Faculty Fellow Ralph Hall, assistant professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning program in the School of Public and International Affairs, explores the transdisciplinary approach to solving sustainability problems and its applications in many corners of the world.
Q. What are your main research projects at the present time?
My research interests currently fall into three broad areas that are linked by the theme of sustainability. The first and broadest area relates to identifying ways to transform industrial and emerging economies towards sustainable development. Over the past ten years I have been working with Prof. Nicholas Ashford (at MIT) on a textbook that explores the many dimensions of sustainable development and how national, multinational, and international political and legal mechanisms can be used to further sustainable development. In 2011, we published the textbook – Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State (Yale University Press) – and have since been working on articles to further extend this work. I would describe this research area as transdisciplinary, which means that the problems being addressed require solutions that can originate from any discipline. This first research area builds the broad foundation for my other two research interests.
My second research area focuses on sustainable transportation and continues the research I began with my PhD at MIT. I research decision-support frameworks that transportation agencies and practitioners can use to transition their transportation systems towards sustainability. This research also has broader applicability to other sectors of the economy and I hope to expand it into energy systems, agriculture, etc. My most recent work in this area relates to the design of performance measurement frameworks for transportation agencies. In 2011, I was an adviser to a research project that created A Guidebook for Sustainability Performance Measurement for Transportation Agencies. This guidebook was informed by best-practice case studies and practitioner interviews and has inspired a second book that I am working on with Dr. Henrik Gudmundsson (Technical University of Denmark), Dr. Greg Marsden (University of Leeds), and Dr. Josias Zietsman (Texas A&M University). This book will provide students and practitioners with a deep understanding of the basic concepts of sustainability as well as a coherent framework for how to apply them consistently in the context of transportation planning, management, and decision making at different levels of an agency. The purpose of the textbook is to outline an approach for measuring the performance of transportation systems against key sustainability principles.
My final research area relates to sustainable water supply and sanitation systems in developing regions. This applied, empirical research began during my postdoc at Stanford University and has since taken me to India, Colombia, Senegal, and Mozambique.
The research centers on evaluating the performance of water supply and sanitation systems to understand factors that help promote their technical and financial sustainability. I have also become interested in how to design water supply systems that provide water for productive activities, such as kitchen gardens and livestock, which are essential for improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities. This approach is important since historically rural water supply investments have focused on meeting only domestic needs (such as drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing) rather than a more comprehensive approach that provides greater quantities of water for income-generating activities. In practice, households use water to support both their domestic and productive needs. If a system has been designed to support only domestic needs, it can fail to realize opportunities for greater wealth creation in impoverished communities.
What is perhaps most interesting about these three areas of research is that they cover developed and developing regions and focus on the network (i.e., the transportation system) that ties them together. Thus, while they might seem unconnected, in many ways they cannot be separated and I continue to search for interesting research projects that can bring them all together.
Q. What is unique about how you tackle your research?
There are two challenges that I face when conducting my research. The first is the importance of thinking in a transdisciplinary way to explore solutions that may not be visible through a traditional disciplinary lens. Transdisciplinary approaches seek a wider decision space, beyond even interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary approaches work to bridge silos of specialization, but are still seeking answers from a limited set of critical disciplines. The transdisciplinary approach transcends disciplines and approaches problems at their root cause. In theory, the solution to a problem should come from the most appropriate discipline or disciplines. This approach raises challenges from an academic and funding perspective where the center of gravity pulls towards disciplinary or (better) interdisciplinary work, which assumes that a problem can be solved using tools or techniques from a chosen discipline(s).
The other challenge is the sheer logistical complexity of setting up and executing large-scale research projects in developing countries. Before beginning any fieldwork in water supply and sanitation, we may have one or more years of preparatory work involving trips to the country, followed by the creation of data collection instruments and a robust sample frame. The latter task is perhaps one of the most challenging, especially given the lack of basic data on communities in a typical survey region. Having led three large-scale studies in Colombia, Senegal, and Mozambique (where we visited around 150 rural communities), I have great respect for anyone who collects data in a country outside of their own. I consider the task of managing one of these projects to be similar to running a small enterprise that demands an ability to manage and direct large teams, communicate effectively, find solutions to technically complex problems and politically sensitive issues, manage budgets, and be able to adapt to difficult (or new) working environments. The other challenge with this type of research is the significant time that can pass from the initiation of a project to the publication of final results. This can make anyone in a tenure-track position nervous! For example, the results from our impact evaluation in Mozambique will not be known until our follow-up study in late 2013, even though this project began in 2009.
In the coming year, my research team, along with colleagues at Stanford University and the University of Oxford, plans to publish a series of papers on the water supply and sanitation research that we have been undertaking since 2008. I will provide links to this work as it is published via my website for those interested: www.ralphphall.wordpress.com.
Q: Please tell us a bit about your academic background.
I grew up in Wiltshire in the south west of England. After completing my A levels in 1994, I took part in the Year In Industry (YINI) program in the UK, which was a fantastic way to gain real world experience before heading to university. I worked in the Maritime Division of the Halcrow Group, a large multi-disciplinary consulting firm, which subsequently sponsored me through my four years at the University of Southampton. I combined this with a three-year Royal Academy of Engineering Leadership Award, which enabled me to undertake my summer work for Halcrow in interesting locations such as Venezuela.
Upon graduating from the University of Southampton with a Masters of Civil Engineering in 1999, I worked for Halcrow in London for the UK Highways Agency. The experience of working closely with the Highways Agency sparked an interest in engineering (or technology more generally) and policy. This ultimately led me to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where I obtained a Masters in Technology and Policy and a Masters in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2002. During these two years, I was able to work for the Office of the Secretary of Transportation in the US Department of Transportation, and became deeply interested in the role that transportation plays in sustainable development. This subject became the focus of my PhD in Technology, Management, and Policy that I completed in 2006 from MIT.
While my PhD centered on understanding and applying the concept of sustainable development to transportation policy, the ideas embodied in the research are applicable to any sector. Thus, when presented with a postdoc opportunity at Stanford University in water and sanitation in developing countries, I thought this would be a great opportunity to broaden the focus of my work. I worked at Stanford for two years with Prof. Jennifer Davis before taking my current position at Virginia Tech in 2009.
Q. What led you to get excited about your research interest?
My research and teaching are motivated by real world problems that affect millions of people. This interest stems from my early education as a civil engineer, where I became fascinated by the challenges of designing and managing large-scale infrastructure systems – such as water supply and sewage and irrigation systems. This civil engineering education and experience provided me with a practical, real-world perspective that I try to bring to all of my work.
Q: What is the impact of your research on metropolitan cities?
I believe there are several direct impacts of my work on metropolitan cities. First, the Guidebook for Sustainability Performance Measurement for Transportation Agencies is targeted to practitioners in local, metropolitan, and state transportation agencies/organizations. I also believe the forthcoming book on sustainable transportation performance measurement will be a useful guide for transportation practitioners. This text will provide a conceptual framework for developing performance measurement systems and is a departure from existing approaches that emphasize one master framework for all applications. Instead, we argue that the indicator application really matters. The framework developed for strategic planning, for instance, may not be useful in a decision-making or operational setting.
Second, in addition to an ongoing impact evaluation of a rural water supply project I am leading in Mozambique, I recently joined another team that will be undertaking an impact evaluation of an urban water project in Tanzania. This project, also funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), is a multi-million dollar infrastructure investment that will expand the water treatment capacity for the cities of Dar es Salaam and Morogoro. By increasing access to reliable and clean water, the expectation is that residents will benefit on many levels – decreases in water-borne disease mean less time lost to sickness. Reliable access to water results in less time spent fetching water. Together, such impacts could create a net benefit to the local economies and result in greater productivity. The evaluation should help us identify the conditions under which improved access to water has the most significant impact, which hopefully will have important implications for urban water supply investments – and infrastructure projects, more generally – in other cities.
Finally, my co-authored textbook Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State, holds many ideas that will be of direct interest to government officials and business leaders in metropolitan regions. For example, the textbook discusses new economic theories in the context of sustainable development and makes a strong argument that competitiveness, the environment, and employment are the operationally important dimensions of sustainability. The textbook also covers subjects such as the role of industry and government in promoting innovation; regulatory approaches to protecting health, safety, and the environment; international trade and finance; and strategic policy design for sustainable transformations.
Q: Is there a recent project or piece of research you’d like to showcase?
Ashford, N. A., Hall, R. P., and Ashford, R. H. (2012) The Crisis in Employment and Consumer Demand: Reconciliation with Environmental Sustainability. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.
In this paper, we argue that a sustainable industrial system depends not only on good environmental and public health outcomes, but also on adequate employment and earning capacity in a well-functioning and equitable economic system. These concerns are likely to dominate future national political debates, requiring responses that increase the earning capacity of individuals through changes in the nature of work and employment, and in the ownership of productive capital. Making the economy greener, while certainly necessary for long-term economic and societal survival, does not necessarily mean more and better paying jobs on a large enough scale to make serious progress to reducing unemployment and underemployment. Further, putting faith in technological innovation is undermined by problems such as the Jevons paradox (or the rebound effect) whereby efficiency gains and lower prices can lead to greater overall resource consumption. Of course, this assumes that businesses have the opportunity and are willing and able to pursue disruptive innovation, which runs against the interests of existing and dominant market leaders. The importance of creating an environment of disruptive change for sustainable development is explored in an early paper by Nicholas Ashford and I on the importance of regulation-induced innovation.
In the new paper, we take a look at the misleading measures of GDP and labor productivity, and expand on the work of scholars such as Tim Jackson and Peter Victor. The paper concludes with nine potential policies or initiatives that present quite different approaches to ensuring sustainable employment and livelihoods.
In the coming year, I plan to work with Prof. Robert Ashford (Syracuse University) to expand on the ideas we discuss in the paper related to Binary Economics. This new economic paradigm provides a unique lens through which to view the current economic crisis and holds the potential to create transformative solutions to entrenched problems such as growing income inequality.