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NIU’s urban-regional modeling helps to advance environmental research and policy

September 6, 2021

Human behaviors are complicated, messy and sometimes unpredictable. This means social and economic policies often have unanticipated effects, according to John T. Murphy, NIU research associate professor of anthropology and computational engineer at Argonne National Laboratory. Murphy also points out that cities such as Chicago are often studied in isolation, without taking into account their (complicated, messy) connections with surrounding suburban and rural areas.

That’s why Murphy, in partnership with Sybil Derrible of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Moira Zellner of Northeastern University (formerly at UIC), is working to develop more complete models of the greater Chicago area. These models – both conceptual models and more detailed computer simulations – help to show how the social, ecological and economic systems of the area interact, and they have great potential as a tool for researchers studying sustainability and environmental innovation.

“For this project, our goal was to bring in perspectives from both urban and rural areas so we could look at sustainability more holistically,” says Murphy. “As we dug into the literature, we found there is growing disquiet in the field because the categories of urban and rural are breaking down, and researchers are trying to explain this with new terms such as peri-urban. There’s a growing need to look at the interaction, blending and places in between the two, and because the linkages are still not understood well, that leaves a lot of opportunity for new research.”

The team’s project (known as SUReNet, or the Sustainable Urban-Regional Modeling Network) is funded by a seed grant from the Illinois Innovation Network and is affiliated with the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS), a new NIU initiative to support interdisciplinary research that advances knowledge of food systems innovation, water resources and environmental change. The SUReNet team is already meeting with NIU faculty in diverse disciplines such as geology, economics, and geographic and atmospheric science to learn how their detailed models can support research on water quality, energy and other urgent problems.

Murphy is particularly excited about this project because it brings together his two research areas: archeology and high-performance computer systems, especially agent-based modeling – an approach to computational modeling that aims to understand and predict the actions of individuals within complex environmental, social and economic systems.

To create their models, Murphy, Zellner, Derrible and Dean Massey, a modeler now also at Northeastern, brought together a group of researchers and stakeholders from the greater Chicago area who work in areas such as water reclamation, food policy, and city and county government. In workshops, the stakeholders identified key variables such as crop subsidies, utility infrastructure, clean energy incentives and water pollution, and then discussed how those variables impact one another.

“We were interested in getting their views of how three separate systems (food, water and energy) work and how they can be seen to interact,” Murphy says. “We asked the stakeholders to go through an exercise defining key variables and understanding the relationships between the variables – in particular, whether the variables have a positive (increasing) impact or negative (decreasing) impact on one another.”

Murphy says he was surprised at how much time the stakeholders spent discussing social aspects rather than physical ones. “For example, when we discussed flooding one of the concerns that came up was policing. The connection is that communities concerned with both safety and flooding just don’t have the resources to deal with both, and so the flooding issue is a secondary one.”

With a laugh, Murphy chastises himself. “I shouldn’t have been surprised that stakeholders framed something like flooding or energy consumption, not as a technological question but as a social question. I’m a social scientist, after all!”

In fact, this focus on the social aspects of environmental problems is a good reminder of why SUReNet and NICCS are important. “Who is interested in consuming green energy? Who benefits from greener technologies and is interested in investing in them?” Murphy asks. “Really, these are more important questions than what type and how many electrical cables are being laid.”

Murphy and his colleagues on the IIN grant are also excited that this research project is supporting one graduate student researcher at each university. At UIC, the team worked with Anton Rozhkov, a Ph.D. candidate studying energy policy and urban planning. At NIU, they were joined by Marin Wadsworth, an NIU graduate student working on her Master of Arts degree in linguistic anthropology.

Wadsworth jumped at the chance to work on the project. “When John and I met to discuss what the project is about, I immediately knew I wanted in,” she says. “Working on SUReNet was something I felt was important and that I could feel good about. It’s necessary that we work towards a sustainable future.”

When asked what she’s learned on the project, Wadsworth says, “I learned so much that I’m not sure where to start.” The lessons she’s taken away so far range from sustainability concepts, such as “food sovereignty,” to office skills, such coordinating meetings with multiple busy people.

But perhaps the most important lesson Wadsworth has gained is her increasing confidence in her abilities as a researcher. “I am very lucky to have joined the SUReNet team,” she says. “At first, I was nervous because I felt as if my background wasn’t appropriate and that I wouldn’t be able to meaningfully contribute. However, this turned out to be a really good thing, as I was able to bring fresh perspectives to the table.”

Learn more about the SUReNet project in this video. Learn more about the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability at niu.edu/niccs.

The SUReNet team mapped the relationships between different variables to better understand food, water and energy systems in the greater Chicago area.