The world’s population is undergoing a period of dramatic change. The global middle class continues to boom, transforming where we live, what we eat, and how we interact with the wider world.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

Late last year, the Royal Society, as part of our contribution to UK Future Earth, brought together scientists, engineers, social scientists, and representatives from industry and civil society in a two day workshop at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre to discuss some of the most pressing issues around two of the focal points of these changes: cities and oceans. The UK has an internationally renowned research base, and by determining how our strengths map to both the global sustainability agenda and mechanisms for funding, we can deliver practical options for change.

The scale of the challenge

Cities are large, often unplanned, complicated systems and home to a rising percentage of the world’s population. In 1960, 34% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, but in 2015 that figure had risen to 54% and is expected to reach 66% by 2050. With anticipated population increases that’s 2.5 billion more people living in close proximity of each other, building communities, using infrastructure, and producing waste (see World Urbanisation Prospects, The 2014 Revision, UN (2014)).

Oceans are home to a significant proportion of the world’s biodiversity, provide important cultural and recreational value to many societies, play a valuable role in mitigating the impact of carbon dioxide emissions, and provide over 1 billion people with their primary source of protein. Despite all of that our understanding of the ocean lies well behind that of the land and as we find more ways to exploit its resources we also need to understand what the impact on ecology, physical processes, and people that rely upon it are.

Into discussion

Bringing such a broad group of participants together took careful management, and capable facilitation. Conversations began broadly, before prioritising those issues which the UK could play a significant role in addressing.

From oceans, a number of interacting factors began to spin out: the blue economy, ocean governance, food security and coastal systems. Whilst for cities discussion tended towards concepts: who a city is built for, how one studies a city, and cities as naturally co-produced experiments. Despite running as independent discussions, both sessions also spent time discussing coastal cities, though through significantly different lenses. All these issues have both natural and social science facets and through shared conversation the interactions became more apparent.

Next steps

Since meeting in person the rapporteurs and facilitators have been busy turning discussions into concrete descriptions. Current initiatives like the Global Challenges Research Fund provide an ideal opportunity to gain the sort of interdisciplinary support needed to help address these challenges, and the community hope is that a number of these proposals could end up being funded from there or elsewhere. In the shorter term we’ll be publicising the summaries of the conversations here and through Future Earth and it’s hoped that those, with some of the connections formed through this meeting, will result in concrete research actions.

UK Future Earth is a joint initiative involving the UK academies, research councils, and government departments.


  • Richard Walker

    Richard Walker