TRB 2020 + a Conversation with Congressmen Garcia and Takano

2 01 2020

For more than a decade, I have served as a member of the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) Transportation and Sustainability Committee (ADD40). During the TRB 2020 Annual Meeting, ADD40 will be holding its final series of conference meetings, workshops, and lectern sessions (see below for more information on these activities). The success of the ADD40 committee has meant the subject of sustainability will now be elevated to the Sustainability and Resilience Group (AM000), which will have a special Section on Transportation and Sustainability (AMS00). The new TRB structure can be accessed here.

During this conference, I will have the pleasure of hosting a conversation with Representatives Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (Fourth Congressional District of Illinois) and Mark Takano (41st Congressional District of California), who along with Representative Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts 7th Congressional District) launched the Future of Transportation Caucus in 2019. During our session – entitled A Century of Progress? Reflecting on How Transportation Has or Has Not Promoted Sustainability Outcomes in Equity, the Economy, and the Environment – we will discuss the role of the new caucus and explore what can be done to advance environmental, social, and economic sustainability through transportation system development. We plan to dedicate over one half of our session to an open Q&A with conference participants.

Monday (Jan 13)

Tuesday (Jan 14)

Wednesday (Jan 15)

Thursday (Jan 16)

Congratulations Khushboo Gupta!

10 12 2019

Congratulations to Khushboo Gupta who successfully defended her Ph.D. in Planning, Governance, and Globalization last Tuesday. Khushboo’s research focused on exploring risks associated with implementing smart city projects in India’s Smart Cities Mission. During her research in the cities of Kakinada and Kanpur, Khushboo interviewed industry professionals who were executing the proposed smart city projects as well as officials in local government and in the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). The main findings from her research can be found below in her dissertation abstract.

While at Virginia Tech, Khushboo worked part-time as a graduate assistant in the Office of Economic Development, where she supported projects related to workforce and industry analysis, strategic planning, and community involvement. She has a master’s degree in Civil Engineering (from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India) and bachelor’s in Civil Engineering (from Uttar Pradesh Technical University, India). Khushboo first came to Virginia Tech as a summer intern under the IITK-VT Obama-Singh Knowledge Initiative in 2013. During her summer internship, she worked in the Civil and Environment Engineering department on a project entitled “Condition Assessment of Pipelines in the USA” in collaboration with Prof. Sunil Sinha.

During her PhD, Khushboo was also a summer intern at the CIDCO Smart City Lab, National Institute of Urban Affairs in India in 2017, where she supported the work of a smart city that was funded under the Smart Cities Mission. This experience was instrumental in helping her narrow down her research focus. Khushboo was recently awarded the Gill-Chin Student Travel Award for her research on smart cities by the Global Planning Educator’s Interest Group in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. 

I served as the chair of Khushboo’s doctoral committee, along with committee members Wenwen Zhang, Shalini Misra, Tom Sanchez, and Adam Eckerd.

Smart City and Related challenges – Cases of Kakinada and Kanpur

Abstract: With the advancement in information and communication technologies (ICT), Smart Cities are becoming a popular urban development strategy amongst policymakers and city managers to respond to various threats posed by rapid urbanization such as environmental degradation and increasing inequality (Hartemink, 2016). Therefore, globally, regions ranging from small towns to megacities are proposing and investing in smart city (SC) initiatives. Unfortunately, the prolific use of this term by city managers and technology vendors is clouding the view on what it really takes to become a SC (Van den Bergh & Viaene, 2015). As a consequence, cities are experiencing multiple implementation risks when trying to turn a smart city ambition into reality. These implementation risks reflect the gaps or missing pieces in the current organizational structure and policies designed for implementing SC projects at the city level. They can be understood better if the process of SC transformation is explored using diverse cases of cities undergoing such a transformation. However, the current studies on SC initiatives at the local, regional, national, and international level have focused on: 1) strengthening the SC concept rather than understanding the practical implementation of the concept – i.e., discussing SC characteristics and outcomes rather than focusing on the challenges faced in implementing SC projects; 2) cases that have already been developed as a SC or are soon to become a SC, leaving out the opportunity to study cities undergoing SC transformation and the identification of implementation risks; and 3) cases from more advanced economies. Taken together, these observations reveal the need for research that focuses on SC initiatives in a developing nation context. More specifically, there is a need for researchers, city managers, and policymakers in these regions to focus on the process of SC transformation to identify implementation risks early on in the process. Understanding these risks may help the development of better risk mitigation strategies and result in more successful SC projects. This research identifies SC implementation risks in two cities currently undergoing SC transformation in India – Kakinada and Kanpur. While examining the risks landscape in these two cities, the research also explores what city officials are focused on when implementing SC projects.

This exploratory research finds that: 1) implementation risks such as Institutional, Resource and Partnership, and Social are crucial for implementing SC projects; 2) Institutional risks that relate to gaps and deficiencies in local urban governance such as overlapping functions of multiple local urban development agencies, have causal linkages with other risks such as Resource and Partnership risks and Financial risks, which further delay project implementation; and 3) city officials and industry professionals implementing SC projects in Kakinada and Kanpur have a slightly different perspective on smartness, however both the groups focus on External smartness of the city – i.e., projects related to physical infrastructure such as mobility and sanitation – rather than Internal smartness of the city – i.e., strengthening local urban governance, increasing citizen engagement, etc. Overall, this research proposes that there is a need to frame the concept of a SC around both Internal and External Smartness of the city. 

This research will be of special interest to: 1) cities (in both developed and developing nations) currently implementing SC projects by providing a framework to systematically examine the risk landscape for successful project implementation; and 2) communities/institutions (especially in developing nations) proposing SC initiatives by helping them focus on components, goals, and enablers of a SC.

Challenging Human Supremacy

31 10 2019

On Friday, November 8, I will be taking part in a symposium in honor of Eileen Crist, the author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The symposium is tilted Challenging Human Supremacy: Degrowth, post-growth, and the future of life on earth.

The symposium is open to the Virginia Tech community and the public and will be held from 1:30 to 5:00pm in the New Classroom Building, room 360.

In her new book, Eileen argues that the continued existence of life on earth requires us to rethink our relationship to the planet. She calls for humans to scale down and pull back by challenging human supremacy and economic growth frameworks. During the symposium, I will join a panel discussion with Virginia Tech faculty to explore these ideas from our various perspectives.

Panel Discussion: 1:30 – 3:00 PM

Reception: 3:00 – 3:30 PM

Keynote: 3:30 – 5:00 PM

  • Eileen Crist, “Exiting the Age of Man”

SuperStudio – Spring 2020

16 10 2019

This spring I will be taking part in the new Honors College SuperStudio, where five advanced undergraduate courses (described below) will collaborate to examine the potentials and challenges of the Green New Deal. The SuperStudio is designed to engage students in transdisciplinary and collaborative work and provide a space where they can develop critical skills and knowledge.

The SuperStudio will consist of the following five courses:

  • UH 4504: Environmental Policy and Social Change (20945)
  • UH 4504: “Medicare for All!”: Data Analysis for Health Reform (20946)
  • UH 4504: “Drone-Age” Innovation for the Public Good (20947)
  • UH 4504: The Future of Higher Education (20948)
  • UAP 4914: The Future of Employment (19367)

All five courses will meet at the same time and place to facilitate collaboration within and across the classes: Tuesday/Thursday, 2:00 – 3:15, in the Honors College’s new SuperStudio space in Squires Student Center (formerly the Old Dominion Ballroom). Students will have swipe-card access to the studio and dedicated project-development spaces.

In addition to enrolling in one of these five courses, students will also enroll in UH 4984: Honors SuperStudio (20958), a 1-credit corequisite that will meet on Wednesday, 11:15-12:05, to explore connections among their subjects and approaches, interrogate the Green New Deal, and pursue coordinated transdisciplinary responses to its potentials and challenges.

There are no prerequisite courses, but junior standing is required. All honors and honors-eligible students (3.6 GPA or better) are encouraged to participate in the SuperStudio, which we intend to make a vibrant community of practice.

UH 4504: Environmental Policy and Social Change – Dr. Velez

Public policy encompasses not just laws, but regulations, funding priorities, and decision-making in public institutions. In this course, we will study the National Environmental Policy Act to understand policy process; ethics, accountability, and diversity in policy making; and how sectoral differences affect policy decisions.

UH 4504: “Medicare for all!”: Data Analysis for Health Reform – Dr. Lewis

National and global health agencies mine patient data to determine trends in health care and make predictions about health crises. But does that data accurately reflect the health of all citizens? Moreover, does that data suggest how we might pay for universal healthcare as described in the Green New Deal?

UH 4504: “Drone-Age” Innovation for the Public Good – Prof. Banks-Hunt

Drone technology has tremendous potential for social and environmental public good. In this course, we will engage in problem-finding and design thinking for real-world applications of drone technology.

UH 4504: The Future of Higher Education – Dr. Underwood and Prof. Williams

How will higher education change in a world of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and distance education? In light of policies such as the Green New Deal, how will access, affordability, and innovation change learning and higher education?

UAP 4914: Public & Urban Seminar – The Future of Employment – Dr. Hall

In this seminar, we will study the Green New Deal from a variety of perspectives – industrial, academic, governmental, civil, and socio-ecological – paying close attention to how the proposed initiatives might advance or undermine meaningful and well-paid employment in the future.

New Paper on RWSS Sustainability

28 09 2019

Over a decade ago, while I was a postdoc at Stanford University, I co-led a multiple-use water services (MUS) study in Colombia. A key part of this study was finding and working with in-country experts who could help us design effective and culturally appropriate surveying instruments. During one of my pre-fieldwork trips to Colombia, I had the pleasure of meeting Isabel Domínguez, who was working as a researcher at CINARA (Research and Development Institute for Water Supply, Environmental Sanitation, and Water Resource Conservation) at the Universidad del Valle in Cali. The pictures below were taken during this trip.


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At the time of my visit, Isabel had led several research projects in Colombia connected with MUS, but was looking to build on her expertise by returning to graduate school. Several years after our first encounter, she started a MSc program at Loughborough University in connection with the Water Engineering and Development Centre, and then went to Newcastle University for a PhD. After successfully obtaining her PhD, Isabel returned to Colombia, where she is now a lecturer at the Industrial University of Santander.

Just over a year ago, I reconnected with Isabel via a study she was hoping to publish with several colleagues. The challenge facing the research team was to develop a paper that described the process of creating a new rural water supply system (RWSS) assessment tool. Given Isabel’s help in shaping our MUS research in Colombia back in 2008, I was happy to join the team and help craft a paper that described their new tool.

In contrast to most studies that assess RWSS sustainability using a low number of indicators, typically due to pragmatism or the costs associated with data collection, the larger number of attributes and indicators selected for the proposed assessment tool were found to be critical to the measurement of sustainability. The end result was a tool composed of 17 attributes with 95 quantifiable indicators. The tool enables the assessment of the sustainability of RWSS, using data collected through semi-structured interviews, social cartography, technical inspection, household surveys, and water monitoring.

Having studied the sustainability of rural water systems for well over a decade, I believe a unique aspect of the new assessment tool is the role it can play in helping communities better understand their systems, which in turn can help them prioritize their actions and investments, look for support for aspects beyond their immediate capabilities, and self‐mobilize for improvements that can be performed without external support.

A key takeaway from this story behind the paper is the joy of reconnecting with someone who helped me early in my career and be able to return the favor.

The paper and its extensive supplementary material can be accessed by selecting the images below.

New Paper in Water

24 09 2019

In 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting Raj GC at a Multiple-Use Water Services (MUS) retreat at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. Raj is located on the top right of the picture below that was taken during the retreat. Four years later, Raj left his home in Nepal to join our PhD program in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) at Virginia Tech, to study the impacts of MUS in Nepal. On Monday, the first paper of his dissertation was published that explores whether the design of rural water systems in the mid-hills of Nepal impacts how households use water. The paper is open access (thanks to Virginia Tech’s Open Access Subvention Fund) and can be accessed by selecting the title of the paper below.


In Nepal, rural water systems (RWS) are classified by practitioners as single-use domestic water systems (SUS) or multiple-use water systems (MUS). In the rural hills of Nepal, subsistence farming communities typically use RWS to support income-generating productive activities that can enhance rural livelihoods. However, there is limited research on the extent of existing productive activity and the factors enabling these activities. This paper examines the extent of water-related productive activities and the factors driving these activities based on a study, undertaken between October 2017 to June 2018, of 202 households served from five single-use domestic water systems and five multiple use water systems in the mid-hills of Nepal. The research found that a majority (94%) of these households engaged in two or more productive activities including growing vegetables and horticulture crops, raising livestock, and producing biogas and Rakshi (locally-produced alcohol), regardless of the system design, i.e., SUS vs. MUS. Around 90% of the households were engaged in productive activities that contributed to over 10% of their mean annual household income ($4,375). Since the SUS vs. MUS classification was not found to be a significant determinant of the extent of productive activity, the households were reclassified as having high or low levels of productive activity based on the quantity of water used for these activities and the associated earned income. A multinomial logistic regression model was developed to measure the relative significance of various predictors of high productive activity households. Five dominant predictors were identified: households that farm as a primary occupation, use productive technologies, are motivated to pursue productive activities, have received water-related productive activity training, and have received external support related to productive activities. Whereas MUS are designed for productive activity, nearly every household in SUS communities was involved in productive activities making them ‘de-facto’ MUS. These results challenge the current approach to rural water provision that views SUS and MUS as functionally different services.

The Story Behind the Paper

2 09 2019

As with most journal articles there is a story behind the work, but these are rarely told. In this post, I thought I’d share why we wrote our paper entitled Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability.

Over the past two decades, I have worked closely with Prof. Nicholas Ashford, Prof. Robert Ashford, and Charles Caldart to identify strategies that could transform the industrial state towards sustainability. This research has resulted in two editions of our textbook entitled Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development. While the scope of this work is vast, at its core is how regulation/policy, innovation, and new economics can be leveraged to create an environment for disruptive change towards sustainability.

When we started this collaboration, the trends in income inequality were clear, but the national/international conversation related to using some form of universal basic income to address inequality was limited. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, this situation started to change, as did the conversation about the role of automation/AI in displacing well-paid employment opportunities.

We have long argued for the need to consider “employment” as a fundamental, but frequently overlooked, aspect of sustainability, which is why we put the words Environment, Economy, and Employment on the front cover of the textbook. What many people may not realize (without a careful read of the textbook) is that we view employment from two perspectives – (1) traditional employment that provides people with an income from their labor and (2) employment of the capital they may own that also provides an income.

Given our focus on employment, we have been tracking how technology (think automation, digital technology, software, AI, robotics, etc.) has been reshaping work and what this means for the idea of full-time, well-paid work. The first section of the new paper presents some of these trends, especially related to the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and many OECD nations.

The second section of the paper looks at the macro environmental challenges we face and raises a critical question. If we advance a scientifically-optimistic “efficiency” agenda (i.e., do much more with much less) to address environmental problems, is this approach likely to result in less well-paid jobs? We believe this could be the case. As knowledge/skills are continually embodied into more advanced forms of capital (technology, AI, etc.), the ability of labor to claim its share of the work being done (what we call productiveness; which is not the same as labor productivity) declines. It is also important to add that while the total number of jobs may actually remain the same or increase, what we are focusing on is what is doing the work and what this means for income (i.e., income from labor and from technology/real capital ownership).

The implications from this understanding of the economy point to some challenging questions. For example, if human knowledge and skills (especially, routine manual and cognitive tasks) are being embodied in technology/real capital, the question of who or what is really doing the value-added work becomes important. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the ability of workers to claim a greater share of the wealth being created, if the majority of the work being done (value being added) comes from the technology/real capital side of the equation.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to explain what is a set of complex and interconnected ideas, but during a conversation I had with our new Dean in 2017, I found a “two ice hockey stick” analogy to be useful. Put simply, both hockey sticks represent curves of the two most pressing issues of our time, increasing inequality and increasing environmental problems. As mentioned above, the typical set of solutions to environmental problems is to essentially do more with less through efficiency/advanced technology (the scientifically optimistic solution to unsustainability). The problem is that as the capability of technology grows, its ability to capture value-added aspects of work also grows. Thus, the environmental solutions adopted may worsen inequality as the number of well-paid jobs declines.

A different problem is revealed if we only consider the inequality ice hockey stick (the inequality challenge) and its potential solutions. For example, if the solution to inequality is to provide everyone with some form of basic or guaranteed income, this raises an important question about what this surge in effective demand (i.e., consumption) would mean for the environment. Hence, both ice hockey stick curves need to be addressed at the same time, in a holistic and integrated way.

During my conversation with Dean Richard Blythe, I used the two ice hockey stick analogy to explain my current research agenda, which led to an invitation to join the Dean, Enric Ruiz-Geli, and Marcelo Stamm for the first Dean’s Discussion focused on Innovation Ecologies. My main remarks in the video of this conversation (below) run from minutes 7-14. Interestingly, the Dean’s Discussion and engagement with Enric and Marcelo helped expand my thinking to include the importance of architecture, but not in the traditional sense related to the artistic design, engineering, and construction of buildings. Rather, in relation to the ‘financial’ architecture behind the construction and ownership of buildings/infrastructure, and what this means for inequality and the ability of community members to participate and engage in the use of newly developed facilities/space. More on this below.

Around the same time as the Dean’s Discussion, I read Andrew Yang’s new book – The War on Normal People – which provides a data-rich description of how technology/AI is displacing jobs in America. Yang’s solution to this problem is to provide every citizen over the age of 18 with $1,000 a month, which is now commonly known as the Freedom Dividend. As my Tweet to Yang below highlights, while our understanding of the inequality challenge is the same, Yang’s book did not mention the environmental problems that may accompany a surge in effective/aggregate demand. Hence, the idea for a paper was born that connects the inequality and environmental challenges (the two ice hockey sticks) with an economic theory that understands the ability of capital to do work (like labor) and addresses inequality through its broad ownership.

For those outside of academia, one of the best ways to advance an idea is to share, discuss, and debate it at academic conferences. Fortunately, two opportunities arose. The first was a conference at Oxford University on Endogenous Growth, Participatory Economics, and Inclusive Capitalism, and the second was the 12th Biannual Conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economists (CANSEE) in Waterloo. Both of these conferences helped define the boundaries of the paper and allowed me to experiment with different ways of communicating key ideas such as the two ice hockey sticks. My CANSEE conference presentation is provided below.


A video of my CANSEE presentation can be accessed by clicking on the image below. [Note: select the fifth video from the top of the list on the right of the screen, which has a graph behind the play icon.] My presentation starts at minute 29; however, I recommend first listening to Prof. Jennifer Clapp’s presentation on “Financialization and its Sociological Effects.” Her research reveals the rapid growth of financialization and its implications for the social and biophysical world. I would argue it also makes a powerful case for rethinking how we consider the architecture of financial investments/arrangements and what this means for ‘real’ capital ownership, inequality, and environmental sustainability.

The several month timeframe of the conferences provided a window to search for UBI proposals to incorporate into the paper. A keen eye will spot eight UBI proposals in the CANSEE presentation, but our final paper included 14 UBI proposals alongside a proposal for a federal work program. When reviewing each of these proposals, our attention focused on the rationale behind the programs, how they would be financed, who would be illegible for funds (e.g., was there a work or age requirement), how much people might receive, and whether the programs had any connection to the environment. What was illuminating was the sheer diversity of ideas and how the ideological framing of the inequality problem tended to dictate the solution. For example, those who view work as essential for individual/social well-being tended to advance a conditional UBI (i.e., the basic income is received if the recipient is working). In contrast, those who view inequality as a product of the current economic system tended to advance an unconditional UBI (i.e., the income is received regardless of the recipient’s employment status).

What the writing of this paper revealed is the need for additional articles that describe how the Binary Trust would function, what a government-backed inherently sustainable corporate investment certification system might look like, and what needs to change for sustainability investments to look promising from a return on investment perspective. From an advancement of knowledge perspective, I’m looking to collaborate with colleagues in architecture/engineering who are interested in exploring how the financial architecture behind their developments could transform the use of their architectural/engineering designs. The basic idea is to integrate the visible (physical) and invisible (financial) components of architecture in ways that enrich society and the biophysical world.

Given Yang’s connection to the genesis of this paper, it seemed fitting to show how a binary economics approach to inclusive capitalism could be implemented alongside his UBI proposal. Another important argument of the paper is how this system needs to be focused on inherently sustainable investments. Put simply, the paper advocates an approach to addressing both ice hockey sticks at the same time and in an integrated, holistic way.

A week before the final article was published, Elon Musk endorsed Andrew Yang as his pick for the next U.S. President. Thus, I decided to launch the release of the paper with the following tweet.

2019 EPP and PUA Graduation

20 08 2019

Congratulations to our 2019 Public and Urban Affairs (PUA) and Environmental Policy and Planning (EPP) graduates! The video below (taken through Google Glass) captures my view of the 2019 CAUS Commencement Ceremony. It also provides a behind the scenes look at the ceremony, which I hope the family and friends of our graduates will enjoy.

New Paper in Sustainability

19 08 2019

Our new paper that considers how to advance a universal basic income with a new approach to inclusive capitalism was published in Sustainability. There is an interesting story behind this paper that I will write about in a separate post. More soon …

Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability


Over the past forty years, income growth for the middle and lower classes has stagnated, while the economy (and with it, economic inequality) has grown significantly. Early automation, the decline of labor unions, changes in corporate taxation, the financialization and globalization of the economy, deindustrialization in the U.S. and many OECD countries, and trade have contributed to these trends. However, the transformative roles of more recent automation and digital technologies/artificial intelligence (AI) are now considered by many as additional and potentially more potent forces undermining the ability of workers to maintain their foothold in the economy. These drivers of change are intensifying the extent to which advancing technology imbedded in increasingly productive real capital is driving productivity. To compound the problem, many solutions presented by industrialized nations to environmental problems rely on hyper-efficient technologies, which if fully implemented, could further advance the displacement of well-paid job opportunities for many. While there are numerous ways to address economic inequality, there is growing interest in using some form of universal basic income (UBI) to enhance income and provide economic stability. However, these approaches rarely consider the potential environmental impact from the likely increase in aggregate demand for goods and services or consider ways to focus this demand on more sustainable forms of consumption. Based on the premise that the problems of income distribution and environmental sustainability must be addressed in an integrated and holistic way, this paper considers how a range of approaches to financing a UBI system, and a complementary market solution based on an ownership-broadening approach to inclusive capitalism, might advance or undermine strategies to improve environmental sustainability.

Suggested reference: Hall, R.P.; Ashford, R.; Ashford, N.A.; Arango-Quiroga, J. Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability. Sustainability 201911, 4481.

Graduate Seminar in Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development

8 08 2019

Are you a graduate student at Virginia Tech looking for a framework that integrates Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development?

If so … sign up for UAP 5784 (CRN 89423)
Meets Mondays, 9:00 – 11:45am
Room 111, Architecture Annex

This graduate seminar will explore the many dimensions of sustainability and how industry and national, multinational, and international political and legal mechanisms can be used to further sustainable development.