Science could guide the cities of the future

African cities are seeing the world’s fastest urban growth, but this is happening in a haphazard fashion which is exacerbating poverty and inequality among citizens. According to the United Nations’ unit for human settlements, it is expected that some African cities will account for up to 85% of the population by 2025.

Can science help to address this problem and plan for the future?

Prof Ivan Turok, with the Human Sciences Research Council, said: “Within the last decade, there’s been a huge increase in global research on the science of cities, trying to introduce a systematic modeling of urban processes.”

Through big data and the collection of novel data sets, the goal is to “get a sense of what’s happening in cities, to model and measure [different variables]”, Turok said.

Known as a “smart city”, this idea conceptualises a city as “a machine, measured and managed through control centres”. Some metrics include transportation routes, the movement of people into and out of the city, water and energy requirements, and clinics. There is also the more intangible elements of cities, like cultural currency, population identity and non-formal value chains.

Prof Philip Harrison questioned whether a city can actually be modelled. Harrison, who has a research chair in development planning at modeling at the University of the Witwatersrand and is a member of the National Planning Commission, said: “Cities clearly are not natural things. They are human constructs, the artifacts of human history, the products of human intention, imagination [and] failure…. They are fluid and too complex to be modelled in any comprehensive way.”

Planning involves “reaching a consensus about what we should be doing into the future, mediating diverse interests, but the world is far messier, the science more limited, than we thought”, he said.

“[A city] is an assemblage of multiple things: local, global, tangible, intangible…. We may attempt to model parts of it, but we must accept the limitations of our knowledge.”

This was echoed by Elsona van Huyssteen, an urban and regional planner at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “There is no way that we can cope with understanding what is happening, let alone pre-actively plan… If we’re struggling to model the past and the present, it makes [modelling] the future quite challenging,” she said.

However, the alternative – not using a rational systematic approach to attempt to model the complexities of cities – is worse. South African Cities Network’s Dr Gica Karuri-Sebina said that people need to attempt to plan for cities and for changes that they attempt to institute in cities. “The long-term consequences of the short-term things we do as planners [run] the risk of creating large challenges,” she said. Unlike academics, being a city planner involves “doing things and then there are consequences”.

Modelling and urban simulation alters how people engaging with city planning, said Van Huyssteen. “The question doesn’t become what would that city look like, but what are the consequences of that kind of intervention…. Being in urban science means being uncomfortable. We have to acknowledge that we do not know, that maybe we don’t have an answer,” she said.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *