Nov 21, 2019


Large-scale cities are complex adaptive systems in which a vast spectrum of governance opportunities and challenges are generated. When properly managed, urban centres function as global drivers of sustainable prosperity and collective security. Conversely, when poorly designed cities can compromise sustainable development and human security on a regional or even a global scale. This distinction is important because infrastructure trajectories and demographic forecasts suggest that thousands of new cities in rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Nigeria may have to constructed in the coming decades1. 

Cities as Algorithms  

Cities are “algorithms” that all countries need in facilitating the transition to a more promising stage of economic and social development. To accelerate their local productivity and global competitiveness, megacities and large-scale cities are banking on the promise of “smart” technology and knowledge-driven development strategies. An estimated 1,000 “smart-city” projects have been launched globally. While targeted investments in urban technologies such as data analytics and visualization software serve as a critical enabler of innovation, productivity, and inclusive economic growth, the movement as a whole is still in the experimental stage. As these technologies become more user-friendly and cost-effective to administer, urban planners will gain a better understanding of the dynamic interplay of seemingly unrelated risk factors while citizen journalists and independent researchers may be able to by-pass traditional information “gatekeepers.” 

“Beta” City Governance 

Contemporary urban technologies connect more ideas, people, and places than at any time in history, but much of urban governance is still characterized by short-term thinking, siloed mandates, and linear planning processes. Municipal officials working in close collaboration with higher levels of government are duty-bound to deliver lasting social and economic value in the context of rising public demand for innovative policy solutions to seemingly intractable demographic, mobility, security, and environmental problems. In 2015, the strategic leadership of municipal leaders was formally recognized in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)2, the first time an international accord acknowledged municipal and national leaders as equals. 

To accommodate these converging governance demands, urban centres must do their best to create multidisciplinary learning environments that remain conducive to knowledge “spill-overs” and which enable the development of sophisticated cognitive, behavioral, and institutional capabilities. City-to-city partnerships aimed at growing institutional learning capacity, curating flexible and inclusive planning structures, and scaling distributed knowledge systems can be a vital source of innovation excellence3. The world’s most sustainable cities often combine a differentiated portfolio of human-centred designs and a multi-layered knowledge mobilization infrastucture that supports both efficient and effective decision-making. However, for many global cities, the learning curve is likely to be very sharp as advanced urban technologies and social infrastructures are functionally integrated with legacy systems designed for an earlier and more predictable era. 

The openness and interconnectedness of urban space means that even minor changes to the physical infrastructure can have a capacious effect on the long-term adaptability and resilience of a city, including adjacent regions. In such a dynamic situation, local governments will have to be realistic about their ability to function independently as “green islands.” For that reason, learning how to access non-local sources of strategic intelligence may be equally important as the ability to create new sources of social and economic value (ie., in partnership with connector or “gamma” cities). 

Sustainable Prosperity Pathways  

There are many pathways to urban sustainability deriving from the fact that each city has a unique unique combination of historic, economic, demographic, geographic, and cultural resources. Several authoritative studies including the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report4 highlight the urgency of mitigating climate change impacts. Contemporary views of sustainability and resilience are shaped by the complex interrelationship between human and ecological processes. 

Thoughtful urban policy development is contingent on an in-depth understanding of how context-specific drivers such as geographic location, knowledge diffusion, and social learning interface with broad-based technical, geopolitical, and economic disruptions. For example, among the world’s coastal cities that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, special consideration will need to be given to the intelligent design of distributed knowledge systems capable of connecting local scientists, data analysts, emergency responders, and community leaders with military-like precision. In these situations, strategy usually trumps data collection and analytics. 

As complex adaptive systems, “smart” cities and innovation corridors are most productive when supported by a robust social infrastructure5. Research shows that in a global knowledge economy productivity gains are more a function of human capital development than capital investments6. Ironically, the rapid proliferation of advanced information and communication technologies has amplified, not diminished, the significance of geographic proximity and human intelligence.

Intelligent Design Principles 

Although there are no ready-made solutions for contemporary urban governance challenges, this non-exchaustive list of design principles may help to provide conceptual clarity and a strategic focus.   

  • Cities are Complex Algorithms – Cities endowed with a unique combination of historic, economic, demographic, geographic, and cultural resources serve as a source of identity, attraction, capability, adaptability, and sustainability. 
  • Strategy Trumps Data – Developing policy solutions for complex socio-economic problems often requires more insight, interpretation, and critical thinking – not necessarily more data. In fact, a well-designed strategy is often more important than data collection and analytics.
  • Form and Function Are One – Urban economic innovation generates enduring value when human-centred design principles, mixed land-use practices, civic technology and prototyping, multi-modal transportation networks, and community engagement processes are functionally integrated. 
  • Cultivate Anticipatory Learning – Incorporating foresight analysis at the beginning of the annual planning cycle will provide municipal leaders and community planners with critical insights about the future performance of their core assumptions under different conditions of uncertainty.  


Contemporary urban governance challenges require a strategic rethink. A successful transition to a qualitatively different stage of economic and social development will have to prioritize more integrated ways of seeing, thinking, and acting. While the scale and scope of near-term urban development around the world presents a formidable challenge, we can better prepare ourselves for the uncertainties ahead with the right mix of intelligent design principles and integrated learning solutions.     

This article was originally published in Mark and Focus Magazine (Vol 2., Issue 2). 

1Robert Muggah, “These are the Most Fragile Cities – and This is What We’ve Learned from Them,” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (12 January 2017).
2United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” (2015).
3Tim Campbell, Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn, and Innovate (2012). New York: Taylor and Francis. 
4Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policy Makers” (October 2018).
5Robert Muggah, “Are Smart Cities a Bright Idea for the Global South?” OpenCanada, Centre for International Governance, Waterloo, Ontario (20 November 2014).
6Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), The Knowledge-based Economy (1996). Paris, France,; Sibusiso Manzini, Human Capital Development in the Knowledge Economy,” Human Capital Review (2016).; “Elena Pelinescu, “The Impact of Human Capital on Economic Growth,” Procedia Economics and Finance, Volume 22 (2015).

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