Cities are systems: data makes them better

The urban infrastrcuture is the most complex system most of us encounter on a daily basis. In a world rocked by crises, we need to understand these systems better.

Cities are a great example of our failure to apply systems thinking. These great engines of the economy, the hubs around which so many people’s lives revolve, are struggling to cope with the changes that the 21st century is throwing at them.

We have the shift to hybrid working, the need to conserve energy, the challenges of biosecurity in dense environments or even the desperate need to reduce their carbon output in the face of unrelenting climate change. Our cities are on the front line of the changes in our way of living.

They’re in danger of failing because we don’t see them as the complex systems they are. And if we don’t embrace their systemic nature, we can’t make them work for today’s challenges. Given the crises we face, we really need to fix that.

Complex urban systems

Cities are some of the most complex systems we encounter day to day. And there’s no escaping them. Even if you’ve chosen to live somewhere very rural, and very remote, you’re still tied to a neighbouring city by multiple subtle links, not least supply chains and delivery networks. Cities are complex networks designed to support human life and activities. But their tendrils spread deep into the surrounding areas.

Most cities emerged organically. Numerous factors, often based on geographic location, conspired to make some settlements more important than others. As cities grew, the people in them were able to adapt slowly as life changed. Once upon a time, you’d have one practitioner of a necessary trade in a town. As the city grew, you’d have streets where all the practitioners of a trade could be found. It was a system that worked for both traders and shoppers. In the medieval era, that might be Tannery Row, where the leather workers traded. Even in the 20th century, we saw this as the marketing types gathered on Madison Avenue in New York.

This has led to a mental model of cities as a series of “clusters”, rather than a complex system. We divided cities up into commercial, residential and industrial zones. There’s a tendency to address cities at a planning level as collections of districts: neighbourhoods or zones, for example. Occasionally planning decisions are made at a full urban level, but more often they’re devolved to regions within the city. At worst, they operate on a building-by-building, scheme-by-scheme level. And that used to work. Historically, changes in urban use have been slow and incremental. Cities rise and fall over decades, not years.

Demand follows changes. Cities reshape themselves around new patterns of behaviour.

Systems collapse at an urban scale

But history has some cautionary lessons for us, too. The collapse of cities whose economy was based on heavy infrastructure was a common feature of western countries through the tail end of the 20th century. Many cities couldn’t adapt in time, and entered a period of decay that lasted decades. Urban usage pattern shifts can happen in years, not decades now. And that pace is accelerating.

We’re in the midst of another massive period of urban reconceptualisation. As we’ve been noting for some years now, the pandemic changed work patterns for the foreseeable future. Remote and hybrid work is provably successful, and so the pressure to get staff back into the office has been largely unsuccessful.

Now, the dynamics might be changing again. As the energy crisis grips many established economies, many households will find themselves doing some sums: is it cheaper to go into the office and leave my home unheated? The equation has changed again within a very small number of years.

Urban systems need to adapt faster than they traditionally have.

Tracking urban systems changes

How do urban authorities make those choices? Data.

NEXT21 and 22 speaker Francesca Bria has been both working and campaigning for better and more open data for years now. As she told Domus:

Data are clearly a new urban infrastructure, like water, electricity, public transport and so on. Data are crucial for better decision-making, for the improvement of public services and the evaluation of the policies we carry out. As for the Barcelona case, data become a common that cities can use to tackle environmental and social issues, preserving at the same time citizens’ privacy, security and fundamental rights.

Bria is currently working as programme director of The New Hanse, which is exploring future data governance models of Hamburg, intending to roll these models out across Germany — and the rest of Europe.

Better data, better cities

In the short term, these better data flows will allow all levels of the urban system to make better decisions. That applies to governmental planners, property developers, landlords and even residents. Understanding how people’s use of the urban infrastructure is changing over time allows them to react with more agility than in the past.

The long term, though, requires even greater thought. The problem with cities is that they can be terribly inflexible — physically, at least. If you started constructing new buildings as soon as the shift to hybrid working became clear, they’d just be approaching readiness now — as the equation changes again. If working patterns are going to shift as quickly as we’ve seen recently, then we need to build buildings for adaptability, not for a specific purpose.

Towards a resilient urbanism

And again, history can be a guide here. For example, in the UK at least, the legacy of our Victorian industrial boom has proved surprisingly resilient. The big empty brick shells of industrial warehouses and factories have often proved ideal for converting into flexible office space, or upmarket urban apartments. This needs to be our construction model. There’s huge embodied energy in the construction process, so building things in a way that makes them reusable over time makes perfect sense.

How do we know what forms will deliver that sort of flexibility? Again, the answer is data. We must understand how buildings are used and reused over time. How their functional nature shifts with people’s need for infrastructure is crucial information. As Bria intimated above, we require better, more accessible data as a public good, not just locked up in the stables of architects, developers and letting agents.

If we’re going to hug the urban system, we will need to learn to love city data.