You’ve heard the numbers: More than half of the world’s people now live in cities, and in just a few decades more than two thirds of the globe’s rapidly growing population will be urban. Because cities already suck up much of the planet’s resources and generate much of its waste, these trends threaten to make Earth miserable unless cities become more sustainable.

Scientists could hold the key—if city leaders will invite them in as partners.

That assertion is not a faith statement. “Sustainability is driven by science, technology and innovation,” said Bernard Meyerson, chief innovation officer at IBM. He was speaking at the Science and the Sustainable City summit held by Springer Nature on July 11 in Singapore, one of the world’s most efficient cities. Meyerson made his case based in part on the World Economic Forum’s lists of top emerging technologies. Many of these, he noted, could directly improve urban life if city leaders bring in scientists and engineers to apply them.

For example, cities are gathering reams of real-time data, “but they don’t have good ways to understand what it might be telling them,” Meyerson noted. In London 500,000 video cameras record what is going on around town. China recently ordered two million to install in cities. These fire hoses of video data could ostensibly improve everything from traffic to crime prevention, but human operators cannot possibly keep up with the information deluge or make sense of which data matter, Meyerson said. Neuromorphic technology—software that can analyze images—on each camera could do that, “and submit the data to a central repository only when it has significance. It could also erase the data locally when it does not, to help protect privacy,” he noted.

Bernard Meyerson of IBM addresses the audience at the Science and the Sustainable City summit. Credit: Mark Fischetti

Artificial intelligence could help cities predict infrastructure failures before they happen, preventing deaths and disasters. Using these technologies, IBM’s supercomputer Watson can predict when an elevator is approaching failure by comparing noises it makes during operation with a baseline of noises made during routine safe operation. “Cities could apply similar AI and machine learning to broader infrastructure citywide,” Meyerson said. The technology “could warn city engineers and administrators when sewage pumps are going to fail or when power outages are about to arise.” Science and scientists, he noted, underlie effective use of all these kinds of technologies.

Arron Wood, deputy lord mayor of Melbourne, Australia, confirmed Meyerson’s view. Scientists have already helped his city design and deploy a system of stormwater holding tanks that have lessened flooding during heavy rainstorms and also provided water during the dry periods that prevail most of the year. Researchers have helped Melbourne set up science-based targets for annual carbon dioxide emissions that will allow it to gradually become a zero-emissions city.

Much more could be done. Researchers are now helping Melbourne expand its forest cover—the proportion of the municipality shaded by trees—from 22 to 40 percent. The increase, Wood said, could lower the city’s heat-island effect (added warmth due to buildings and roads absorbing and reemitting heat) by 4 degrees Celsius. “The trees will make the city look good,” Wood said, “but they will also prevent hundreds of deaths from heat stress, lessen fires, reduce violent crimes [which go up when air temperatures get very high], and even help the economy—because fewer people come into the city when it gets too hot.” Lena Chan, senior director of international biodiversity conservation at the National Parks Board of Singapore, added robust research shows more greenery also improves people’s physical and psychological well-being, helping a city to be healthy and productive.

Despite some successes, Wood said city administrators and scientists do not work together enough and also do not necessarily work well together. There is a gap in how the groups communicate and operate. “We don’t exactly fit hand in glove.” David Wallerstein, chief exploration officer at the Chinese investment firm Tencent, said the same is true of innovators: “Cities and entrepreneurs don’t communicate well.” The issue, Wallerstein said, is that “cities do not explain well their top priorities—what they most want to solve.” Or they do not have a city leader who is clearly running the effort on each of the priorities. So scientists and entrepreneurs are either not aware of exactly what cities may need or who to approach if they think they may have a potential solution.

Several of the speakers at the summit suggested fixes for this communication problem. Xuemei Bai, a professor of urban environment and human ecology at Australian National University, suggested cities create a paid position of chief science officer who can be a conduit for researchers who have intriguing ideas. Wood noted administrations can co-fund program chairs at universities in sustainability research areas such as resilience to climate change. There was general agreement cities can create forums and meetings for planners and researchers to talk about sustainability issues cities want to solve and to jump-start trial projects.

Wood also said scientists and their universities should try to find ways to speed up research time lines. The work can take a long time, which cities do not have. Bai said academics need to close a gap in sustainability science, too. “We need to build a more systematic approach to urban research and practice.” For example, instead of working in silos on urban vegetation, water and infrastructure, “we need to integrate them. We have to find a way to see cities as a complex system.” Then scientists can do a better job of connecting their work to city policies and policymaking.

Amidst all the discussion of scientific innovation, Meyerson reminded the summit crowd that social innovation is also needed to make cities more sustainable: “We cannot have a growing gap between the haves and have-nots—it is not ethical, and it is certainly not sustainable.” Science, community and policy need to be connected, the summit attendees agreed. “We have to inject social science into sustainability science,” Wood said, “because ultimately, cities are about people.”