Urban environments – an increasing focus for social scientists


10th July 2020

Social science is focused on engendering positive social change through creative, engaged and collaborative environments. It encompasses a diverse, inclusive and innovative research landscape. In this context, urban environments are an increasing area of focus for social scientists.

We spoke to Morven Fraser-Walther – Aspect Programme Coordinator at the University of Glasgow – about some of the challenges and opportunities for social sciences in this area, and the University’s work in relation to urban planning and sustainable development.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing urban spaces?

As we can clearly see in our current political, social and cultural environments, the reshaping of the urban form and the changing uses of urban space are accelerated by rapid changes in the climate, mobility, labour market restructuring, housing, welfare regimes and globalisation. The creation of a healthy, sustainable, cohesive and productive city, with a strong focus on liveability — including changing city governance — has been pushed to the fore. We are likely to continue to see this develop further.

As fundamental structural, environmental, social and technical evolutions occur over the next 20-year horizon, cities will be the crucible in which those changes and the opportunities and challenges they bring are most keenly felt.

What role do the social sciences have to play with regards to urban planning and sustainable development?

Solutions to major societal challenges of our time require new modes of working, networking and understanding how different methodologies, approaches and mechanisms can best complement one another.

In order to understand these developments as well as plan for them, the influence of data-gathering and analysis will be crucial to enabling positive change within urban landscapes. In addition, as urban environments rapidly adapt to the demands of their inhabitants, it requires researchers to develop personal skills, strategies and knowledge to build, develop and sustain interdisciplinary coalitions, with the ability to make contributions in their own discipline as well as developing the capabilities to work with new funders and building new alliances. This is what is, in part, driving our exploration of research commercialisation within this area. Social science can be instrumental in the development and implementation of urban interventions.

World-leading research which generates impact, influences policy and creates shared pathways for knowledge exchange has never been more vital to ensure informed decision-making in economies and amongst populations.

Where do you see as the biggest opportunities for social science commercialisation in this area?

Commercialisation activity can help support new pathways of knowledge exchange to support free-flowing ideas between research and industry, as essential strategies for solving complex multi-faceted  challenges relating to urban spaces.

At the University of Glasgow College of Social Science, we are committed to helping make sense of the world in which we live. We engage with people in context, co-developing solutions, and look forward to using commercialisation opportunities to drive world-leading research far into the future. Social science is underpinned by the desire to understand people — how they interact with environments, structures and society — when we can better understand the way people use and live in urban spaces, we can help inform evidence-based solutions to problems and challenges in daily life.

What are the most pressing challenges for social sciences in generating impact in this area?

Balancing the needs of researchers, populations and economies within an urban context requires careful planning as well as engaging with a variety of partners to develop strategies and research is vital to ensure successful collaborations and essential innovation. In order to support this work, promoting business engagement and commercialisation pathways from within the social sciences will be critical to achieving success and will start to develop pipelines of innovative activity and knowledge exchange to partner with communities.

A starting point is often gathering researchers, practitioners, and representatives from business and industry to talk about the intersections of their work and plot a way forward that lets the researcher explore their research interest, while solving a business need. Often, this in turn creates a worth-while relationship that leads to future collaborative work. Researchers and innovators in urban environments often have the same goals, the critical part is getting everyone to speak a common language and define the areas where collaborative work has the most potential to create change.

Image of Glasgow by Julia Schwab from Pixabay

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