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Making Sense: Leveraging the Science of Cities

2 September 2021 (Thursday), 4:00pm - 5:30pm (Singapore time: GMT+8)


  • Daniel Plato (Executive Mayor, Capetown)
  • Prof Tim Stonor (Managing Director, Space Syntax)
  • Eva Gladek (Founder and CEO, Metabolic)
  • Cashfya Cazi (Global Technology Leader, Urban Strategies, Jacobs)


  • Aaron Maniam (Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore)

Cities are Complex, Interconnected Systems of People and Data

“Cities, like all human systems, are enormously complex… Agents – people –are interdependent. They interact and influence each other in ways that defy a deterministic or linear analysis,” Chairman Peter Ho of the Urban Redevelopment Authority expressed. City and industry leaders engaged with key ideas to better understand and work with cities’ interconnected systems, highlighting that building on the science of cities requires people-centric approaches, tapping into big data, and an essential willingness to experiment.

Session Takeaways:

We need interdisciplinary approaches to study interconnected systems

Due to the complex interactions that occur within a city, “we [often] only know what is going to happen when it happens,” Mr Ho explained. “This is the property of emergence, which characterises complex systems.” Given this reality of urban interconnectedness, moderator Mr Aaron Maniam identified the science of cities as an interdisciplinary approach with “methodological pluralism”. In practice, Mayor of Cape Town Daniel Plato underlined how the science of cities is crucial for doing away with silos in governance, highlighting Cape Town’s “transversal team” of academics and professionals who use data to help improve delivery of public services.

Ms Eva Gladek, Founder of Metabolic, similarly shared the importance of taking an integrated planning approach which considers the multiple layers of how a city is functioning. She underlined why a holistic science of cities in problem-solving is crucial, as “there’s always a risk of externalities, of fixing one problem while creating another new problem.” Ms Cashfya Cazi from Jacobs also emphasized the need to approach urban solutions with a “triple bottom line”, looking at the economic, environmental, and social impact that cities have. She shared about Jacobs’ geodesign methodology, which combines datasets from a large variety of fields for analysis. With this multidisciplinary approach, she urges a redefinition of “smart” to be expanded beyond only technology, to be instead integrated with every aspect of society, including quality of life, sustainability, and resilience.

Big data and digital capabilities make the science of cities possible

The interdisciplinarity of the science of cities is made possible by big data and digital capabilities. In his studies of urban interconnectedness, Professor Tim Stonor of Space Syntax shared his use of agent-based modelling to combine urban walkability data with real estate and public health data, to understand how the interconnectedness of streets can impact both real estate values and residents’ mental and physical health.

Mr Ho also expressed that “the agents within a city – the people, public and private institutions, markets, and networks – all generate a lot of data. The revolution is that we now have the technology both to capture big data, as well as to process it.” He noted Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative’s efforts to mobilise big data, citing the example of the Punggol Digital District, which shows Singapore’s willingness to experiment in building a smart digital economy. Mr Ho further highlighted how big data allows us to see the city through new lenses, urging that “if we can imagine a different city of the future, we can take active steps toward realizing it.”

The “human factor” is key to the science of cities

Who should be able to imagine and realize future cities? Prof. Stonor highlighted how cities and their streets are built for people, so the people should get to shape them: “Think of the city as a transaction machine, helping people flow effectively and come together in streets, parks, and public spaces, for social and economic interactions that will drive innovations to shape a better future.” He hopes to increase the accessibility of datasets and modelling techniques, “so it isn’t just a few leading people in academia and in practice, it’s everyone” working together. From a city still facing the scars of its apartheid history, Mayor Plato also urged planning for the people in a way that breaks down racial and other stereotypes and “brings in the human factor”.

Ms Cazi pushed for the need to reconsider traditional understandings of financial and commercial value to include “social value” and to involve citizens as stakeholders in every project. She raised Jacobs’ example of a survey conducted for the Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Programme, which garnered over 4000 responses, and finally realised an option to curtail traffic that was voted positively by over 80% of the respondents. Ms Gladek similarly praised evolutionary planning practices, which allow freedom for things to develop based on what the people need.

This human factor and connectivity can work even in the face of a pandemic, as Prof. Stonor shared the creativity of outdoor dining as a solution, and Ms Gladek highlighted how open spaces can be designed to allow social activities to resume with safe distancing.

The spirit of the science of cities is experimentation

For people to collectively imagine better futures for cities, we need a spirit of willingness to experiment at scale. Mr Ho shared that our ability to “probe, sense patterns, and act, even in the absence of complete information” is primarily derived from a willingness to experiment with new approaches, pilot programmes, and prototypes. Similarly, Mayor Plato highlighted the need for governments to constantly update and test new policies to fit the changing world.

Ms Gladek expressed how cities serve as a leverage point – they cover only 3% of global land surface but consume 75% of material resources. This means that imagining cities not only as consumers but also producers could solve many global challenges. For example, Metabolic designated the Dutch neighbourhood of Buiksloterham as a circular living lab to test integrated sustainable urban solutions.

With the need for experimentation in mind, moderator Mr Maniam summarised some conditions for the science of cities going forward, pushing for a methodology that encompasses both the quantitative and the qualitative, and reminding us that “the whole world is our lab, and we need to be testing in that world, because the science takes place everywhere.”

Session Recording: