Cities as Forces for Good Network

Out of My Comfort Zone: Africa, Buildings, Transport … and Crime

News · December 3rd, 2013

Contributed by M. B. Beck

For some 35 years the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria, has hosted a Young Scientists Summer Programme (YSSP). A South African (SA) YSSP has now been established, with support from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the RSA Department of Science & Technology, and host — the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. The current Programme began in late November and runs through the end of February, 2014. This year, CFGnet is lending its support to three SA YSSP projects on “Systems Analysis for Sustainable Green City Development”.

In all, we are a team of six: Dillip Das from the Central University of Technology, the Free State South Africa at Bloemfontein, Michael Thompson, and myself (M Bruce Beck), as the three supervisors; and Everardt Burger, Innocent Chirisa, and Stephen Eromobor, as our YSSPers.

What I like about such things is their unpredictability, in the sense that I am obliged to respond to facets of cities and CFG I have not previously addressed. What sustains the capacity to thread one’s ideas through these varied subjects is Applied Systems Analysis (ASA) itself, i.e., Systems Thinking.

At this very early stage in the SA YSSP (just days into the Programme), Innocent has arrived from Harare, Zimbabwe, hoping to build some “harder-core” computational analysis into his work on ensuring Africa’s cities do not (again) “miss the boat” in seizing opportunities for their greening, no matter how modest the beginning. He saw the SA YSSP as an opportunity to take some time away from the social sides of city planning. Planners in African cities lack a coherent, inter-disciplinary, strategic vision and there is no voice to be heard from the ordinary citizens — and none, therefore, to be duly responded to — in the deliberations and debate from which emerge city plans and policies. Data are not available and so, one might think, any insightful modeling exercise is precluded (but is this really so?). It seems to Innocent as if he is about to be thrust back into addressing matters of social legitimacy and governance. He has been left wondering, therefore, how ASA in a more quantitative form is going to assist in this. In similar circumstances in Asia, in particular, under the auspices of the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Centre for Water Security (at Tsinghua University, Beijing), the World Economic Forum’s work on the water-food-energy-climate security nexus is likely to be influential in shaping policy. Yes, it takes a systems approach; but in some ways it just does not go far enough in doing so.

Everardt wants to make progress in transferring high C-emission patterns of personal vehicle use, in Bloemfontein, for example, to a lower-emission mix of public and private transport. In my naïvety, I am thinking: Yes, I know of colleagues (within CFGnet, such as Jim Hall at the University of Oxford) who are involved in research investigating the future evolution of London’s spatial development in order to assess which patterns are more “climate restoring” and which not, not least because of the implied transport activities. What sort of model might be needed for Everardt’s research? And how about a public transport system designed deliberately, I thought, to enhance biodiversity (as is happening in Rotterdam). Crime is the issue, however! Overcoming this barrier may well be the priority for Everardt’s project. Just what can ASA do for that? This is a far cry from my experience and my knowledge base … On the other hand, we may trust in Mike Thompson coming up with something — something along the lines of the 2013 book Locating Deviance (by Gerald Mars), framed, as it is, by Cultural Theory.

Stephen is an architect and has provisionally titled his YSSP project “Dynamic Modelling for Sustainable Built Infrastructure for Education Complex Neighborhoods in South African Cities”. My initial and immediate response to this has been predictable: How about the challenge of re-engineering a university campus as a force for good in the environment — a diminutive “cfg” — within a CFG? There are mathematicians-cum-architects who assert that a sustainable city is one that is fractal in its properties, with self-similar networks of one mode of transport, for instance, nested within a network of another mode of transport, which in turn is nested within yet a third mode of urban transport, and so on. The same goes for buildings, from the individual space within a house, up, through small and large clusters of buildings, to the city as whole. We know from some of our other work how this relates to the intentional design of a Resilient City, even an “Antifragile City”. On this matter, Mike has observed that designers of buildings, in their relentless search for efficiency, have eliminated redundancies and inefficiencies. In “optimizing” the prior stage of design in the life-cycle of the building, they have placed a straitjacket a priori on its subsequent operation ever achieving resilience — over this, the longest of all the stages in a building’s life-cycle.

Dillip’s program of research covers broadly the development of green cities, especially in Africa, and, in particular, in respect of their transportation infrastructures coupled with open space opportunities and neighborhoods with green buildings. Overlain on this is his interest in “smartness” (in mobility, governance, and environment), informed by his experience of cities in both Africa and India dominated by “innovation ecosystems” gathered around Information and Computing Technologies (ICT). He has been using the computational framework of System Dynamics to explore how ICT might be the catalyst in the process of greening cities.


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