Droughts, fires, rising sea levels, in-migration from climate affected areas – none of these effects of climate change take place in a vacuum. Cities are in many instances on the frontlines of dealing with these very real and growing threats.

That’s why 41 graduate students from around the world convened at the Harris School of Public Policy for three days from February 28-March 1 to tackle the intersecting challenges of city resiliency and climate change.

The occasion was the Inter-Policy School Summit (IPSS), an annual Harris event for policy students to conceive “rigorous and tangible solutions” to a pressing global policy issue, in partnership for the second consecutive year with the Aspen Institute.

A group of Harris students created IPSS in 2017 as the world’s first and only student-run policy conference.

The one-of-a-kind Inter Policy School Summit puts policy students on the front lines of solving important issues facing the world today.

“The founding students saw an opportunity to bring their fellow rising leaders together to address big policy questions, and each year the event builds on the learnings and successes of past summits,” said Adam McGriffin, Harris’ director of career development. “IPSS is truly a testament to our students’ initiative and commitment to advancing progress against the issues they care most about.”    

“The desired outcome is to successfully outline a series of viable solutions to the summit’s central issue, in this case the impact of climate change on our cities,” said Stephen Crano, MPP’20 and co-executive director of the 2020 IPSS. “The Aspen Institute plans to publish those policy proposals, and hopefully they’ll be considered by policymakers – that’s the ultimate goal.”

This year’s summit boasted record attendance with participants joining from 20 schools, ranging from UCLA to Yale to the London School of Economics.  

Participants began with site visits, a new professional development initiative that kicked off the weekend. They first visited summit partner organization Arcadis, a design and consultancy firm focused on creating more livable cities. The student teams then visited sites in Chicago that have experienced flooding and discussed what cities can do to prevent it.

The official start to the summit was the keynote reception Friday evening at the Keller Center. After remarks by Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, and IPSS’ two co-executive directors, Malu Blazquez delivered an inspiring keynote address.

Malu Blázquez
Malu Blázquez

The executive director of the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission/Relmagina Puerto Rico, Blazquez recapped the recent natural disasters that have struck the island over the past four years and outlined the work her organization has done to respond.

Relmagina Puerto Rico – “reimagine Puerto Rico” – has developed and released actionable recommendations to rebuild the island after the recent disasters with an eye to minimizing devastation from future disasters. The future of Puerto Rico is a topic that galvanizes Harris students, many of them spurred to act on behalf of the people of the American protectorate.

After the keynote, Greg Gershuny, executive director of the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program, moderated a panel that focused on issues of infrastructure, public health, and equity in mitigating climate change and making cities resilient.

The panel featured leading thinkers on these topics: LeeAnn Tomas-Foster, Big Urban Client City Executive, Arcadis; Jeb Brugmann, Founding Principal, Resilient Cities Catalyst; Allison Arwady (CLA’18), Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health; and Blazquez.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis we’re facing as a species,” Gershuny said. “The resilience in our city systems is most critical.”

With Friday serving as a primer, IPSS attendees got down to work on Saturday. Participants joined nine groups of four to five and were assigned a global city facing a different challenge brought on by climate change—including droughts, fires, rising sea levels, in-migration from climate affected areas, and so much more.  The teams then worked through the weekend to develop and ultimately present their proposals.

“The summit was enormously valuable to me,” said Millie Brill, a student from the University of Leeds.  “Not only did I gain team work skills and insight from amazing organizations who are delivering important environmental and climate resilience work, but I also loved working on the policy brief with my team and feel I've made lifelong friends.”

Participants at IPSS work to tackle the most important issues of our time.
Participants at IPSS work to tackle the most important issues of our time.

Over the next two months, the Aspen Institute will work with the groups to refine and publish the policy documents in May.

“The caliber of the thinking, the passion of the students, and the shared commitment to this issue were extremely impressive,” Gershuny noted. “The team’s proposals will be valuable contributions to the policy dialogue.”

In fact, Brill, whose team focused came up with an idea for a “Fires Near Me” app, which could greatly increase the resilience and community cohesion of cities, has already been in contact with the Wollongong (her team’s assigned city in Australia) government and plans to share the policy brief with them when it’s final.

“Hopefully, some of the proposals will gain some traction, and next year’s summit can build on the successes of this year’s event,” said Analiese Wagner, MPP’20, Crano’s fellow co-executive director for this year’s summit. “IPSS is all about building connections between graduate students from various programs around the world, and we unquestionably accomplished that.”

Sponsors of the 2020 Inter-Policy School Summit included West Monroe Partners, Arcadis, as well as the Energy Policy Institute (EPIC), the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Conflict, and the France Chicago Center, all from the University of Chicago. 

Previous Inter-Policy School Summits focused on: climate change and national security (2019); the intersection of cybersecurity and trade (2018); and Amazon deforestation (2017).