Extension agreed for Urban Transformations to continue until 2020

Originally scheduled to end in 2018, the Urban Transformations programme has received an extension from the ESRC to continue its activities until June 2020. The portfolio recently welcomed another 10 projects to the portfolio, including a number of collaborative UK-India research partnerships and several new JPI Urban Europe projects, with plans to introduce more in the coming weeks.

Urban Transformations was first launched in 2015 after extensive discussions within the ESRC and the broader academic community on the value of establishing interdisciplinary urban studies as a research priority for the council, with a dedicated platform to oversee a series of funding calls and also ‘curate’ the numerous urban studies programmes funded by the ESRC through other means or programmes. This included major infrastructure bids (such as the Urban Big Data Centre in Glasgow) and ‘urban’ research projects that were independently supported in response-based grant applications or related programmes, such as the cross-council and internationally collaborative programme JPI Urban Europe: the European knowledge hub for Urban Transitions.

Since then, with a total of five research calls spanning a range of themes and regions, the ESRC has funded a large number of innovative projects that in different ways reflected the key criteria identified by Professor Michael Keith and others before the portfolio’s launch – namely, research that was interdisciplinary, multi-scalar, internationally comparative, future oriented and working across urban professional interests. At the same time, the portfolio was shaped by different geographical scales of UK, European and internationally focused research and collaboration.

At the UK scale, this included a call for UK-based proposals that funded four major projects and a partnership with the Foresight Future of Cities programme in various areas, including the development of the cross-council Urban Living pilot initiative the Future Cities Catapult. At a broader European scale, Urban Transformations supported ESRC engagement in JPI Urban Europe. In addition, a partnership with the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies established a series of workshops curating projects from the wider portfolio to an EU-related policy making audience between 2016 and 2018, enabling more than 20 ESRC investments showcase their research and in the process strengthening links with pan-European initiatives such as the European Network of Living Labs. Finally, at the international scale, research partnerships between the ESRC and institutions in Brazil, China, India and South Africa resulted in four separate calls and the funding of a number of projects that focused on the urban challenges in each of these countries. As part of this work, Urban Transformations has participated in various international forums with member projects, most notably at the Habitat III event in Quito, Ecuador in 2016 where it hosted a side session.

Future priorities and the changing research ecosystem

The UK’s research landscape has changed significantly over the last 12 months and under the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) umbrella, research councils increasingly are co-operating in developing cross-council interdisciplinary programmes, including potential initiatives in the urban space. In this context, the Urban Transformations programme will aim over the next 18 months to curate ESRC-funded investments, providing a gathering point for researchers and a voice for the social sciences as such initiatives develop.

For UKRI, the urban is an area that has been supported in a range of initiatives through research council work and through attempts to prioritise both Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and Global Challenge Research Fund interests. Building on this, UKRI has announced the ‘GCRF Collective Programme’. This new programme is part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in 2015, and of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment. The first calls administered by the ESRC on behalf of UKRI will be launched in early 2019. They will be looking at the six strategic GCRF Challenge portfolios in: global health, education, sustainable cities, food systems, conflict and displacement, and resilience. Of particular interest to the Urban Transformations community will be the calls due to be launched in April looking at resilience and infrastructure in informal urban populations (re-thinking the off-grid city) and sustainable energy in the context of international development.

Urban Transformations book series

Tied to the Urban Transformations programme, an agreement has been developed with Manchester University Press (MUP) to publish a book series related to the programme. The MUP book series will include a mixture of edited collections and research monographs and will be edited by Professor Michael Keith and Professor Sue Parnell. Some suggestions for volumes have been identified already as part of the series, but editors are interested in receiving boom proposals and will be making public a call for proposals for the series in early 2019.