, the environmental, social, and economic sustainability implications of these new mobility services are unclear given the complex nature of urban systems and the multifaceted, contested nature of sustainability goals. In this article, we discuss the concept of urban sustainability observatories that leverage urban experimentation through ongoing data collection and analysis capabilities. The goal is to generate new scientific insights and design effective policies to meet sustainability goals for cities. We outline their functional requirements and related research challenges. We also discuss challenges in building and sustaining these observatories and how university, community, and industry partnerships may establish successful observatories that serve as critical drivers of research, technology transfer, and commercialization.

Keywords: data observatory, sustainability, urban experimentation, geospatial data, mobility data

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