Systems Thinking for 21st-Century Cities: A Beginners Introduction — Part #1

Systems Thinking for 21st-Century Cities: A Beginners Introduction — Part #1

Why it matters, what it means, and 3 steps to start

Our 21st century demands leadership — and many are turning their eyes towards our world’s cities.

Why? By 2050, 65% of our global population — an estimated 6 billion humans — will live in cities. Cities, accounting for just 2% of earth’s landmass, produce 70% of global GDP70% of global C02 emissions, and 66% of energy consumption, they are growing in political power, and enliven society as cultural hubs. One could say that cities are our bellwethers, our global pulse points…as cities go, so goes the world.

To take a pulse today, cities indicate a global system in distress. The symptoms and warning signs are clear. Cape Town is set to run out of waterSan Francisco is failing their homeless populationBeijing is enveloped in critical smog levelsSan Juan is rolling with power outagesCaracas is stricken with hunger. My home city, Philadelphia, is grappling with 25% poverty.

For decades, scientists and urban experts alike have stated that cities are — borrowing a term from ecology — ecosystems, hybrid ecosystems consisting of both natural and human-made elements. Like natural ecosystems, cities evolve through a combination of chaos and order. The late urban writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, once said, “cities happen to be problems in organized complexity” and warned against predicting city’s futures. “People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists [today]…are always wrong.”

Undoubtedly, the future of our global cities will be emergent in ways we may or may not predict — from social uprisings like new populism, new technologies like blockchain, or climate events like Hurricane Sandy. Yet, we are not powerless in our city ecosystems. Chaos is paired with order, and we have power — with the right leadership, knowledge, and tools — to reimagine a new, 21st-century order for our cities and our world to thrive.

Tackling wicked problems with systems thinking

Today’s cities (and our world-at-large) face wicked problems, problems that are “difficult or impossible to solve…because of complex interdependencies.” One can imagine the complex interdependencies in Cape Town’s current water crisis, for example — natural (drought, groundwater), human (attitudes, household usage, population growth), social (data, media coverage), physical (leaking pipes, desalination equipment availability), political (government leadership, policies), and industrial (water use for industry and agriculture).

Solving a city crisis or challenge — Cape Town’s water crisis or San Francisco’s homelessness – can seem impossible, especially if we take a reductionist approach. Mainstream education and culture often reinforce reductionist thinking — breaking down wholes into parts and studying parts in isolation from their roots. Reductionism, in the case of wicked problems, isolates problems from the complex systems in which they operate, and treats a problem’s observed symptoms instead of its root or systemic causes.

Continues in source: Systems Thinking for 21st-Century Cities: A Beginners Introduction — Part #1