Rethinking future cities

Ernst & Young

By Adam Fennessy, EY Oceania Leader – Future Cities
Tuesday, 13 February, 2018

Adobestock 68881702

To create better cities, we must improve our understanding of their complex and dynamic nature. Prevailing urban practices tend to conceive of cities as complicated machines comprising infrastructure, buildings, transport systems, utility networks, land uses and populations that can be individually managed and controlled. Tinkering with the parts in order to change the whole, however, reflects a misunderstanding as to the true nature of cites.

The stakes for change could not be higher. Based on historical rates, growth in global urbanisation will be largely over in a few decades. How that plays out is of profound consequence to the future of humanity and the planet, but many cities are grossly unprepared for the overwhelming number of environmental, economic and societal challenges associated with this process.

City leaders urgently need to address these challenges, but to do so they must first confront a more fundamental one — recognising the dynamic nature of cities so that they are able to better deal with the problems of cities.

Cities as complex adaptive systems

Over the past few years, new insights coming from the study of complex systems have begun to shed light on the nature of cities.

Cities are complex adaptive systems with unique characteristics and dynamics. Cities have a networked and emergent quality, where things are always in a state of flux and where an understanding of the individual parts does not convey an understanding of the whole. This dynamic nature of cities tends to make many of the policy problems that governments are tackling today resistant to simplified analysis and resolution.

If we are to create cities that encourage the full potential of human creativity in a sustainable way, then we need a new approach that draws upon the lessons learned from the emerging science of cities — one that acknowledges and responds to the complex and highly adaptive nature of cities.

Seeing complexity through the lens of resilience

‘Resilience’ is a term that emerged from the field of ecology in the 1970s to describe the capacity of natural ecosystems to maintain or recover functionality in the event of disruption or disturbance.

Resilience in the context of cities refers to the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of stresses and shocks they experience. Cities begin to lose their resilience when the multiple networked and interacting elements do not keep up with growth and change, such as those that deliver energy, mobility and information.

Improving urban resilience involves building redundancy into networks — by adding more and more links so that it becomes harder to disrupt them. This way, if some links break down, others will come into effect. A good practical example of this is a city that incorporates flexibility in travel patterns across its transportation network to account for sudden increases in demand, or failure, in one or more parts of the network.

Principles for future cities

Taking a whole-of-system approach to city planning and management will lead to improved diagnosis of urban problems, enable the development of policies and plans to address them, and improve urban resilience. The following five principles provide a framework for city leaders that acknowledge the complex dynamics that enhance the resilience of cities.

  1. Maintain diversity: Systems with many components are more resilient than those with fewer components. In cities, resilience is enhanced through diversity of multiple systems — multiple industries, businesses, transport modes, housing types, ecological species, water sources, energy sources, institutions and social groups.
  2. Optimise networks: Networks and connectivity can influence the resilience of systems in a range of ways, safeguarding cities against shocks by enabling recovery or by preventing the impacts from spreading. At the same time, highly connected systems can spread disruption faster, as is the case with highly communicable diseases.
  3. Foster systems thinking: Thinking of cities as complex adaptive systems means acknowledging that there are multiple connections occurring at the same time on different levels. This requires city decision-makers to accept unpredictability and uncertainty, and acknowledge that that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to a problem.
  4. Engage in broad collaboration: In order to better understand and engage with complex urban issues, decision-makers need to be able to examine the whole city through a systems lens. To do this, comprehensive community perspectives are needed to galvanise ideas about how cities emerge, evolve and are structured.
  5. Learn through disruption: Resilience is all about adapting and transforming in response to change. Disruptions and stresses should be seen as opportunities to enhance knowledge and to build a better understanding of the nature of cities. Learning occurs through experimentation and experience — by taking risks, testing out alternative responses to shocks and constantly revising and changing strategies.

Actions for city leaders

When considering these principles, it is essential that city leaders understand their resilience objectives in terms of where resilience efforts should be focused and in response to what. Priorities will range across industries, transport modes, housing types, natural environments, water and energy sources, institutions and social groups.

Because cities are dynamic and their context ever changing, resilience efforts will require ongoing adjustment. This means constantly rethinking, testing and reworking practices and providing flexibility in urban ‘solutions’.

Finally, to keep cities functioning optimally, city leaders must increase their understanding of the way in which different social and physical networks relate and evolve. Resilience strategies should focus on maximising social networks and social processes, to keep people at the centre of our future cities.

Adam Fennessy, EY Oceania Leader – Future Cities

Top image credit: © and Splits

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