Urban Systems Paper

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Urban Systems Innovation
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The data on urbanization is in, and it clearly reveals that we are currently engaged in an intense process of transforming the environment within which humanity lives. Over the course of a century – 1950 to 2050 – we are transforming our environment from the natural rural habitat to an engineered urban habitat. This is a process of huge transformation, disruption, and development, a process the bulk of which will largely be over within a few decades from now, but how that process plays out is of critical importance to the future success of the global economy, society, and environment.

We are living at a time where in principle we could, as never before in history, improve the quality of life for the majority of people around the planet, but the challenges of realizing this are immense and the perils of fast paced mass urbanization are becoming ever more apparent. Achieving sustainable solutions within our urban environment is both a huge challenge – as it is systemic, inherently complex and multidimensional – but at the same time, it offers huge leverage in our capacity to shape our future environment at a scale never seen before.  Changes in the past decades have worked to position urban centers at the core of the global economy and economic development agenda, as the current shift towards an increasingly urbanized and globalized world constitutes a transformation in the locus of power and capabilities towards urban networks. This rise of urban networks as the architecture of globalization offers new ways to grow economies, to rethink sociopolitical organization and our relationship to the natural environment.

Urbanization has helped millions escape poverty through increased employment opportunities, productivity, improved quality of life and large-scale investment in infrastructure and services. Likewise throughout history cities have been the locus of the open society, they are knowledge engines and creative hubs. Well designed infrastructure systems facilitate economies of scale, reduce the costs of trade, and are thus central to specialization and the efficient production and exchange of goods and services.  Although urbanization has the potential to improve living conditions, many cities all over the world are grossly unprepared for the multiplicity of challenges associated with this current process of urbanization; the list is daunting, urban sprawl, public space, housing, mobility, energy, water, sanitation, crime, health, resilience.

The scale and pace of this urbanization process is an engineering challenge as the scale of infrastructure projects has increased so called “megaprojects” are challenging our management and technical engineering capacities in new ways. Urbanization is an economic and financial challenge as infrastructure has become privatized and increasingly opened up to global capital markets, the development of financial vehicles that can effectively channel large global flows of resources into local infrastructure solution that benefit the community has created significant complexity.

Likewise, rapid global urbanization is certainly a social challenge as more people crowd into more dense locations, previously latent inequality and divisions within society come to the forefront, are accentuated and can create sociopolitical instability. Finally, urbanization processes create huge environmental challenges as large scale metropolitan areas become connected into planetary scale metabolic processes, taking in resources from around the planet and having an environmental impact far beyond their small physical territory. Urban centers are thus, both the cause and solution to many of the challenges of our time, they magnify global threats such as economic inequality, climate change, water and food security and resource shortages, but also provide a compact framework for addressing them.

The challenge of urbanism today is not just one of scale, speed and scarcity of resources but on a more fundamental level, it is one of complexity. Cities are the center of civilization and thus express a complex set of social, environmental and economic factors; these forces that shape our built environments come from very different realms and often pull in very different directions. In an age of globalization and information technology, the urban equation that we are dealing with today has become a lot more complex. This requires us to take our thinking to a new level of abstraction, to bring more powerful theoretical and analytical tools to derive deeper insight and clarity; to try and understand our urban environments as the complex engineered systems they are. For solutions to be realized every dimension and aspect of this very complex network of interacting variables needs to be considered and considered as a whole in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding.

This book deals with the analysis of this current situation as it unfolds and asks the question what approach or set of solutions would be appropriate for meeting the growing challenges and demands of a world that is rapidly urbanizing; how can we expand our understanding of the rise of urban networks to "rethink the city."

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