Friday, January 25, 2008

Cities, Complexity and Natural Resource Management

I am in Paris, attending a colloquium on Sustainable Urban Planning, hosted by the CNRS (Centre de la Recherche Scientifique). Our contribution, from Prof Mark Swilling and myself, focused on the use of mediated systems dynamics modeling to better understand the interrelationships and dynamics of natural resources, service delivery, municipal finances and ultimately key interventions with Cape Town’s development path. The argument is as follows: when systems become more complex, uncertainty becomes more acute and any attempt at top down planning and control more and more frustrating. When cities are viewed as complex systems, (and here) it does not matter so much what sustainable development means, but it does matter more and more what difference local interventions can make, while keeping an eye on the results of an emerging city system. This presupposes that individuals or well-organised local groups are empowered to anticipate and adapt to changing situations, that pragmatic choices must be possible, and that actors are free to adapt to a rapidly changing city. Such empowered individuals and groups can play an active role in changing the City towards a more sustainable use of natural resources as demonstrated by several experimental projects.

The City of Cape Town is increasingly faced with ecological thresholds and technological abilities to keep circumventing these thresholds. At the same time a policy of expanding free services to everyone are placing enormous strain on the municipal finances of the city and has led to cross-subsidies between services and increasing backlogs on capital infrastructure and maintenance of existing service infrastructure. The trouble is that due to a history marked by apartheid and associated spatial disconnect, existing services were mainly concentrated in relatively affluent areas. Things have changed a lot though in the last 10 years after democracy, but the reality of a crisis in the continued sustainable provision of services has started to bite. It is time to use the opportunity in the crisis.

Then we hit the other side of the coin. After all, we are attending a colloquium on urban planning. The word itself suggests that cities can be moulded and shaped according to a preconceived idea/science/approach of how cities should look like. The argument goes like this: We have this and that problem. What can be done about it? What can we do about it? (of course…given all our expertise on the situation). Crises situations are used to motivate for tighter control and prescriptive top-down planning. This argument is then used to call for a stronger state and top down planning functions, for property to be detached from private ownership (so that this can be reconverted to some kind of public good), for less participation (because experts know and do not need to be informed by local choice), and for a focus on power relationships rather then millions and millions of economic transactions based on individual choice.

In a country like South Africa one can understand this reaction. Economic growth does not deliver jobs fast enough. Inequality is rising. Poverty remains persistent. Environmental degradation is continuing. Biodiversity hotspots are threatened. CO2 emissions are notoriously high. We need strong intervention to steer the economy, to plan cities…

The kind of intervention is what matters. We need intervention that steers towards better decisions. All Cape Towns’ 3.2 million residents should be empowered to help the City achieve a more sustainable future in an ever changing and increasingly connected world.

A singular focus on top-down planning will not prepare us well for an increasingly globalised and connected world. Key decisions on Cape Town’s future are taken in The White House, Teheran, and in the meeting rooms of European agricultural negotiators.

Where does that leave issues of city leadership and good governance under such emerging uncertainties? Leadership means to empower people to respond to their immediate situation. It is first of all a modest acknowledgment that the world is complex and many issues are just uncontrollable. City dwellers should be partners rather then subjects. This can be achieved through building local resilience; the ability to adapt. The old Greek philosophical idea that cities are the beacon of stability in a threatening world is dead. Cities are getting connected, they participate in world economies, they compete for investments, while they are threatened by climate change, pollution and a lack of affordable natural resources. The City doors cannot be closed anymore, even if we wanted to. City managers cannot comprehend or second guess what will happen in future, but they can build scenarios, simulate possible futures and be adaptable when needed.

This does not relieve them of their responsibility to govern though. They have to be smart by not creating structures that will break in the face of change, by providing safety nets for excluded third parties (a harsh reality of this world) and by providing inspiring leadership that embraces novelty in a changing world. With a changing world the key words are moving from ‘high-level’, ‘prediction’, ‘technocratic planning’, ‘knowability’ and ‘control’ to ‘local level’, ‘adaptation’, ‘participative planning’, ‘unknowns’ and ‘empowerment’.

Wisdom is to find an appropriate balance within the context of each and every situation. It is for sure that the Sustainable Urban Planning community is actively debating the strength and weaknesses of their approaches in a changing world.


James Blignaut said...


I'm obviously not as well-versed in this subject as you guys are, but the city authority, albeit locked into an increasingly complex, dynamic and connected world, does have the responsibility to decide upon a future development pathway or trajectory for the city and stick to that. They cannot just be saying we're lame and sitting ducks and are being governed by the world and external pressures. If that was the case then the city authority should be dismantled, something that is obviously not feasible. No, the city has a role to play in opting for a sustainable pathway and then to formulate strategic actions around that. One useful way to think about this is to seek sustainability in the face of the 5 forms of capital, namely:
1) financial capital, i.e. money or substitutes,
2) manufactured capital, i.e. buildings, roads and other human-produced fixed assets,
3) human capital, i.e. individual or collective efforts and intellectual skills,
4) social capital, i.e. institutions, relationships, social networks, and shared cultural beliefs and traditions that promote mutual trust, and
5) natural capital, which is an economic metaphor for the stock of physical and biological natural resources that consist of:
a) renewable natural capital (living species and ecosystems),
b) non-renewable natural capital (sub-soil assets, e.g., petroleum, coal, diamonds, etc.),
c) replenishable natural capital (e.g., the atmosphere, potable water, fertile soils), and
d) cultivated natural capital (e.g., crops and forest plantations).

Theoretically and conceptually this is not new stuff, but its application in a city will require some very bold decisions.

martin de wit said...

Thank you for the contribution James. I agree that leadership brings responsibility. (City) leadership have to acknowledge and be sensitive to an increasingly complex world. That may well mean to be to stick to a policy of building resilience of their populace. Authorities are much needed (possibly more then avoiding a Hobbesian war) to provide a context for a sensible response to a complex and dynamic world. This does not mean that authorities or their advisors should be able to pretend to comprehend complexity and prescribe a particular way of action. Unintended consequences will become more and more of a pressing concern in a connected, globalised world with larger scale and longer term feedbacks.