Why we Need to Revolutionise our Study of Cities

11/02/2015 10:57 | Updated 12 April 2015
  • Dirk Jan van den Berg President of Delft University of Technology, former Dutch Ambassador to China and Permanent Representative to the UN in New York

2008 was a watershed year for humanity when, for the first time, more than half the world's population lived in cities. By 2050, we're headed to 70% urbanisation and a staggering 90% by 2100.

This is a trend with momentous implications. Just imagine that by 2050 we will see about 6 to 7 billion people living in cities, implying a doubling of today's urban population compared to today.

The year 2050 might seem far away, but these developments will be well within the life span of the current student population at Delft University of Technology where I am president. It should therefore be part of our medium to long-term planning horizon and increases the need for us to get to grips with this 'cityfication' and how our urban areas will evolve in coming decades.

And this is a challenge for us all, not just those fast growing cities in developing markets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For instance, the agglomeration of urban areas in the western part of the Netherlands, sometimes referred to as Randstad, could grow from some 7 million to 9 million people, representing a collective economic power which ranks well above many national economies, and an ecosystem of similar size as Beijing.

As I will elaborate later, this mammoth shift in global population requires a new approach to the way that we think about and study cities. And this is one reason why Delft University of Technology is working with Wageningen University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pool our expertise and innovation in the Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions in Amsterdam.

One of the key questions academics face with this agenda is whether there are limits we will have to heed with urbanisation. Or in other words, can the expansion of cities be a linear scaling driven by the number its inhabitants.

Cities are complex systems and, as we know well at Delft University, scaling of systems is a science in its own right. Looking at cities by way of systems which consume, deplete, grow and produce makes it potentially interesting to explore metaphors in biology, such as city metabolism. And here I turn to the inspiring research work of Delft University's honorary doctor of last year, Professor Dirk Helbing.

It is a remarkable fact that all physiological characteristics of biological organisms scale with body mass as a power law whose exponent is typically a multiple of 1/4. This results in, for instance, lower energy consumption per unit body mass as well as lower pace in terms of heartbeats, as body mass increases.

This is a manifestation of the existence of general rules on how biological organisms are organised and how their internal distribution networks are designed, not withstanding their huge variety and differences. Now imagine if similar scaling relations exist for cities. If so, it could tell us a lot about the underlying dynamics of social systems and networks in urban areas.

Significant research has already explored this topic looking at key city issues like wealth, health, crime, consumption, for cities all over the world. Indicators associated with individual human needs like housing, jobs and water consumption have been shown to scale linearly with population size, while those associated with infrastructural needs show scale efficiencies. Meanwhile, issues associated with the social nature of cities, like wealth, innovation, health and crime showed increasing returns of scale in relation to population size, indicating increasing social pace.

With more research underway, there are already some very interesting findings here. One stand-out, for instance, is that issues usually seen very much in isolation are in fact highly interdependent.

This is increasingly understood, but we are still very much at initial stages of our understanding of how different urban systems and subsystems and their underlying networks in city life interact. These topics, rightly, trigger a lot of interest from science and research, from national and local government, the corporate sector and citizens themselves.

The most productive way forward is a partnership of academia, government, corporate and citizens to work together. To enable this dialogue, we need to create more common frameworks of reference. Different time horizons, different incentives, conflicting interests and siloed behaviour still potentially stand in the way of unleashing greater cooperation.

Delft University is therefore delighted that, together with Wageningen University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have had opportunity through the support of the municipality of Amsterdam to create the Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions. The intent is that this body will become a world leader on the urban agenda.

The interconnected design of the institute with its research and valorisation programme, its education and its value platform will create a forum for bringing together students, researchers, citizens, municipal government and other partners, including business, together on jointly designed solutions. In this way, we can connect the academic research agenda with other key stakeholders to better cater for the grand needs and challenges that cities and other urban areas will face in the twenty first century.