Global Urban Challenges: The Role of Research Universities

April 29, 2015
As cities around the world are pressed to address challenges presented by increased urbanization, antiquated infrastructure, and outdated public policies, research universities and their scholars may be a source for solutions.

Cities worldwide face major issues, including providing access to health care, ensuring quality education, maintaining urban vitality, and adapting infrastructure to be environmentally sustainable. Yet few mayors or city officials have the time, money, or expertise to explore these problems in depth. Universities, though, are thought leaders, conveners of experts and practitioners, aggregators of data, partners to government and civic organizations, anchors in their communities, and—perhaps most important—the nucleus of new ideas.

What role can major research universities play in helping cities address global urban challenges? To explore this question, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois convened a major conference in Chicago from November 18 to 20, 2013, with representatives from over 25 research universities from around the world. The conference was not intended to provide solutions. Rather, it focused on how research universities are addressing these problems, on opportunities for international collaboration, on their relationships with their local communities, and on how they are using big data in their search for solutions.

This report summarizes the three-day conference. Highlights include:
  • Government, corporate, civic, and educational leaders must collaborate to meet the needs of cities; government cannot do it alone.
  • Universities and researchers, freed from institutional constraints, have the resources and bandwidth to study issues over time, test hypotheses, assess variables, and explore potential outcomes that could help solve urban challenges. But universities still remain centers of teaching and research, not consultants to a city government.
  • International collaborations are useful for exchanging ideas, but scholars come from different disciplines and cultures, so partnerships should be pursued on a case-by-case basis. Collaborations are far more effective when they come with a common budget, an external funder, and mutual trust.
While the conference did not reach consensus on how research universities and cities can collaborate to tackle the problems of urbanization, it revealed the ferment within universities as they grapple with the problems of the cities, their relationship to government, and their role in their communities.

Generous support for the conference was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Northern Trust, the Patrick G. and Shirley Welsh Ryan Foundation, the Segal Family Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.