Role of ethics in PIRE education & research curriculum

The role of ethics in PIRE Low Carbon Cities’ education and research curriculum is highlighted in an online archive by the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science by the National Academy of Engineering.

The Online Ethics Center (OEC) is a repository of resources on the ethics of science, engineering, and research that help engineers, scientists, scholars, educators, students, and interested citizens understand and address ethically significant topics and problems that arise in the practice and results of science and engineering.

A five-year improvement effort to update and expand site, with new features and content, began in 2014 with an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

More information about the OEC can be found on their website.

The OEC also produced a video report of our Ethics Workshop in August 2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Publication: Urban Inequality and Vulnerability in Mumbai, India

The journal of Climatic Change published an outcome from our PIRE efforts by Patricia Romero-Lankao and Josh Sperling at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, titled “Examining Urban Inequality and Vulnerability to Enhance Resilience:  Insights from Mumbai, India”.


Understanding how households, ranging from poor to wealthy differ in levels of vulnerability to hazards, such as floods and heat waves and knowledge of the mechanisms creating this difference, will be fundamental to enhancing resilience, fairly, across urban populations. A complex problem exists, however, in determining the relative influences of various attributes of wealth and vulnerability.


In this paper we apply a livelihoods framework to characterize urban households by the resources or assets that comprise their livelihoods.  We then combine a fuzzy logic approach with an analytic hierarchic process (ANH), to examine the relative influence of wealth (poverty), exposure, sensitivity and capacity on vulnerability to climate hazards in Mumbai, India.


While research on urban resilience has grown considerably in recent years, this paper is one of the few studies that have examined the relative influence of wealth and vulnerability on differences in resilience, within and across household classes in cities. We find, under current climate change conditions, that differences in wealth and capacity largely account for high household vulnerability levels in Mumbai, India. Without a profound transformation towards policies and actions addressing the structural drivers of social marginalization and exclusion of a majority of households, Mumbai could reach these limits in a not far distant future.


Posted in News | Leave a comment

What environmental policies could preserve the Taj Mahal?

Taj Mahal_group

PIRE Winter School at the Taj Mahal in 2016

What environmental policies would be most effective in preserving the Taj Mahal? PIRE researchers Raj Lal (Georgia Institute of Technology), Ajay Nagpure (University of Minnesota), led by PIs Ted Russell and Anu Ramaswami, teamed up with colleagues IIT-Kanpur to solve this puzzle, published in Municipal Solid Waste and Dung Cake Burning: discoloring the Taj Mahal and Human Health Impacts in Agra Lal et al.Environ. Res. Lett. 11 104009. Read the full news story here.

Indian & U.S. news media feature PIRE research

Posted in News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Video online: Ethical Aspects of Urbanization, Interdisciplinary Research, and Fieldwork

The National Academy of Engineering’s  Online Ethics Center produced a video of our workshop in August 2015, Urban Infrastructure Transformations in China, India, and the US. In this workshop session, PIRE faculty and students discussed the role of ethics in their research.


The Online Ethics Center (OEC) is a resource maintained by the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES) at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Its mission is to provide engineers, scientists, faculty, and students with resources for understanding and addressing ethically significant issues that arise in scientific and engineering.

The video highlights remarks from the workshop about the ethical challenges in addressing urbanization, and the power of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural education and fieldwork in responding to the challenges.

See the OEC’s post here.


Posted in Workshops | Leave a comment

PIRE-PEER Project Leads to Commentary in Science 

“We must move beyond data to the systems-level decisions that we as a society must make to transition toward a smart, sustainable, and healthy urban future,” says SRN lead PI Anu Ramaswami, who led a commentary on the subject published in the special urban issue of the journal Science

In January, the University of Minnesota and ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability brought together faculty, students, and policymakers from the U.S., China, and India for a workshop on sustainable cities. Inspiration for this paper was a result of that workshop.

In the commentary, PIRE faculty Ramaswami (University of Minnesota) and Armistead Russell (Georgia Institute of Technology), along with Mr Emani Kumar (ICLEI South Asia) and Patricia Culligan (Columbia University) outline eight basic principles for transforming cities that apply across the world, and resonate with local partners.

One principle focuses on providing basic infrastructure for all, especially in cities where 30-40 percent of the population lives in slums.

The authors cite a few examples already underway: In India, where cities face problems with water scarcity and access in slum areas, ATMs (automatic teller machines) that dispense fresh water are being piloted. Cities in China are exploring “fit-for-purpose” water reuse supply to homes.

It’s not enough for individual cities to develop these smart technologies on their own. Most urban areas get the vast majority of their energy, water, building materials, and food from beyond their boundaries, so developing cleaner and more efficient systems for supplying these goods and services is critical.

SRN PI’s collaborated with ICLEI in the development of footprinting tools that cities can use to measure their energy and water consumption, and then use that data to better understand their impacts on the environment within and outside their boundaries.

Brian Holland (ICLEI USA): “This research is making an important contribution to the growing movement of sustainable and low-carbon cities.  In particular, the emerging approaches to footprinting local environmental and health outcomes across sectors and scales aligns well with the widely-used standards for city-scale GHG accounting we’ve developed with our partners and stakeholders.”

Another guiding principle is to pursue urban health improvements at different scales—from the home, to the neighborhood, to regional pollution, to climate extremes—while recognizing the inequities among residents.  Many U.S. cities are undertaking community-based health planning with a focus on climate events such as extreme heat and cold, and how they might impact vulnerable populations differently.

The authors also recommend the integration of large infrastructure systems with smaller-scale, local systems such as urban farms, community solar gardens, and district energy systems.


PIRE students and researchers visited India and China to study sustainable, healthy cities

Interdisciplinary and Multi-institution Collaboration

The principles and recommendations are the results of insights developed from two large multi-institution grants supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which are both led by professor Ramaswami.

The Sustainability Research Network (SRN) on Sustainable Healthy Cities is a network of scientists, industry leaders, and policy partners, committed to building better cities of the future through innovations in infrastructure design, technology and policy. The network connects across nine research universities, major metropolitan cities in the U.S. and India, as well as infrastructure firms, and policy groups.

The Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) is a collaboration of the University of Minnesota, Yale, Georgia Tech, and four universities in India and China. The international partners are supported by PEER Science grants awarded by USAID. The project connects study tours with research and outreach, and allows for deep engagement with nonprofit government organizations and policymakers from the U.S., China, and India. The workshop mentioned earlier was the culmination of one such tour of various cities in India and China to study how those cities were transforming their infrastructure to meet future needs.

The special issue of Science can be found here:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Look Behind the Scenes of the Project

Last week, two fellow students and I attended NSF’s PIRE Principal Investigator (PI) meeting Arlington, VA. – just across the river from Washington DC. The two-day workshop was aimed toward sharing updates from the PIRE 2012 grants and providing insights and suggestions to new award recipients.

The sessions started with a student led poster display from the 2012 cohort. We  got a lot of strong feedback for the projects we presented. Some of our work looked at policy scenario testing for low-carbon development throughout China, and another project at explored the discoloration of the Taj Mahal. I think a real appeal toward some of these projects stems from the practical nature of this work – it’s stuff that people hear on the news and may be able to relate to on an everyday basis. It was also pretty cool actually presenting in the NSF main headquarters.

Over the course of the next day and a half following the poster session, we listed to various talks from the PIs ranging from successful tactics in their projects to suggestions to new PIs from challenges they faced. Some that really stuck out to me were the importance of making sure that all international PIs feel an equal part of the projects. PIs also referenced how successful social media accounts have encouraged more discussion and project development. In fact, one group had a class that was done entirely on Twitter!

All the students only had one evening together, but we took the METRO to the mall and explored the area, played catch, learned about the history of the monuments, etc. before having dinner in Foggy Bottom (close to where we stayed in August for the PIRE workshop).

We heard project manager and student feedback, with an emphasis on what the NSF can do better for the PIRE. We also heard NSF speakers give their thoughts on the program as well as statistics about the effectiveness of the program compared to other “similar” programs. It was a really neat tidbit that they shared and findings from the methods — briefly, the PIRE program is doing well J!

All in all, this was a great experience – seeing more of the logistical side that allows us to do the projects we do. I don’t think any of us ever question how much time and effort the faculty devote to these projects, but seeing it from this side (with all of the administrative work that goes into this on top of understanding all the science and formulating project ideas) reaffirms our appreciation to Prof. Ramaswami and all of the faculty who make this all happen.

Playing catch by the Washington Monument

Photos by Zakai (student at UNLV)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on Winter School by Mauricio Leon

Note: A group of students and researcher toured cities in India and China in January as part of the National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant.  Learn more about the Winter School 2016. The students share their observations on this blog.

Blog post by Mauricio Leon, University of Minnesota, written 1/31/2016


At the Delhi airport, I was thinking that I could be the only person from Costa Rica to fly to India that day. I think I am not going to forget that first day. I was so excited to see what the world was like outside!

I am going to start this reflection by saying that the PIRE Winter School was one of the most exciting experiences that I have ever had. I had never been to India or China before, thus for me everything was new and different and I think I learned a lot, both academically and as a human being.  I have tried to make a reflection on the different parts of the PIRE Winter School and some aspects that resonated with me regarding infrastructure and sustainability, similarities and contrasts between the two countries, cultural shocks and interactions with our peers.

Wastewater Treatment Plants

My personal academic objective for the trip was to observe the infrastructure of India and China, to see how the two compare and contrast, and to learn about specific solutions and/or research potential in these two countries.

I was interested in observing Wastewater Treatment Plants, because these provide a service that is directly related to the enhancement of environmental quality and health. The construction of these plants require intensive amounts of material such as cement and steel, and if we could quantify how much of these materials are used, we could answer interesting questions about the environmental impact of these facilities. It is also interesting because the magnitude of these waste water treatment facilities in these two countries is much bigger than what I have seen in the past.  How does a city with such population size and density treat water?

The noise of the water was not allowing us to hear each other, the plant was enormous and all I could think was that only the city of Delhi has several times the population of my home country Costa Rica, or all the state of Minnesota together. The design of that particular plant was done by a French company. It takes raw water from the Yamana and Ganga Rivers.


The city of Delhi is definitely “overstimulating”, as one of our colleagues described it. My first impression was of surprise by the constant honking of vehicles, the density of people, the driving skills of people, and the presence of a relatively new metro which crosses the city in multiple directions. Delhi is, as professor Ramaswami likes to say, “a thousand blooming flowers”: the contrast between wealth and poverty, chaos and organization, tradition and westernization, collectivism and self-interest, for me it was new and exciting to see.  The persistence of individuals trying to sell their merchandises or a rickshaw rides in order to make a couple rupees and supply their basic needs. mauricio-5

One knows that in the end, when you live in a city of more than 20 million people, every day is a constant battle for survival.

We visited the Lotus Temple, a place for religiosity and meditation. I really liked that in many aspects the Indian culture is very open to different belief systems. However, one the other hand they also tend to be very conservative, when you have more 20 million people in a single city, everything is possible. India is a quite diverse country and Delhi in particular is a melting pot of people coming from all parts of the country.


When we first arrived to Delhi, my main observations about infrastructure were the following:

  • The air pollution problem is real. I have read about this topic a lot and I know researchers who work on this topic, but to actually experience it, gives perspective on how detrimental this could be for one’s health Sometimes I wanted to go outdoors for a breath, just to remember that the air quality outside was not much better that the one inside. The feeling of helplessness made me feel grateful to live in a place with fresh air, and sad about the millions of people in Delhi who this is just part of their everyday life. It was fascinating to see the implementation of the even/odd policy on vehicles, and how only that was already reducing the levels of PM pollution on the air.


  • The metro system is already making a huge difference. The metro is relatively recent, however judging by the quantities of people who use this service; it feels like it has been there for decades. They have a special section of the train that is exclusive for women, and I think this is a great action to improve the mobility of women and not only make men’s lives easier. At every time there are people flowing in and out of the trains, everyone very focused on their routine one can only wonder what is the story behind any of those citizens of Delhi.
  • The question about centralized vs decentralized services is a really good one. Even though we might be inclined to believe that having centralized wastewater treatment is more cost effective, the reality might be different. We visited a plant that treated around 18% of the raw water for Delhi’s consumption, and regardless of their claims of quality, people seem to be distrustful of this water supply, which is evidenced by their use of remedial infrastructure.

Township in Delhi. These fenced communities are often self-sufficient with many services included inside the township, small hospitals, schools and shopping malls.

We were also able to visit some township in Delhi. These gated communities provide an example of decentralized treatment. Even though there is an equity issue with who has access to these systems, only the richer class, it cannot be denied that by these townships, by having their own treatment plant take pressure out of the system.

Rajkot and Ahmedabad

After a lovely train ride to Ahmedabad, we finally got to Rajkot, and I am so glad that we were able to see that particular city, which looks much more spacious when compared to Delhi. It made me think about the concept of “Livability”. I could see myself living in a place like that, with their BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), their bike mauricio-9share program and their better planning and infrastructure.  It reminded me that policy, when it is implemented at the right time can have substantial impacts on the well-being of people.

An important lesson is that long term planning it is always better, but it is harder to sell in the short term and when democracy pushes policy makers to go for fashionable solutions, instead of long term changes.. Ahmedabad was also really impressing; it was amazing to see how they are little by little making changes that really change the feelings of suffocation on the city. We visited the house of Mahatma Gandhi, which really helped to do my own reflection about the culture that I was contemplating.



Visiting Agra was like a dream come true. I never imagined that I was going to be inside of that beautiful edification that I had seen so many times on TV and pictures, one of the seven wonders of the UNESCO, the great Taj Mahal!


But Agra is more than just the Taj Mahal. The people of Agra have paid a high price for the treasure that they have inherited.  Air pollution is a complex issue and it is often tied to behaviors that are embedded in the culture, such as cremation of the death.  When people are asked to change their behaviors, their reactions are of frustration, like: “it is always about Taj Mahal… what about the people?” But the research that the PIRE has been pursuing is ultimately intended to benefit the people, if the air is so bad that is capable to stain the walls of the Taj Mahal, what could it be doing to our organisms?

Delhi (Workshop)

The workshop on Delhi made me feel different things. On the one hand, I was eager to hear specific solutions to concrete issues. On the other hand, it was obvious that any solution that could be proposed was not as applicable when the different policy landscapes of the three countries represented were considered.

The talks were in their majority really interesting and motivational, but it was hard for me to see how could there be lessons extracted between nations. The problems that China is facing right now are so different from the ones that India is facing.

Some of our Chinese peers expressed how looking at parts of India today reminded them of China thirty years ago. I was a little skeptical of this linear evolution that was implied in this comparison, my question was: Would India requires a sort of revolution as it happened in China? Then, I could not help thinking about the numbers. China has been really successful in lifting people out of poverty, so is the strict model of development bad or a necessary evil? Arguments can be made in both directions: one where the India’s “laissez faire” model is preferred as it does a better job in respecting the diversity of the people, and other one were the Chinese development is preferred, for the simple fact that is more effective in to creating wealth.


My first impression of China was that it was really different from India, just judging from the outside, everything looked more organized and modern, transit was not as chaotic anymore, but there was still pollution in the air that was irritating my throat and eyes. I noticed that different from India, speaking English was no longer a great advantage.

China was a new world for me, I had seen many movies and pictures of China and all of the sudden I realized how this were not accurate portraits of the place I was visiting. I was really expecting a little more of chaos, particularly after visiting Delhi, but China was so modernized. Shanghai looked quite and cold, compared to the colorful India which we just visited. That first day we went to eat outside and I was very impressed by the amount of business in the area, restaurant and stores in almost every corner, but even with so much people around, it does not feel crowded.

When we went to visit the Pu Dong District, my expectations were surpassed. I could not believe how tall some of those building were and how vibrant was that particular part of Shanghai. Director Wu introduced us to the Pu Dong District days before going there, but I can just say that one needs to see it to believe it.

At Tongji University, we were able to hear different presentation by Chinese professors. This was very illuminating, because we normally do not get perspective like this in our Minnesota classroom.  One thing that resonated with me was the idea of how to combine the agenda for development with sustainability, this is a challenge for China, they do not want to stop their growth, since this have been so effective in taking people out from poverty and improving their live standards. One of the presentations was about stocks and flows, a very innovative framework to understand material use in developing countries.

I also really enjoyed the visit to the museum of urban planning. This gave us perspective on how the city of Shanghai has changed in the last century. We also visited a solid waste treatment facility, where they take advantage of the garbage and turn into energy, bioplastics, or fertilized, having almost none residuals.


We visited a Buddhist temple outside of the city

Future of my research

I think that this visit to India and China was great for me to understand better how infrastructure and particularly wastewater treatment works in India and China. Now that I have seen it, the challenge would be to find the proper data to make a life cycle analysis that could help to answer questions regarding bulk material use in China.

mauricio-16 I really want to visit these two countries again and keep learning from their struggles and virtues. I feel really fortunate to have been part of this workshop and I know that from this experience, there are many solutions that are waiting to be researched. I really appreciate the hard work of Dr. Ramaswami, Dr. Chao, Dr. Chertow, Katja, Ajay, Rahul and all the people that put such a great effort in making this a success.

Posted in Summer School 2014 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment