“Complexity Science for Urban Challenges”
The first session of the CSH-AIT Workshop in Berlin
On 7th of November the Austrian Institute of Technology AIT together with the Complexity Science Hub Vienna invited to a workshop within the framework of the Berlin Science Week 2017. The event should explore possible research fields for complexity science to tackle fundamental urban challenges.
Some possible questions were raised already beforehand in an article published in a Berlin Science Week Special of the Berlin daily “Der Tagesspiegel” (published as E-paper).
After opening remarks from Sabine Amirdschanjan (EC Representation in Berlin) and Wolfgang Knoll (Scientific Managing Director of AIT), moderator Nikolas Neubert from AIT introduced to the first panel with Stefan Thurner, Luís Bettencourt, Elke Pahl-Weber and Dirk Helbing.
Stefan Thurner: “Why aren’t we much smarter?”
Stefan questioned if we really live in a Big Data world: Despite an annual data increase of about 23 percent and a yearly increase of computing power by 58 percent, humans don’t seem to be a lot smarter today, he said: “We still cannot predict banking crashes, the exact trajectory of a hurricane or the effects of climate change. We don’t even know the population growth until 2030.”
The reason is simple – or let’s rather say: complex, as “all these are complex systems. And complex systems are very hard to understand.” The aim of institutions like the Complexity Science Hub Vienna is to develop an understanding for these systems. Complexity research could then for instance help “to reduce inefficiencies in cities, to make them more sustainable, more resilient and freer for all of us.”
Luís Bettencourt: “Fundamental challenges not problems of technology”
The second speaker, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, came all the way from Chicago where he is Pritzker Director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago – an institution that was recently set up with the help of a large donation.
Luís sees cities as places of constant transformation. Until recently the millions of on-goings in such places could not be understood. But today, with the help of data and complexity science, “we are coming up with new ways to understand them”. Thanks to Big Data Luís sees the next 20 years as a golden age for social complexity sciences.
Many challenges–as defined for instance in the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development–, have to be solved quickly, he pointed out, and the transformative power of cities makes them the perfect place for solutions. But the speaker also raised doubts that making cities “smart” by top down city planning is the best way to do it. “We should put more thoughts in what life is about–the basic things” instead of solely sticking to technological solutions.
Elke Pahl-Weber: “Holistic questions for people centered solutions”
First get to know the true need of people, is also what Elke Pahl-Weber from Berlin Technical University demanded. “We rarely take a holistic perspective on urban development”, is her critique of mainstream city planning with its stand-alone solutions. One example: the replacement of gasoline-driven cars by electric vehicles. “That’s not a solution for the underlying problem: The true need of people is mobility, not what car to buy.”
Elke called our totally unsustainable lifestyle as one of the most pressing problems, especially in urban areas. Be it transportation or mobility, rising consumption of resources and energy or infrastructure development–modern city life rarely reaches one, let alone all of the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Elke misses integrated strategies: “We are ignorant about how to deal with the enormous increase in housing costs; in what ways Industry 4.0 will change city life; how to provide data network security; how to meet the problems arising from demographic change, and so on.” Her conclusion: “Please come to problem definitions first: What is needed? What would be nice to have? And then find a solution that is people centered.”
Dirk Helbing: “We have to empower people!”
Complexity researcher Dirk Helbing does not believe in top down solutions either: “We think too much in terms of automatization and technology”, said the sociologist from ETH Zurich, “but these solutions are a nightmare!”
The main problem of “smart” solutions: Cities are complex systems. “We might have the best data ever–but complexity is growing even faster. This cannot be controlled in a top down way.” Dirk proposed a new paradigm instead: empowerment and coordination. “Participation of people is really important”, he is convinced: collectively developed, open source solutions.
And as Europe will not ever be able to compete with Silicon Valley, why not instead develop a different growth model? To overcome the current garden thinking, work together in big teams instead of competing for the limited resources, share information. “Shared information surprisingly creates wealth”, said Dirk, “better products and services, smarter cities, a better world for the future. That’s why we have to empower people!”
He proposes “7 C’s: co-learning, co-creation, combinatorial innovation, co-ordination, co-operation, co-evolution, and collective intelligence” to get “smarter, participatory cities”.
View the first session online
Many thanks to Dirk Helbing, who filmed the talks of the first session. You can find his videos here:
Speakers of the first panel