Transforming Birmingham - a city system approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Civil Engineering


Energy is a vital resource for everyday life. Without it, there would be no heating (or cooling), lighting or transport in the cities of the world. However, the world is rapidly changing with unprecedented rises in the global population (much of it in cities), innovative technological developments, a changing climate and an ever rising demand for natural resources. Such changes are putting increasing strain on the systems that provide the means for us to enjoy our modern lifestyle. At the same time, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise contributed to by the burning of fossil fuels.

The UK Government has set an ambitious target to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from the UK by 80% from 1990 levels. Progress has been made towards achieving this target with increasing use of renewable energy, more efficient use of energy in general and a reduction in the number of coal-fired power stations. However, it is recognised that there is still a long way to go to actually achieve this target and that much greater effort is required in terms of changing UK society's energy use and reducing inefficiencies, particularly in the domestic sector.

Over the last ten years there has been a wide body of research undertaken on whole energy systems across many sectors (transport, built environment and engineering) investigating energy use and potential new technologies that will reduce the reliance on using fossil fuels. In addition, transition pathways to future energy scenarios have been presented. Despite this work, it has not had the desired impact on policy or investment decisions. This is due in part to technological, investment and governance path dependency. Many of these studies have looked at energy in isolation but it is becoming increasing recognised that interconnections between sectors are a vital component that must be incorporated into models. This will enable realistic interpretations of not only existing systems but also future unknown systems which may behave very differently. Another issue that needs consideration is the relevance of existing approaches to modelling compared to the real experiences of a city

It is evident that there is an urgent need to understand the interactions between different sectors in terms of energy supply and demand. It is recognised that this is a complex topic and that there are significant knowledge gaps in determining how societal, environmental and economic issues interact within the energy system. Economic models have been developed that highlight value appropriation related to financial inputs but there other ways of capturing value from energy systems that would reduce negative environmental

A key question that needs to be addressed is: What kind of modelling framework is needed to incorporate not only energy systems but also waste, air quality, legacy housing stock, new build and transport issues to inform policy makers as to the best way to decarbonise a city?

Our aim is to develop a user-friendly dynamic model framework based on systems engineering that will be a vital tool to inform not only city decision-makers together with utility companies, engineers, designers, waste companies but the UK Government to assess the impact of changes in the energy system. This will enable the best use to be made of a city's resources and that of its hinterland as well as ensuring that all citizens enjoy thermal comfort regardless of income, contributing to their health and well-being.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?
Policy makers, regulators and non-governmental bodies who seek to develop low-carbon cities
The Treasury. It will inform Infrastructure UK, established within HM Treasury, and hence Government policy on public finance allocation and infrastructure planning
Other local authorities
Practitioners ranging from developers, architects, consultants, contractors and planners to economists and businesses
Local Enterprise Partnerships, who are responsible for 'engendering sustainable practices'
Local communities and individuals involved in the research process (including data collection) and who will have intimate experience of the radical engineering concepts and solutions.
Local businesses
West Midlands Combined Authority and the local authorities within it
Transport for West Midlands (TfWM)

How might they benefit from this research?
This programme will help to maintain UK's leadership in the field whole energy system modelling by contributing new knowledge to this research area. The findings of this research will ultimately lead to a step change in our approach to modelling whole energy systems and their relationship to transport, housing and waste. Industrial beneficiaries will then be in a position to directly and indirectly benefit from the outcome of this research. The planned workshops will facilitate the interaction of people from different sectors and infrastructure to enable a greater understanding of existing models and how a new modelling framework will be developed. This will lead to more energy-efficient infrastructure with dramatic knock-on effects on industry, the economy, environment and society. Additionally, industrial beneficiaries will be able to reduce their CO2 emissions and other pollutants benefitting not only the UK but the whole word. This project will also foster the development of an important set of skills and abilities in the UK's wider scientific community. The two planned workshops at the beginning and end of the study are shown on the Work Plan. Additional knowledge transfer to major industrial stakeholders will also occur indirectly through the work of partner research groups, such as City-Region Economic Development Institute (City-REDI). Through our colleagues in iBuild we also plan to incorporate business models into our framework. We will establish close links with researchers in Energy Systems Catapult, Transport Systems Catapult and Future Cities Catapult building on existing contacts through the BCRRE and the Liveable Cities Programme.
Description This scoping study has developed a framework for how the concepts of Whole Energy Systems can be applied on a city-region scale across different sectors (e.g. direct energy, waste, water, transport etc.). This has been developed alongside stakeholders from these sectors and identified what are the key factors that need to be included in future energy system modelling if it is to be useful and beneficial to a wide group of users. The work has identified that current sector-specific models, including those in the direct energy sector, cannot fulfill these requirements and that therefore a new approach is required.
Exploitation Route Those developing new or existing sector-specific energy models should build in the capabilities discussed to enable cross-sector consideration of energy. A follow-on project has been proposed (currently under consideration) which would develop a new practical approach to city-region scale modelling of whole-energy-systems across multiple sectors such that policy implications and proposals can be investigated and evaluated.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Transport

Description Member of EPSRC Energy Scientific Advisory Committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description EPSRC/ESC Follow on Funding
Amount £617,942 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/S002936/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2018 
End 08/2020
Description NERC RISE
Amount £4,000,000 (GBP)
Funding ID S003487/1 
Organisation Research Councils UK (RCUK) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2023
Description BBC on-line interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview for BBC on-line on public transport and cities. This led to a discussion on busses and access including spatial exclusion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Contribution to IEA Expert Group on R&D Priority Setting and Evaluation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The goal of the workshop was to learn from examples of how the transition from blue skies research to application has been successfully undertaken in other sectors for example, space research, medicine or solid state physics in the context of microelectronics, and to identify from current basic research selected areas or ideas that might potentially have a huge impact on the energy sector. This should inform an understanding of how different governments engage in, fund, and structure their investments in energy-related basic science programmes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Future of Work and Reading City-Regions 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Blog on the "The Future of Work during an Era of Disruptive Process and Technological Change"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Workshop to Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) practitioners 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact An invited presentation by SUMPS-Up (Sustainability Urban Mobility Plans) to explore the relationship between urban diagnostics and urban mobility plans
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018