Urban lifelines include constructed utilities, transportation systems, telecommunication systems, and critical facilities. Together, these infrastructure assets are crucial to the distribution and flow of services and supplies essential for human livelihoods and economic prosperity in urban centers.
We spoke to Dr. Gang Wu, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the new open access journal Urban Lifeline on his research, the importance of the UN SDGs, and the journal.
Our primary focus lies within the realm of urban lifeline safety, with a particular emphasis on risk assessment and establishment of early warning systems for geospatially spanned urban lifelines such as subways, gas and water supply networks, utilities, and other lifelines. These lifelines are more susceptible to extreme event-induced impacts than conventional structural and geotechnical systems (e.g. buildings, bridges, and roads) but have received less investigation.
As highlighted by the United Nations Report “World Urbanization Prospects”1 , an estimated 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, and it is projected to increase to 60% by 2030. This projected growth of urban population will place unprecedented challenges on the already overstressed infrastructure and lifeline systems that support urban centers, affecting areas of all sizes, from small townships to megacities. Over the past four years, the COVID-19 global pandemic, in addition to its stark socio-economic ramifications, has exposed the inadequacies of urban lifelines in many regions globally. Furthermore, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change, combined with other natural or technological hazards, have not only placed urban lifelines at high physical risk (when manifested, it presents as acerbated material aging or system failures), but have also impacted the urban environment as a whole. In the latter case, the compounded risk, if not secondary, includes concerns such as pollution, carbon footprints, and noise throughout the predicted lifetimes of urban lifelines.
Mitigating and managing such risks in these physical, social, economic, and environmental dimensions requires novel theories, methods, and solutions for sustainable and resilient urban lifeline infrastructure systems. Despite growing awareness among professional groups and governmental agencies, significant research challenges and knowledge gaps remain.
Our research is dedicated to creating new cutting-edge knowledge and innovative technologies for urban lifelines to foster sustainability and resilience of urban lifeline infrastructure and to advance the science and engineering of urban lifelines.
Urban lifeline research is a comprehensive and critical field that directly intersects with our daily lives, making it closely aligned with multiple UN SDGs, including SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, and SDG 13: Climate Action.
Furthermore, the establishment of sustainable and resilient infrastructure serves as the bedrock for fostering good health and well-being, driving economic growth, and ensuring equal opportunities. Therefore, it is also relevant to SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being, SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 10: Reduce Inequalities. For us, urban lifeline research is truly at the heart of the global sustainable development agenda.
The short-term goal of our work is to explore new knowledge and innovate solutions that enhance urban lifelines with the concurrent objectives of achieving integrated system resilience and sustainability. Our roadmap towards this goal comprises two pathways. First, we aim to develop novel theories and analysis frameworks that unite first-principle-based simulation, engineering reliability, risk, and network theoretic methods to simulate, assess, predict, and control the behavior of urban lifelines. Second, we recognize the instrumental role of modern digital technologies, such as robotics and autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G or 6G communications, Internet of Things (IoT), sensing, digital twins, and cyber-physical systems. These emerging technologies present unique opportunities for us to better understand and manage lifeline infrastructure.
The long-term goal is to break the silos and transcend the conventional disciplinary boundaries within urban lifeline research. Urban lifeline research is an utterly complex field. For example, the resilience of any urban lifeline must be encoded through its functionality, which in turn is reflected in the quality of service it provides to the community. The adoption of any technology is not merely a decision based on the physical aspects of urban lifeline; it involves complex considerations of social, organizational, and economic variables. Moreover, when we further contemplate the intra- and interdependencies among lifeline infrastructure systems and communities, many research questions remain undefined, let alone possible solutions. We will strive to create a transdisciplinary and holistic arena for the global urban lifeline research community.
Our research is all about improving people’s quality of life through sustainable and resilient lifeline infrastructures. The societal impact serves as the driving force behind the very essence of our work. By focusing on the safety and resilience of lifelines such as transportation networks, utilities, and communication systems, our research aims to bring about tangible improvements in the well-being of urban residents, the functionality of cities, and the overall progress of societies. Green infrastructure design and the adoption of low-emission materials can minimize the carbon footprints of urban lifelines, ultimately contributing to the global mitigation of climate change. Indeed, it means a lot to us when our research outcomes and products can actually help people, especially those vulnerable populations who are often disproportionately affected by disasters and disruptions. Ultimately, the societal impact of our research is the litmus test of its true value.
Public engagement plays a vital role in shaping the direction, significance, and effectiveness of urban lifeline research and its practical applications. Urban lifelines involve not just the policymakers but all stakeholders, including the general public, local communities, government agencies, researchers, and industry partners. Active engagement of all stakeholders can take various forms during different stages of research, including data collection, participatory planning and decision-making, interactive simulation or games, and the dissemination of research findings. One example in our research underscores this principle. We adopted the crowdsourcing method to collect data on building structures in rural China, involving homeowners and volunteers in capturing photos of the building structures. Subsequently, artificial intelligence techniques were employed to extract key information, conduct structural analysis, and provide timely assessment and recommendations for risk mitigation.
Ultimately, public engagement in urban lifeline research helps create a more informed and empowered society. This is the most and only effective way to ensure that our research is meaningful and can make a significant societal impact.
For researchers pursuing their impact beyond academia, our advice for them is to step out of their comfort zone and avoid confining themselves within the walls of their offices or labs. Embrace the field, engage directly with stakeholders, and immerse themselves in real-world problems where their research can make a dent.
It is also important for them to communicate their research in different ways depending on the context, including interviews, seminars, social media outreach, and educational materials. Content and presentation approaches should be tailored to suit different sectors of stakeholders, taking into account their specific needs and levels of expertise.
As discussed earlier, urban lifelines are intricately linked to multiple UN SDGs. Our journal Urban Lifeline serves as a pioneering platform that places a laser focus on the critical field of urban lifeline engineering. It covers a broad and comprehensive spectrum of technical domains related to the entire lifecycle of urban lifelines, spanning from infrastructure planning, design, construction, maintenance, and decommissioning to hazard characterization, risk assessment, real-time monitoring, and socio-economic resilience. The journal maintains a broad scope and covers multidisciplinary aspects of urban lifeline systems, with the aim of promoting research that yields actionable insights to improve the safety, intelligence, resilience, and sustainability of critical urban lifelines. The journal’s ultimate aspiration is to foster thriving and vibrant communities that resonate with healthy living for all.
Dr. Gang Wu, Professor at Southeast University, Nanjing, China.
Dr. Wu is winner of the National Science Foundation of China for Distinguished Young Scholars, Distinguished Changjiang Chair Professor of the Ministry of Education of China, winner of Tencent Science Exploration Award, winner of China Science and Technology for Young Scientists Award, President of China Young Science and Technology Professionals Association, Director of National and Local Joint Engineering Research Center for Smart Construction, Operation and Maintenance.
His research interests include intelligent construction, operation and maintenance of major infrastructure, new materials and new structural systems, and performance improvement of existing engineering structures.
Dr. Wu is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the new OA journal Urban Lifeline.
1Department of Economics and Social Affairs, United Nations, “World Urbanization Prospects 2018”, https://population.un.org/wup/.