You’ve heard by now the role cities can and must play to achieve sustainability. Also, that they are both diverse and very complex. To add fuel to that fire, cities are made up of many complex components or subsystems like transport or water systems. They are also embedded in regions and countries each with their own complex economic, social and ecological systems that may have to be reorganized and sometimes transformed to meet the SDG’s. In order to achieve the goals of sustainable cities, we need a framework that will help us understand these complex systems.
Sitting one inside the other, almost like a Russian Matryoshka doll. Cities in fact are the most complex creations of Human kind. Today we will talk about cities as systems of systems and this discussion will help you explore various city sub-systems. Cities can be seen as a particular type of socio-ecological system or SES in short. SES’s are made up of 3 interacting domains- the social, the ecological, and the economic. There is a continuous set of flows and interactions between these subsystems. Each city has embedded within it multiple complex systems – land, transportation, environmental services like water, sanitation and solid waste, housing, education and health care. Each is different with complexities of its own. However, most have some common attributes. A boundary defined in both space and time because even cities decay and die.
Stocks of people, assets, ecological and financial resources flow within the subsystems and between them. In short, cities have an entire metabolism like the human body and often more complex as they have both natural and human made parts. As important, all viable urban systems have an internal mechanism of governance and information flows. This enables self-regulation, adaptation to external shocks, the ability to learn, adapt and sometimes even transform and evolve. To take an example, water is an important ecosystem service that a river or a groundwater aquifer below a city can provide.
Groundwater may be extracted from a natural aquifer and after it’s treated, delivered through pipes to households at a cost. The price of this water may be set high to help reduce waste and incentivize households to invest in water recycling. Both the cost and the price are determined by the economic system.
Because the poor may have no water or toilets, they defecate in the open creating a health risk that seeps into the ground water. This not only makes them sick because their vendor provides untreated groundwater but contaminates the aquifer which then impacts better off households in the city.
They then start paying more for medication to address episodes of severe diarrheal disease. For a city to become sustainable, we have to understand this complex chain of cause and effect that flow through each of its subsystems – the social, the economic and ecological. Instead of treating the symptoms which is a common practice across the world, for example, in this case, by trying to force poor people out of the city or setting up treatment systems in each middleclass household, it is more sustainable to find the root causes of the problem and find systemic solutions to them.
One such solution would be to provide universal water supply and sanitation to all residents in the city. Setting an affordable lifeline tariff to ensure that the system works for everybody and monitoring the quality of both ground and drinking water to ensure that nobody gets ill.
The savings in health expenditure and losses in employment to the poor people who fall ill may often be more than the cost of these measures. As we can see from this highly simplified example, cities are socio ecological systems that have interdependent and dynamic sub systems.
The interaction between the parts is often in flux, creating counter intuitive behavior that’s difficult to address unless one takes a holistic or a whole systems view. This is not easy but if done can deliver long lasting, cost effective and often sustainable results. How can this be done? One immediate challenge is that of governance. The functioning of typical local governments is organized around a 20th century imagination that sees cities and countries not as systems of systems but as broken down into a set of functional sectors- Law and order, water, finance, health and education.
Sometimes these sectors enable systemic responses. But more often than not, they inhibit, integrated, joint up action. Especially when tied up to bureaucracies that tend to defend their home turf. The fundamental challenge as cities get more and more complex is that specialized sector by sector approaches to problem solving take long, are rarely effective, are expensive and often ineffective in delivering outcomes. The SDG’s for the first time in decades provide us a global opportunity for an integrated joint up action around sustainable cities. The challenge of integrated development is simultaneous delivery across all these subsystems and goals. Because cities are at a smaller scale compared to countries and because of the need to deliver all these outcomes at a local level, cities have a natural advantage when trying to address sustainability solutions.
Another challenge is that SES’s across the world have been in a process of transition. A transition from agrarian or biomass economies in many low income countries of Asia and Africa through fossil fuel driven or industrial economies like china, to information and service sector led economies in most high income countries. Each are characterized by different levels of material, energy and information throughput, levels of human development and hence performance on the SDG’s. Not all areas in a country or territory make this transition at the same time. This is an important constraint to urban sustainability as cities cannot be separated from the regions in which they are located.
Urban centers in regions of significant agricultural surplus like market towns and cities such as Chicago in the 19th century have a very different material and energy metabolism.
There are largely service sector in information driven city such as Bangalore which will need to import and pay for much of its food, ecological services and often industrial products.
The sustainability transition of one city even within the SDG frame could be very different from another. Since sustainable cities are always situated in regions, both need to make a joint transition.
Therefore, we need to take a territorial approach to sustainable cities that link city and regional initiatives. We see that urban sustainability and rural territorial development and their prosperity are two sides of the same coin.
On the positive side, urban systems have inbuilt advantages as well. As cities grow in size up to a particular limit, the cost of provision of networked infrastructure and services reduces dramatically because of the economies of scale. These agglomeration economies in water supply and sanitation, for example, or health and education provision make it easier and cheaper to provide services to larger and denser concentration of people who live in cities than in lots of dispersed villages or hamlets.
This is an important principle that can help us achieve the SDGs in cities. Similarly, internet connectivity allows urban areas to exhibit a significant increase in productivity and value addition both in economic and social capital terms because of the ability to learn, share knowledge and common infrastructure.
This can lead to geographic clustering, development of corridors and other similar urban or regional patterns of development. One such example is the north east corridor in the United States that takes us from Boston down to New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC creating an almost continuous hub of industry, innovation and services. But to create such clusters, we need to think holistically about space and the territorial development of sustainable cities. Each city has an almost unique metabolism of material, energy and information flows that powers its everyday economic and social life. The metabolism of most cities today is unsustainable and often in
ecological deficit. Cities either over-consume natural resources or pollute them or are so unequal in their resource distribution that they create serious economic and social imbalances.
In many cities in Latin America and Asia, you see gated luxury apartments sitting next to informal settlements where people have no tenure security, limited employment and no access to basic services.The metabolism of cities is strongly influenced by technology and the kind of infrastructures that we build.
Infrastructure choices in cities are especially important. Not only because they require a large amount of investment, that’s, you know, often difficult to mobilize but they lock the city in for decades into particular pattern of development that could have unintended consequences for equity and sustainability. Let’s consider the example of Los Angeles and its romance with the idea of the car. In LosAngeles, and California more broadly as in other parts of the world, the risk of climate change because of this carbon intensive economy often driven by the car and urban sprawl can only be mitigated in the next 20 or 30 years by an almost complete de-carbonization of urban systems.
This means consuming only what is absolutely necessary by eliminating waste. As well as deploying energy efficiency measures in all end uses such as lighting, LED’s that reduce demand by at least a factor of four, heating, cooling, industry and in transportation systems of which addressing the car is one of the most dramatic challenges that California and Los Angeles have demonstrated their innovation over the last few decades. It also requires a transition from carbon intensive power production using coal and gas to solar pv, wind and geothermal and other renewable energy resources. This needs to be backed by changes in economic incentives and institutions that manage, deliver and regulate this energy use. The good news is that if you manage to do this with new cities that are yet to be built in Asia and Africa, we could slow the onslaught of climate change in the next 20 or 30 years. The challenge of implementation is that a wide range of institutions and stakeholders need to be brought together. In California for example over decades this was done by consulting communities, businesses, trade unions, and other stake holders. This demands a new set of strategies and processes where multi stake holder engagement and democratic participation become a rule rather than an exception. The process of participative budgeting in cities, for example, that now extends over 1700 cities across the world is just the beginning of this process. Can the SDG’s actually enable transformative change in the contemporary world? In a seminal paper, the famous environmental scientist Donella Meadows suggests that there are many leverage points within a complex system like a city, where a small shift could enable significant change.
Altering indicator systems for the SDG is an important way of changing system feedback and the structure of information flows. Changing SDG targets is the way of changing the rules of the system and by making commitment of inclusion like leaving no person behind or no place behind, changes the power relationships behind the rules effecting significant systemic change. The real power lies in changing the system goals. Like United Nation’s political process of defining the SDG’s that can have a very powerful influence on system behaviour. This is the real importance of having an urban SDG, goal 11 and its connection with all the other goals. The only more powerful instruments are changing mindsets and going beyond existing paradigms which of course are the basis of the revolutions that underpinned the socio-ecological transitions that we are talking about. History will tell whether the urban SDG’s mark an important milestone in this transition to a new sustainable paradigm.