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College of Arts and Sciences

Climate Change and Columbia Engineering the City of the Future

The proposed project consists of a course, coordinated student led projects, and a public facing conference about the effects of climate change and how we can respond to them in our home city. The project provides a detailed, real world case study of the complex ways that technology structures communities and affects all aspects of human life. Since a human technology, specifically the widespread use of fossil fuels, is the cause of the crisis, coming to grips with it means understanding how technology is enmeshed and entrenched in our communities, economically, politically and socially. On the other hand, new and repurposed technology offers our best response to climate change. Consequently, investigating solutions requires us to reconceive the possibilities for how technology can shape communities.

The course will be offered in the Autumn of 2020. The readings and lectures will focus on two related areas of investigation. The first is factual or descriptive investigation into the far-reaching effects of climate change on cities, including not only the obvious infrastructure challenges, but also more distant effects such as climate refugees, water competition, and changing food prices. The second is normative investigation into the ethical issues surrounding climate change, such as our obligations to future generations, the just distribution of resources, and how to weigh tradeoffs between personal freedom and the public good. Our reading on these subjects will be supplemented by visits from experts, from the academy and the community.

In the course, students will investigate how these issues arise on the ground by investigating climate change in Columbia. Students will be assigned to groups and tasked with conducting independent field investigation into a topic of their choice. For instance, a student group may investigate what the City of Columbia or Richland County are doing in response to climate change by interviewing city and county staff. A group may investigate other municipalities for models or examine the legal framework for taking action here. Throughout their investigations, students will reflect on how scientific progress and technology transform communities and how we should respond ethically. These student projects will ultimately be directed to planning a public conference on climate change in Columbia to be held in Spring of 2021. Students will help to choose the topics and to recruit experts, community leaders, and stakeholders to participate.

The project is guided by two commitments, which were central to Ann Johnson’s research. The first is the importance of understanding science and technology in context by considering how technology is actually put into practice and how it affects people’s lives. The second is the importance of including stakeholders in decisions about employing science and technology. Taking these commitments seriously requires rethinking the standard academic conference, where faculty present their research to one another. Rather, the project employs innovative methods for constructing conversations between academic researchers, the individuals responsible for putting new technologies into practice—urban planners, policy makers, businesses—as well as the stakeholders affected by these decisions: city inhabitants. Expanding the conversation in this way realizes two central goals of the AJI: to move faculty outside of their traditional disciplinary silos and to engage with the broader public.

Completing this project will require a variety of resources. Because the course is interdisciplinary and relies on outside experts, it will require a high amount of planning and preparation. To address this issue, the instructor will require a course release. Planning the conference will also be time consuming, which will require employing a graduate student assistant. Funds will be needed to pay for the cost of the conference, including the venue, catering, an honorarium for a keynote speaker, and promotion. A budget for promotion is essential if we want the conference to include the broader community.


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.

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