Academics & Faculty

UCLA announces plan to tackle 'Grand Challenges,' starting with urban sustainability

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UCLA will unveil plans on Nov. 15 designed to turn Los Angeles into a global model for urban sustainability. The project is the first of six in the UCLA Grand Challenge initiative that will unite the university's resources to tackle some of society's most pressing issues.
 
In a kickoff event at UCLA's Royce Hall (see event video), Chancellor Gene Block will describe the ambitious project, "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles," whose goal is for the Los Angeles region to use exclusively renewable energy and local water by 2050 while protecting biodiversity and enhancing quality of life. Five additional challenges will be announced over the next few years; input from the community will help choose four of them.
 
"With our rich history of creating new ideas and a vibrant tradition of collaboration across disciplines, UCLA is uniquely capable of solving the most pressing issues facing society," Block said. "This is bigger than any research project we have tackled before. Each of our six UCLA Grand Challenge Projects will take on a different issue with an all-star campus-wide team of UCLA faculty, complemented by public engagement and student involvement. Our first project includes dozens of UCLA's most prominent and renowned scholars, who will create a model for sustainable living around the world."
 
"Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" seeks to raise $150 million for research on new technologies and policies. In 2019, UCLA will provide regional decision-makers with a detailed plan for how to achieve full sustainability in greater Los Angeles by midcentury. The roadmap will be backed by cutting-edge research, new technologies and breakthroughs, and recommendations on laws, policies and outreach, many of which will be tested first on UCLA's campus.
 
The effort will involve six dozen faculty and staff from about 30 centers and nearly two dozen departments, including environmental science, law, economics, urban planning, public policy, engineering, public health, conservation biology, transportation and communication studies. Unlike other campuses, UCLA’s medical and other professional schools are part of the main campus, making it easy for faculty from different fields to collaborate in person. "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" will engage experts from all perspectives of the issues — from the root causes to the various solutions — all with their sights set on a common goal.
 
"Our Grand Challenge targets are ambitious but also absolutely feasible," said adjunct professor Mark Gold, associate director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and one of the faculty leaders of the Grand Challenge Project. "The technology to make greater Los Angeles more sustainable is within reach. We have a wide range of options for sources of energy, including wind, solar, renewable gases and geothermal, and numerous ways to conserve our water — desalination, purifying brackish and graywater, and improving the way we capture stormwater, snowmelt and urban runoff."
 
The Los Angeles region is a biodiversity hotspot filled with species found nowhere else, making the Grand Challenge Project's goals all the more important. In the coming years, Southern California will face higher temperatures and more droughts due to climate change. UCLA research has found that much of the region will be 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter by midcentury, with far more wildfires and 30 to 40 percent less snowfall in local mountains. Improved conservation-research techniques can lead to better wildlife management to prevent loss of species and habitats, Gold said.
 
Among the goals of "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" are:
  • A smart electrical grid that works with renewable energy sources, and smart metering systems that enable homes, businesses and electric cars to feed energy back into the system.
  • More efficient energy production and storage technology.
  • A carbon-free transportation infrastructure and public transit system, with greater options for bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • Solar energy on every rooftop.
  • A decentralized water treatment and supply system.
  • More efficient and affordable technologies for capturing and cleaning wastewater, stormwater and other urban water.
  • Developing environmentally friendly technologies for desalinating ocean water.
  • Policies that encourage homeowners to use low-water landscaping, rainwater catchment systems, and systems to capture, purify and reuse graywater.
  • An increased number of underpasses for wildlife and crossings to connect and enlarge wildlife habitats.
  • Supporting native plants and animals with green rooftops, native gardens, neighborhood green spaces and other land-use strategies to break down barriers between urban and natural space.
 
Other organizations, including the Gates Foundation, NASA and the X Prize Foundation, have created Grand Challenge efforts as a way to solve key societal issues. But UCLA is among the first to channel the resources of an entire university toward a single, large-scale goal. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2012 called upon universities to take on such initiatives.
 
“UCLA's campus-wide, interdisciplinary Grand Challenges initiative, with its focus on audacious but achievable goals such as developing new technologies for harnessing renewable energy and water resources, is a promising response to the president's call to action to pursue 21st century Grand Challenges, and a model we encourage other universities to consider,” said Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for Grand Challenges at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
 
For each of the six projects, UCLA will partner with other universities, foundations, private industry and government agencies.
 
The Grand Challenge Project will bring greater scale and cohesion to UCLA's efforts in sustainable energy and the environment, but a significant amount of the research is already underway. Researchers at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and UCLA School of Law have already developed an eight-year sustainable-city plan for Los Angeles that became part of the discussion in the 2012 mayoral campaign and will inform plans by the current administration. The Luskin School of Public Affairs has already designed the solar program and policies that formed the basis of Los Angeles' strategy to increase rooftop solar power city-wide. Researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have invented water desalination and filtration techniques that succeeded in testing by the U.S. Navy. UCLA psychologists and economists are already determining what inspires consumers to make greener choices.
 
By 2050, it is estimated that 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities and face the same urban environmental concerns currently present in the Los Angeles region: limited resources, smog, water waste, traffic congestion, increased heat and rising sea levels. UCLA aims to transform Los Angeles into a global model for melding urban infrastructure with natural ecosystems.
 
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