Opportunities to be seized for urban health and wellbeing from harnessing urban complexity through a ‘systems approach’

Take note: Urban communities, urban planners and city decision makers at all levels

We need to tap into the messy reality, or complexity, of how cities really function and how they change. Our approach shows that there are opportunities for improving urban health and wellbeing if only we look ‘under-the-bonnet’ and acknowledge this complexity. To harness these opportunities, we need to create a way of engaging citizens in a form of urban governance which is responsive, adaptive and more intelligent. We call this a systems approach to urban health and wellbeing.

We already know: It was known that cities are complex systems and as such are partly plannable and partly not. Further, many of the features and functions of ecosystems can be applied to urban systems, which are also open systems, interacting with their hinterlands.

What this study adds: Our study adds to the debate on urban health, and its implications. At a fundamental level we all need to acknowledge that urban health issues emerge from urban complexity; and that urban complexity can be turned into opportunities if understood, by applying a systems approach. We show how a systems approach includes science and society in the collaborative creation of knowledge and opportunities.

  • Many of the root causes of complex urban health problems are only detectable by a combined scientific and participatory systems approach.
  • Participation and engagement in urban governance, as a ‘must’, is a consequence of the complexity features of urban systems, and not an ideological viewpoint.

We argue that systems intelligence can be improved and urban health problems addressed more effectively by applying a systems approach.

Implications for city policy and practice: Although our paper looks at the relationship between underlying concepts, there are practical implications for cities. Basically an important lesson from complexity science (for science itself) is that knowledge for urban health needs to be co-created with people in action and in locality. As such, practical implications from our study urge us all to:

  • involve scientists from different disciplines to model and better understand the complex determinants of urban health better understand the complex determinants of urban health,
  • observe and monitor determining factors of urban health and track their change. Urban observatories are an example,
  • identify leverage points and opportunities to actively intervene and change urban health risk factors,
  • address root causes instead of symptoms of urban health problems. Interventions are likely to be longer lasting and therefore also more cost efficient.

We strongly advocate that co-benefits and participation need to be brought to the heart of the process of urban development. This requires us to:

  • consider measures for improving urban health which create a range of co-benefits, such as for public and green spaces.
  • involve citizens in identifying their own priorities for improving urban health.

This list of seemingly discrete actions can be brought together by applying systems governance and creating participatory platforms. At their core these need to support initiatives for exchanging and retaining knowledge and ideas, learning, innovation and collective action. We refer to such platforms as knowledge-action systems.

Full article: Lessons from complexity science for urban health and wellbeing

Wider information: The International Council for Science

Authors: Franz Gatzweiler, Stefan Reis, Yi Zhang, Saroj Jayasinghe
City Know-how editor: Marcus Grant