WEBINAR: Cities as Complex Systems

Presented by Swinburne University of Technology’s Smart Cities Research Institute

Thursday 16 September 2021

12.00pm – 1.00pm AEST



We tend to simplify our collective view of cities as collections of objects (buildings, parks etc.) connected by transportation, services and communications networks (infrastructure).  When cities are viewed as systems, however, a completely different perspective can emerge through a deeper analysis: urban analytics.  When urban designers are enabled to map the city as a set of both discrete and interacting dynamics, we can read the urban environment quite differently and avoid repeating some of the mistakes we routinely make.

Viewed as complex systems cities require more from the urban designer’s digital workbench than their traditional training and practice affords.  For tomorrow’s urban and regional development, a vastly wider pool of talent needs to come together in new ways.  Planners and policy makers, architects and urban designers, landscape architects, ecologists, demographers, , computer scientists, engineers, urban economists, geographers, data scientists, climatologists, and physicists – by no means a comprehensive list, are equally invested in discovering new pathways to sustainable urban futures but with different priorities.  With such a disparate and diverse discipline base, we require new platforms upon which to engage with unpacking big data and understanding the complexity of urban systems. 

The big question…

Our panel session calls on an urban designer with an interest in complex adaptive systems, a theoretical physicist who researches sustainability transitions and societal transformations, and a mechanical engineer with specialist knowledge of fluid dynamics to consider the question: does viewing the city as a complex system more effectively facilitate a common understanding with which to scaffold a different type of conversation around sustainable urbanisation – what are the potential gains when we think of cities and city life as being more than simply agglomerations of buildings with associated interstitial activity?

The panel will each speak briefly to the proposition and engage with the ‘big question’ before entering a discussion together.  There will be ample opportunity for the audience to engage in the discussion.


Justyna Karakiewicz researches urban design and architecture through design in practice globally and by publication, including numerous design awards and an extensive record of exhibitions. Her work in sustainability was recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2008 in the Housing Design Awards 2008 Historic Awards for the design of Spinney Garden, constructed in 1986. Her book Promoting Sustainable Living: Sustainability as an Object of Desire, (Routledge, 2015) and Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric (Routledge, 2011) extend her work in this field. Her most recent co-edited book, Urban Galapagos: Transition to Sustainability in Complex Adaptive Systems in the Springer Social and Ecological Interaction in the Galapagos Islands Series (2019) considers the opportunities in coupled natural urban systems, engaging computer, social and economic sciences with design.  Justyna is currently Professor in Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Melbourne’s School of Design (MSD). She natural urban systems, engaging computer, social and economic sciences with design.

Provocation: what role does a city have in nature?

Pertubations, a beguilingly peaceful word that brings to mind a calm river with a ripple spreading across the surface. In complex systems, however, perturbations are not easy experiences, unlike comforting slow evolution where statis might be seen, where changes happen gradually, often unnoticed and no one is unsettled. But sometimes, perturbations are needed. For example, over many years we have been responding to the discovery of the profoundly disturbing consequences of climate change with evolutionary responses. This is true of our attitude to urban change. If we apply CAS in conceptualising our future cities, we will soon observe that perturbation must be a natural state of most of urban systems and systems cannot evolve and enrich without perturbation. Therefore, lets us try to model cities as CAS, or coupled urban and nature systems, perhaps even as tripled urban, natural and cognitive systems. For example, let us jettison the question of what nature can do for the city to address our problems, fixing our urban heat islands or providing relief from our mistakes, but turn the statement around, what role does a city have in nature.

Fjalar de Haan is a transitionist.  He develops theory and other tools for understanding sustainability transitions and societal transformations.  Modelling is one of his favourite tools and he would say that modelling helps to accelerate the interactions between theory and empirical work towards better understanding. Fjalar has an MSc in theoretical physics and a PhD in transitions research. Fjalar has been exploring the frontiers of transitions theory and modelling in a variety of contexts, as part of international, interdisciplinary teams, project-based with industry, and in curiosity-driven solo projects. Fjalar works at works at Deakin University as Senior Research Fellow in the School of Life & Environmental Sciences (Centre for Integrative Ecology, Planet A Lab)

Provocation: The Formal Imperative

Cities are facing challenges so great we cannot, morally, let them determine their own course — we have to intervene, manage, plan, design.  But we have learnt that cities are ‘complex systems’ which seems an epistemological purgatory.  Unpredictability, emergence and chaos await. Some would say the best we can do is deal with every case as it comes and move with the waves.  I would like to whole-heartedly disagree and rather propose a quest to find and harness general principles.  If you feel this reeks of a bygone paradigm you are almost right. In this talk I aim first to demystify the complexity of cities.  Then I shall explain why we are dealing with an imperative and what I mean by ‘formal’.  I hope to offer some words of optimism and opportunity — to convey that there is an intellectual challenge of great beauty, and, moreover, that we are in a position to embrace it.  

Richard Manasseh is a mechanical engineer with specialist knowledge of fluid dynamics.  At a fundamental level, Professor Manasseh’s research focuses on wave modes and oscillators in fluids and their interactions.   He is best known for his work on the vibrations of bubbles, called bubble acoustics.  His active projects examine ocean wave-power machines; the interaction of ultrasound with microbubbles and live cells for medical diagnostics and therapeutics; and the interaction of ultrasound with droplets for food processing.  Further applications of Professor Manasseh’s research have included spacecraft engineering, coastal oceanography, thunderstorms, submarine noise, wastewater treatment and microfluidic devices.  Richard is Professor of Fluid Dynamics at Swinburne University of Technology’s School of Engineering and is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers.

Provocation: Four-dimensional cities

Cities have been designed as entities fixed in space. The architect, and the architect’s cousin, the urban planner, are trained to be spatial thinkers. They arrange walls, floors, windows, doors, paths, roads, residential and commercial zones, and hopefully also parks, public transport, schools, and hospitals, with fixed spatial relationships between them. When architects call on engineers, they visit the subset of the civil-engineering discipline delivering structural design, who also design entities fixed in space. And securely-fixed these structures must be, or there will be grave danger.

However, most other engineers think in terms of time. Air, water and electricity must flow – move in time – to serve the needs of urban denizens, and mechanical, environmental and electrical engineers design those flows. Air flows around and through buildings. Rain falls and flows though the city; freshwater flows in and used water out to the sea: a mostly unclosed cycle. Trees cause water to flow up from the soil and evaporate from leaves, delivering cooling and drainage services over time. All these flows can be calculated and buildings and streets planned around them, not despite them. Walls and surfaces absorb and reflect fluxes of sound and heat, greatly affecting amenity. Electricity flows too, faster than we perceive, yet its capture from local sun and wind, and its local loops and recycles need space. Flows of sound and heat energy can be calculated, and heat and electricity stored; the space for generation and storage, like the time for music and the time for quiet, must be holistically designed.

To deliver a future city, we must integrate the spatial and temporal designs of architects and engineers. We must conceive of the city in four dimensions: the three of space plus the fourth: time.

Credit: Josh Hidell at Pexel

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: