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The city is not a massive machine, says Luis Bettencourt

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-09-2017 Aparna Piramal Raje

New Delhi: Urban planners design spaces. Urban economists evaluate jobs, livelihoods and growth. Local policymakers implement transportation and sanitation services. Sociologists examine social networks. Developers produce housing. Citizens and non-profits (often) protest against all of them. Cities represent different challenges to different urban actors, but one aspect of any city is universal: it is essentially an interdisciplinary outcome of these, and other, fields coming together.

For Luis Bettencourt, this multidisciplinary intersection underpins his academic inquiry into cities. As the newly appointed director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago, Bettencourt hopes to understand what makes cities tick, by aligning urban scholars from diverse fields, and applying empirical urban data to assess and analyse urban economic growth and human development. On a visit to New Delhi to speak at an international conference on the opportunities and challenges of future cities on 27 July recently, organized by the Institute of Town Planners, India at Vigyan Bhavan, Bettencourt shared his views on why the theory of complex systems could help academics arrive at a better understanding of cities, leading to more effective urban design and planning. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What are complex systems?

Complex systems is the general study of precisely the systems that create complexity, like ecosystems, evolution in nature, cities, markets or biological organizations or cognition in the brain…things that we know tend to create variety, and information that seems to be open-ended. I think we really have not had a good framework to think about cities and to think about how old characteristics, and processes have changed, or are entangled together.

In complex systems you ask: how does a city work? And that brings in ingredients from many of these fields as an interdisciplinary endeavour.

So a lot of my work is really the work of integration. We are trying to understand the city in terms of an integrated system of social interactions, some of them being economic, how space gets structured and designed, and how all this is connected to each other. It sounds complicated, but it becomes simpler when you have data, because then it really becomes an empirical exercise as well, where you can measure some of the properties of cities, bring these ingredients from classical theories and different fields, and try to make sense of them.

What does this approach tell us about cities?

Let me ask the question: why is it that cities are so good at creating change that creates human development and economic growth? That is a coded way of saying how is it that cities create open-ended complexities, which is the complex systems perspective.

Almost always you find that cities in any country lead the way towards this transformation of human development and economic growth. There is really a measurable quantitative difference that cities are more expensive, that they pay more, they have more unique sectors, they have more knowledge, they have more access to services, so on and so forth.

How they do that is an interesting question. Because in some sense the magic that you are looking for when you are trying to design policy, that creates usually positive transformations, is already happening almost naturally, in cities. And so you want not to destroy it and you want to understand the mechanism by which it is happening.

I think the big revelation in the last few years is that we have come to understand that this is a general phenomenon, it’s not just American cities, it happens in China, I think it happens in India though we need better data, happens in Brazil, in South Africa, so forth. It’s a very broad-spectrum transformation, and it comes together as a complex system. And it’s mostly desirable but needs to be managed, to be a sustainable and equitable transition.

Another issue is that the speed of the economic growth does vary from system to system, country to country, city to city. We don’t understand the phenomenon well enough to predict the speed of change, and to guide that as far as possible towards good ends rather than negative ends. So even though we observe it and we like to encourage it, we don’t know how to disentangle what’s good about it from what’s bad about it.

How will this thinking impact urban planning?

When working with an existing city, planners have to work within a system that has its own dynamics, with its own principles, own local history and flavour. And that’s much harder because it means that the planner needs to be a community organizer, it means the planner needs to be a scientist, it means the planner needs to be a technologist. And I think that’s the challenge. The planner really has not been trained typically to be able to do all those things. And they’ll only be able to do those things if they belong to a community of people that have these various skills.

This is actually what we are trying to build in Chicago with the Mansueto Institute, to create a place where people, in the practice of planning, and those in the practice of urban policy that’s not necessarily spatial, can be in contact with the forefront of science, with the forefront of technology, and find ways of cooking up their ways of planning that’s most effective and then teach each other.

Which city could serve as a model for Indian cities?

Tokyo, in some sense, created the largest example of transit-oriented development in the world, by growing through a network of railways and subways, allowing the city to create nodes with higher density along places where there are railways. So that’s why the city has 40 million people, it is spatially very large. The financial model is interesting in that there was a lot of land development in these new places, given to the railway companies in exchange for developing the transportation infrastructure.

So if you have access to that sort of instrument to create development that’s fast and transit-oriented, it will create convergence between the production of housing, transportation, commercial hubs and jobs. The government was also able to drive their own automobile industry with challenges to create smaller vehicles and to phase out very polluting diesel engines.

I don’t know if that can happen in India but this is an example of creating a city that’s of the size, of what’s going to happen in India over the next couple of decades. It’s very hard to imagine Mumbai or Delhi as a car city with a scale of 40 or 50 million people. That’s probably not going to work.

How can we connect economic growth with spatial growth?

If growth is 10%, each person on average will have double the wealth in seven years. Of course everything will be just as expensive, but you’ll have access to a lot more things that are important, with better quality of services.

Imagine studying your neighbourhood and thinking, what will change in 10 years or what will change in five years. Then go to another part of the city, that basically is twice as rich, and it might look a little bit like that. This allows you to have a sense of what’s possible and I think a lot of the power of cities is exactly that, it visualizes the change that’s possible.

What do you think of smart cities?

It’s kind of interesting because at some level it’s really a model of total planning from an engineer’s perspective. Everything will be made automatic, all the transportation, water systems, sanitation, all the energy is renewable, more efficient systems, that creates maybe more sustainable cities, but it’s kind of unnatural from the point of view of cities. The city is not a massive machine.

For example, Masdar City is a totally engineered, green city development in the United Arab Emirates but essentially it’s an office park, it’s not a real city. And a lot of it was phased down. It’s not going to happen. So a lot of what happens quickly with these visions of the engineered city is that it becomes this bureaucratic nightmare where somebody is in charge and controlling everybody else, so that’s again not the nature of the city and it’s counterproductive, is probably ethically wrong in many ways.

Whereas I think what is needed is to use engineering in the right places with data, with technology, just to facilitate what’s happening already as we discussed before. I think the Indian central government assistance programme is mostly doing good things. Emphasizing better government, understanding data better, creating financial instruments both through real estate taxes and bonds that may help them build infrastructure. I think they are thinking about it right, about where is it that the uses of technology can be useful from a human-centered perspective. And if that can be done, that will be a great contribution to Indian cities.

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