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Published

13 November 2014

New head of Mistra Urban Futures seeks change

David Simon, the new Mistra Urban Futures director, wants to add to the number of cities that are included in the research centre. The purpose is to become a global voice in the movement towards sustainable urban environments. One of the first major tasks is to influence the United Nations’ new sustainability objectives.

‘It is exciting to get a chance to head such a unique centre, with the chance to create an arena for comparative studies in various cities. Our aim is to become a prominent global stakeholder in the trend towards sustainable, resilient and fairer urban environments.’ says David Simon.

Simon was born and brought up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he studied geography and anthropology. He then took his PhD at Oxford and has been head of the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Simon, a member of the Academy of Social Sciences in the UK, has been an advisor to the Government on Africa-related issues. His research is at the intersection of urbanisation, sustainability, climate change adaptation, sustainable transport and social development.

‘Research is more than an intellectual game. I see it as a challenge to link together theories about urbanisation, policy and practice to make something that works.’

Much of his research life has been spent in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Thailand, the Philippines and the US.

‘I grew up in a country of social injustice but a superb natural environment. Both these aspects have left their mark on me. I’ve learnt that the problems of urbanisation can be general but also show huge variation. Here in the West, we speak of developing smart cities using advanced technology. But in other places clean water and personal sanitation are greater needs.’

Research aimed at a broad impact

Mistra Urban Futures’ board chairman Thomas Rosswall relates that David Simon emerged as the strongest candidate in an open application process.

‘We’re very glad to have recruited a director with such an outstanding career. David Simon is a breath of fresh air from outside. He has a profound knowledge of both Europe and Africa. His experience of international research collaboration concerning global development gives him an extra dimension,’ Rosswall says.

A number of major international programmes are planned and in progress. Rosswall wants Mistra Urban Futures to be included as a key platform. Two key tasks in the first year are to formulate a convincing strategy for the Centre’s further work and to influence the United Nations’ ongoing efforts to formulate the sustainability objectives that are to supersede the Millennium Development Goals.

David Simon’s experience as an advisor to several UN bodies, including UN-Habitat, the programme for human settlements, is an important qualification in this context.

‘Our hope is that one of the objectives will concern sustainable urban development, in which we want to help find scientifically underpinned indicators of sustainable urban environments,’ Rosswall says.

Indicators for sustainable urban areas

David Simon wants to make use of the Centre’s platforms in different urban areas to test possible indicators.

‘We’re looking for indicators that can be used in all the towns and cities taking part, and that’s not easy. Take access to parks and green areas, for instance. There are plenty of data in Gothenburg and Manchester, but in Kisumu that kind of information is lacking, and carrying out a survey might well be unreasonably expensive.

Simon will work on a 40% basis until year-end and then 80%. He will be based in Gothenburg but keep a foothold in London, where he supervises PhD students. He mentions plans to increase the number of platforms by two or three urban areas.

‘We’re thinking of additional platforms in Asia, Latin America and North America. That would make us a global centre in the true sense of the word,’ Simon concludes.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

mistra urban futures

Mistra Urban Futures is an international centre for sustainable urban development, with various regional platforms around the world. Mistra Urban Futures aspires to become a world-leading stakeholder in sustainable urban development, in its varying forms, and to offer innovative solutions that are academically excellent, practicable, effective and relevant to society. The programme has been under way since 2010.

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