Research

Overview

STEEP started in January 2010, initially as an Inria “Action Exploratoire” (2010+2011). It is now an “Équipe Projet Inria” of Inria Grenoble – Rhône-Alpes and is also affiliated with the Jean Kuntzmann laboratory (LJK http://ljk.imag.fr/).

STEEP is an interdisciplinary research team devoted to systemic modelling and simulation of the interactions between the environmental, economic and social factors in the context of a transition to sustainability at local (sub-national) scales. Our goal is to develop decision-making tools to support decision makers in the implementation of this transition by developing simulation and optimization programs. In other words, our objective is to set up some mathematical and computational tools which enable us to provide some parts of the answer to the challenges how to operate the sustainable development at local scales? and which local governance for environmental public policies?.

The work of STEEP follows several research directions, covering different application domains; these are described in “Scientific Foundations” and “Application Domains” respectively.

Sustainable development: issues and research opportunities

Environmental issues now pose a threat to human civilization worldwide. They range from falling water tables to eroding soils, expanding deserts, biodiversity loss, rising temperatures, etc. For example, half the world’s population lives in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted. Roughly a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil at an excessive rate. Glaciers are melting in all of the world’s major mountains. The consequences on the present human societies are critical; they comprise for example a decreasing food security, important population movements (such as climate refugees) and explosive geopolitical tensions.

Sustainable development is often formulated in terms of a required balance between its environmental, economic and social dimensions, but in practice public policies addressing sustainability issues are dominantly oriented towards environment management in Western countries. This approach is problematic to some extent as environmental problems and sustainability issues result from socio-economic phenomena (for example the economic growth model which is strengthened by powerful and polluting technologies). Environmental problems have only recently been the object of media attention and public awareness. Most efforts bear on developing technological solutions. However, it is now clear that this will not be sufficient. We need to rethink our socio-economic and institutional models in order to leave room for a possible paradigm shift. In this perspective, we believe that crucial steps should be taken in research to help elaborating and implementing socio-economic alternatives.

The risks associated with delayed reaction and adaptation times make the situation urgent. Delayed reactions significantly increase the probability of overshoot of the planet carrying capacity followed by uncontrolled and irreversible evolution on a number of fronts . This systemic problem is amplified by two facts: the environment is degrading on all fronts at the same time, and at the global planetary scale, a first in human history.

Although environmental challenges are monitored worldwide, the search for appropriate lines of actions must nevertheless take place at all institutional levels, in particular at local scales.At such scales, the proximity and smaller number of stakeholders allows decision makers to reach a consensus much more easily than at national or international scales. The failure of the recent Copenhagen summit (and for that matter of all climate summits since the adoption of the Kyoto protocol in 1997) is a good illustration of the difficulties encountered in international negotiations. There are significant possibilities for operations at local scales, and the emergency of the situation gives the “think locally to act globally” logic an essential opportunity.

As of now, local decision levels have real political and economic leverage, and are more and more proactive on sustainability issues, either independently or in coordination through nationwide or European networks (we can refer for example to the European GMO-free Regions Network http://www.gmo-free-regions.org or to the Network of European Regions for a Competitive and Sustainable TouRism http://www.necstour.eu). Also, we think that two local scales are going to be increasingly dominant in the near future: urban areas (more exactly the employment areas of main cities) and “regions” (such as régions in France, Lander in Germany or Cantons in Switzerland). In particular, the sustainability of urban areas is one of the key issues of this century. As focal points of human activity, urban areas concentrate and amplify environmental pressures in a direct or indirect way.

Urbanization is a global and an ever-increasing trend process, with more than half the human population living in cities. Although urbanized areas still represent a very small fraction of the total terrestrial surface, urban resource consumption amounts to three-fourths of the annual total in energy, water, building materials, agricultural products etc., and pollution and waste management is a growing concern for urban planners worldwide. In France, for example, even if resource intensity (materials use divided by GDP Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is defined as an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident institutional units engaged in production.) has been reduced by half since the 70s, the actual material use (total and per inhabitant) has remained essentially constant, and household wastes have grown by 20% since 1995. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been reduced by a few percent since 1990, but the transportation share (a major issue on this front) has been steadily growing over the same period.

Furthermore, urban sprawl is a ubiquitous phenomenon showing no sign of slackening yet, even in countries where rural depopulation has long been stabilized. Urban sprawl in industrialized countries is largely driven by residential suburban growth. This phenomenon has both social and environmental consequences. First it implies an increase of daily mobility. In a context of high dependency on private cars and uncertainty on energy prices, this translates into an increased vulnerability of some population categories. It also induces an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an irreversible loss of cropland and a fragmentation of ecological habitat, with negative effects on biodiversity. The increasing concerns about climate change and upheaval in the market price of fossil fuels raise many questions about urban energy consumption while reviving the debate on the desirable urban structures and their determinants. Controlling urban sprawl is therefore a key sustainability issue.

Let us mention here that cities cannot be sustainable by themselves and that from this point of view, it does not make sense to focus on the municipality scale (“communes”). We think that it is very important to work at larger scales, typically, at employment catchment areas complemented by the adjacent agricultural and natural zones they are dependent on (that would correspond to the smallest scale for which a systemic analysis could make sense). Nevertheless, let us emphasize that because of resource imports and waste exports (e.g. GHG emissions), for any limited territory, the considered area will always depend on and impact other more or less distant territories. This is one of the key issues when trying to assess local sustainability.

Finally, let us note that the numerous and interrelated pressures exerted by human activities on the environment make the identification of sustainable development pathways arduous in a context of complex and sometimes conflicting stakeholders and socio-ecological interactions. This is why we also think that it is crucial to develop interdisciplinary and integrated approaches; consequently, our proposal tries to address the entire spectrum from scientific expertise to stakeholder decision-help.

STEEP, with its strong background in various areas of applied mathematics and modeling, can be a game changer in three connected key domains: urban economy, and related transportation and land use issues; material flow analysis and ecological accounting; and ecosystem services modeling. The group potential on these fronts relies on its capabilities to strongly improve existing integrated activity / land use / transportation models at the urban level on the one hand, and on the other, to build new and comprehensive decision-help tools for sustainability policies at the local and regional levels, in particular through the analysis of strategic social–environmental trade-offs between various policy options.

Last activity report : 2016