Inaugural Chadha Center conference explores urbanization and sustainability

Thursday, May 28, 2020

An estimated 400 million new residents will migrate to Indian cities by 2050, necessitating major changes in urban infrastructure and planning. On March 27 and 28, M.S. Chadha Center for Global India addressed the challenges and opportunities of this mass movement of people in its inaugural conference, “Urban Sustainability Transitions in India and the World: Advancing Science and Policy.”

“We wanted to understand those challenges and solutions that connect India to the rest of the world — not just India within its region of South Asia, but India globally,” said Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Affairs (PIIRS), in introductory remarks.

The conference used this overarching theme — of India’s connection to the world — to examine cities. “We’re now living on an urban planet,” said Anu Ramaswami, the Sanjay Swani ‘87 Professor of India Studies, director of the Chadha Center, and professor of civil and environmental engineering, PIIRS, and the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI). “Even though cities occupy only three percent of the land surface, they’re transforming global flows of energy, global flows of water. They’re affecting health and well-being at scales that we really haven’t seen before in the history of our planet.”

The conference, originally conceived as an in-person on campus event, pivoted to an online series of Zoom panels due to the coronavirus outbreak. It brought together 53 speakers from India, the U.S. and international organizations to discuss how India’s approach during this transition will affect sustainability worldwide. With the new online format, which featured three public panels, more than 450 people registered to attend the conference from around the world.

The opening panel, “Urban Sustainability Innovations in India and the World,” examined India’s sustainability trajectory. Infrastructure development in growing cities represents a potential investment of trillions of dollars, making India a key player in the effort to keep temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. “The window for making the right choices is uncomfortably narrow,” said Satya Tripathi, assistant secretary-general and head of the New York Office for the UN Environment Programme.

Ani Dasgupta, global director of the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities recommended focusing on providing basic services and productive employment in an efficient, low-carbon way. Denise Mauzerall, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public and international affairs, and Sachchida Tripathi, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, stressed India’s air pollution challengs. Tripathi reviewed the progress of the Government of India’s National Clean Air Programme, which seeks to address air pollution through knowledge creation, institutional capacity development, and mitigation solutions.

Other panelists suggested how NGOs might help to bridge the gap between capacity and innovation. Ashish Rao Ghorpade, deputy director of ICLEI South Asia, provided examples of how his organization works with cities to implement local sustainability projects such as road junction improvement, flood mitigation and waste management.

In light of the coronavirus outbreak, Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, provided an overview of the complex effects of urbanization on disease transmission. While cities with dense populations make it easier for disease to spread, they can also drive positive public health features. Smart cities offer a “foci for control,” Grenfell said. “But obviously there is a key tradeoff between surveillance and privacy.”

Rakesh Mohan, a senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, stressed that academic research is most helpful when cities have the bandwidth to implement new findings. “New technologies have gone ahead of the capacity of a lot of urban government officials to absorb,” he said.

The second panel was “The Urban Food System: the U.S., India and Africa,” which drew connections as far ranging as sustainability and culture. “When we talk about the food system, we’re talking about all the activities as well as all the institutions and social actors that are involved,” said Dana Boyer, research and development manager at PEI and at the Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Systems Lab.

This panel not only addressed food production and consumption systems, but also food waste systems. “The whole world has a food waste problem,” said Zhiyong Jason Ren, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and associate director for research at the Andlinger Center. Ren drew attention to the Sustainable Composting Research at Princeton (S.C.R.A.P.) Lab, which converts campus food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment for campus grounds.

The panel also included the perspectives of Thomas Reardon, professor and distinguished faculty member in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, on the transformation of food supply chains; Upmanu Lall, the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University, on the interconnectedness of the food-energy-water nexus; Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University, on food as a cultural system; and Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president of University Services, on wellness, sustainability and community engagement on the Princeton campus.

“The Urban Food System” concluded with a moderated discussion by Andrew Chignell, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Religion. “How do we, as individuals, think of our consumer behavior or activist behavior or advocacy as difference-making?” he asked, referring to calls for environmentally-friendly diet changes that sometimes meet with cultural resistance. “What should we do when it looks like cultural identity pushes against making some of the changes that people are suggesting?”

The final panel, “How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research in India Can Impact the World and Transform the Science,” brought together academics and industry leaders. Manish Gupta, director of Google Research India, highlighted the growth of computing power which has allowed humans to accomplish tasks that seemed unimaginable three decades ago — object recognition, converting audio files to text and language translation. Gupta provided examples of AI applications to urban and environmental and public health challenges. The panel focused on advancing the fundamental science of AI through new applications: for example, in India, customers, speaking multiple languages, are interacting with AI technology.

AI technology offers compelling solutions to such pervasive problems. “We’ve seen a major boost in natural language processing (NLP) models,” said Karthik Narasimhan, assistant professor of computer science, who explained that it can be used for automatic image captioning, real-time language translation and direct communication with humans. Such NLP could be “game-changing” for digital humanities, said Ellen Ambrosone, South Asian Studies librarian. One challenge in the South Asian studies field is working with the diversity of languages and scripts. “How can we align these seemingly disparate research agendas to support the development of technologies in mutually reinforcing ways?” she said.

Sanjeev Arora, the Charles C. Fitzmorris Professor of Computer Science, drew attention to the need to build a highly-skilled AI scientific workforce to develop research capacity. “All these technologies that everybody seems to agree India needs, I fear that there’s basically no scientific workforce there to make it happen,” he said, and laid out a plan for jumpstarting AI research capacity in India.

In addition to the public panels, members of the academic community were invited to three additional closed-door sessions focused on air pollution, energy transitions and water, led by Ramaswami and Jessica Seddon, visiting research scholar at Princeton and global lead for air quality at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The conference was hosted by the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India and co-sponsored by PIIRS, PEI, and the Metropolis Project at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.