The second speaker at our Workshop on City Science was Andrew Wisdom from Arup, talking about Cities as Systems of Systems. Andrew began with the observation that cities are increasingly under pressure, as the urban population continues to grow, and cities struggle to provide adequate infrastructure for their populations to thrive. But a central part of his message is that the way we think about things tends to create the way they are, and this is especially so with how we think about our cities.

As an exercise, he first presented a continuum of worldviews, from Technocentric at one end, to Ecocentric at the other end:

  • In the Techno-centric view, humans are dissociated from the earth. Nature has no inherent value, and we can solve everything with ingenuity and technology. This worldview tends to view the earth as an inert machine to be exploited.
  • In the Eco-centric view, the earth is alive and central to the web of life. Humans are an intrinsic part of nature, but human activity is already exceeding the limits of what the planet can support, to the point that environmental problems are potentially catastrophic. Hence, we need to get rid of materialism, eliminate growth, and work to restore balance.
  • Somewhere in the middle is a Sustain-centric view, which accepts that the earth provides an essential life support system, and that nature has some intrinsic value. This view accepts that limits are being reached, that environmental problems tend to take decades to solve, and that more growth is not automatically good. Humans can replace some but not all natural processes, and we have to focus more on quality of life as a measure of success.

As an exercise, Andrew asked the audience to imagine this continuum spread along one wall of the room, and asked us each to go and stand where we felt we fit on the spectrum. Many of the workshop participants positioned themselves somewhere between the eco-centric and sustain-centric views, with a small cluster at the extreme eco-centric end, and another cluster just to the techno-centric side of sustain-centric. Nobody stood at the extreme techno-centric end of the room!

Then, he asked us to move to where we think the city of Toronto sits, and then where we think Canada sits, and finally where we feel the world sits. For the first two of these, everyone shifted a long way towards the technocentric end of the spectrum (and some discussion ensued to the effect that both our mayor and our prime minister are a long way off the chart altogether – they are both well known for strong anti-environmentalist views). For the whole world, people didn’t move much from the “Canada” perspective. An immediate insight was that we (workshop attendees) are far more towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum than either our current city or federal governments, and perhaps the world in general. So if our governments (and by extension the voters who elect them) are out of step with our own worldviews, what are the implications? Should we, as researchers, be aiming to shift people’s perspectives?

One problem that arises from one’s worldview is how people understand messages about environmental problems. For example, people with a technocentric perspective tend to view discussions of sustainability as being about sacrifice – ‘wearing a hair shirt’, consume less, etc. Which then leads to a waning interest in these topics. For example, analysis of google trends on terms like global warming and climate change show spikes in 2007 around the release of Al Gore’s movie and the IPCC assessment, but declining interest since then.

Jeb Brugmann, the previous speaker, talked about the idea of a Consumptive city versus a Generative city, which is a change in perspective that alters how we view cities, changes what we choose to measure, and hence affects the way our cities evolve.

Changes in the indices we pay attention to can have a dramatic impact. For example, a study in Melbourne created that VAMPIRE index (Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses), which shows the relative degree of socio-economic stress in suburbs in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. The pattern that emerges is that in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, there are few jobs, and many people paying off mortgages, all having to commute and hour and a half to the east of the city for work.

Our view of a city tend to create structures that compartmentalize different systems into silos, and then we attempt to optimize within these silos. For example, zoning laws create chunks of land with particular prescribed purposes, and then we end up trying to optimize within each zone. When zoning laws create the kind of problem indicated by the Melbourne VAMPIRE index, there’s little the city can do about it if they continue to think in terms of zoning. The structure of these silos has become fossilized into the organizational structure of government. Take transport, for example. We tend to look at existing roads, and ask how to widen them to handle growth in traffic; we rarely attempt to solve traffic issues by asking bigger questions about why people choose to drive. Hence, we miss the opportunity to solve traffic problems by changing the relationship between where people live and where they work. Re-designing a city to provide more employment opportunities in neighbourhoods that are suffering socio-economic stress is far more likely to help than improving the transport corridors between those neighbourhoods and other parts of the city.

Healthcare is another example. The outcome metrics typically used for hospital use include average length of stay, 30-day unplanned readmission rate, cost of readmission, etc. Again, these metrics create a narrow view of the system – a silo – that we then try to optimize within. However, if you compare European and American healthcare systems, there are major structural difference. The US system is based on formula funding, in which ‘clients’ are classified in terms of type of illness, standard interventions for that illness, and associated costs. Funding is then allocated to service providers based on this classification scheme. In Europe, service provides are funded directly, and are able to decide at the local level how best to allocate that funding to serve the needs of the population they care for. The European model is a much more flexible system that treats patients real needs, rather than trying to fit each patient into a pre-defined category. In the US, the medical catalogue of disorders becomes an accounting scheme for allocating funds, and the result is that in the US, medical care costs going up faster than any other country. If you plot life expectancy against health spending, the US is falling far behind:

The problem is that the US health system views illness as a problem to be solved. If you think in terms of wellbeing rather than illness, you broaden the set of approaches you can use. For example, there are significant health benefits to pet ownership, providing green space within cities, and so on, but these are not fundable with the US system. There are obvious connections between body mass index and the availability of healthy foods, the walkability of neighbourhoods, and so on, but these don’t fit into a healthcare paradigm that allocates resources according to disease diagnosis.

Andrew then illustrated the power of re-thinking cities as systems-of-systems through several Arup case studies:

  • Dongtan eco-city. This city was designed from the ground up to be food positive, and energy positive (ie. intended to generate more food and more clean energy than it uses). The design makes it more preferable to walk or bike than to drive a car. A key design tool was the use of an integrated model that captures the interactions of different systems within the city. [Dongtan is, incidentally, a classic example of how the media alternately overhypes and then trashtalks major sustainability initiatives, when the real story is so much more interesting].
  • Low2No, Helsinki, a more modest project that aims to work within the existing city to create carbon negative buildings and energy efficient neighbourhoods step by step.
  • Werribee, a suburb of Melbourne, which is mainly an agricultural town, particularly known for its broccoli farming. But with fluctuating prices, farmers have had difficulty selling their broccoli. In an innovative solution that turns this problem into an opportunity, Arup developed a new vision that uses local renewable energy, water and waste re-processing to build a self-sufficient hothouse food production and research facility that provides employment and education along with food and energy.

In conclusion, we have to understand how our views of these systems constrain us to particular pathways, and we have to understand the connections between multiple systems if we want to understand the important issues. In many cases, we don’t do well at recognizing good outcomes, because our worldviews lead us to the wrong measures of success, and then we use these measures to create silos, attempting to optimize within them, rather than seeing the big picture. Understanding the systems, and understanding how these systems shape our thinking is crucial. However, the real challenges then lie in using this understanding to frame effective policy and create effective action.

After Andrew’s talk, we moved into a hands-on workshop activity, using a set of cards developed by Arup called Drivers of Change. The cards are fascinating – there are 189 cards in the deck, each of which summarizes a key issue (e.g. urban migration, homelessness, clean water, climate change, etc), and on the back, distills some key facts and figures. Our exercise was to find connections between the cards – each person had to pick one card that interested him or her, and then team up with two other people to identify how their three cards are related. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking exercise, that really got us thinking about systems-of-systems. I’m now a big fan of the cards and plan to use them in the classroom. (I bought a deck at Indigo for $45, although I note that, bizarrely, Amazon has them selling for over $1000!).


  1. I would, sadly, have found myself standing a lot further to the technocentric end of the room. Not because I agree with all of the propositions listed under that rubric, but because on the key philosophical issue — namely, whether the value of nature is intrinsic, or a secondary consequence of the value of human life properly lived — I find I cannot comprehend the details of the ecocentric position, let alone adopt it.

    It suggests that there may be a situation or situation in which a human being may be used as a means, for the end of maintaining some nonhuman system which is of zero value to that human being. More absurdly, by ascribing intrinsic value to nature we should be ready to accept the situation that there is some nonhuman system which is of zero value to any human being, but which has intrinsic value that we must use human beings as a means to achieving? If we can even define the terms here in a way that doesn’t lead to an oxymoron, how to we distinguish privation for a worthy cause, from an arbitrary atrocity, if none of the privation is of value to any human being?

    If we’re not really ready to adopt that position, then I posit that requiring an observer to recognize the value of the system, makes the whole argument become about humans and the relative priorities of the things they value. Do I think my suburban lifestyle trumps my aesthetic appreciation of nature, or my preference to take precautions that ensure our basic life support system on this Earth continues to exist indefinitely? (In general, though, people deplorably phrase the my-my argument as a my-your argument: *my* suburban lifestyle versus *your* appreciation of nature, or *my* preference for a functioning ecosystem against *your* oblivious suburban lifestyle?)

    In general, the ecocentric-technocentric continuum strikes me as a huge mess. First of all, it couples several logically unrelated issues into the same continuum. When asked to adopt a position along the continuum, people examine the issues they know about. If their positions conflict with how the continuum groups them, then they can’t even state a position without compromising their position on one or the other issue. Much more insidiously, if they are unfamiliar with some positions, they will adopt the positions they are grouped with on the continuum without much thinking, as a question of party allegiance.

    Second of all, it mixes statements of fact with statements of value that dictate how we would react to certain facts. What does the technocentric view tell us if we recognize that we live in a world of limited resources? Nothing, we’ve effectively defined denial into the view by having the view dictate the facts.

    The use of this in a time-constrained conference talk is fairly benign, but keep in mind that this *is* the same mechanism that is generally used to turn a handful of issues which might require discussion, into a nice, tidy party-gang conflict where everyone is forced to one or another side and no one has to think. What exactly do protecting the environment, government fiscal responsibility, and gay marriage have in common? Nothing, but just try to stomach the compromises a conservative environmentalist would be forced to make when voting.

    More constructively, if you had the time I’d prefer for people to sort themselves among several continua and try to think about how to resolve the inevitable conflicts of viewpoint. Some ideas that come up from looking at the whole Eco-centric/Techno-centric mess:

    – [Only nature has intrinsic value] vs. [Both nature and humans have intrinsic value] vs. [Humans have intrinsic value]. In the middle viewpoint, trolley problems which pit the interests of human beings against the interests of natural systems probably cannot be resolved to satisfaction.
    – Preservation of things of aesthetic value, such as flourishing ecosystems, are [not worth infringing on human interests] or [worthwhile above all other human interests]. (People who believe nature has intrinsic value can skip this question.)

    – The health of human economic sphere can be decoupled from the health of the surrounding ecosystem [not at all] or [completely]. (This, along with the previous continuum, pinpoints the instrumental and aesthetic value of nature.)
    – Present ecological problems are [significant] or [insignificant] in the instrumental sense.
    – Ecological problems can be resolved via [ingenuity and technology] or [contraction of the human economic sphere]. (Discuss in what sense the required action is a contraction.)
    – Ecological problems can be resolved [relatively easily] or [only at the cost of significant human privation]. (Discuss the nature of the possible privations required.)

    CONTINUUM that I can’t classify as either one or the other
    – Present ecological problems are [significant] or [insignificant] in the aesthetic sense. (People who are eco-centric in their morality can skip this one.)

    For the biggest food for thought value, AVOID the temptation of moderating any of your opinions just to have the satisfaction of standing with a group of like-minded people. Although, another aspect of your answer might be an evaluation of the extent to which you would be willing to compromise your position if it meant you were part of some consensus as a result. Is compromising like that a good, or a bad thing in general?

  2. Arakawa, what confuses me in your comment is the implicit assumption that an anthropocentric world view directly leads to a Techno-centric view and cannot lead to an Eco-centric view. Could you explain that?

    I find you last question interesting, being born in The Netherlands and now living in Germany. These two neighbouring countries are very similar. However, in The Netherlands the word compromise has a positive connotation and you go into a negotiation with a compromise taking into account your best understanding of the position of the others. In Germany the word compromise has a negative sound and people start a negotiation with exaggerated demands. It does not seem to matter much for the final result.

  3. Hrm. It seems I read implications into the Eco-centric view beyond what is literally written, but which seem to me inevitable. Namely, it says:

    “In the Eco-centric view, the earth is alive and central to the web of life. Humans are an intrinsic part of nature, but human activity is already exceeding the limits of what the planet can support, to the point that environmental problems are potentially catastrophic. Hence, we need to get rid of materialism, eliminate growth, and work to restore balance.”

    Into this I read ‘intrinsic value’ according to the following reasoning: the dichotomy being set up between Eco-centric view and Techno-centric view is that the earth is ‘alive’ vs. the earth is an ‘inert machine to be exploited’. This is on the surface not a value or factual statement so much as a metaphysical statement, which claims that the Earth is alive.

    However, what is the relevance of this statement to actions in the physical world? Is the Earth alive in the same sense a human is alive? In the same sense a non-human being like a wolf is alive? Why is it important that something be ‘alive’?

    The conceivable point to making this statement is to say that we ascribe a moral import to the term ‘alive’, saying that we have moral obligations towards anything that is ‘alive’ — in this case, towards the Earth as a whole, since the Earth as a whole is alive. It is not just humans that have intrinsic moral value, it is things that are alive.

    The argument is based on drawing an analogy between the processes of the Earth as a whole and the processes within a single organism. Certain energy exchanges are like ‘metabolism’. Certain individual species are ‘symbiotic’ with these exchanges and others are ‘parasitic’, depending on how they affect these exchanges. The ‘parasitic’ interactions infringe on the moral deserts of the Earth as a living being. The Earth has intrinsic value as a living being.

    Is there something unrelated that this statement could be saying? And if it doesn’t say anything definitive, why put it in for people to agree or disagree with it?

    The problem is that, the less similarity something has to a human being, the less knowable its moral deserts are — what we are required to do to not trample on its intrinsic value.

    When we use our own thought processes, fears, and needs as a metaphor for another human being’s thought processes, fears, and needs, the accuracy is near 100%. It is easy to agree on what the moral deserts of a human being are, at least easy enough to conceivably organize a group capable of taking effective action to ensure those deserts are satisfied. It is easy to extrapolate to human-like animals which we can see share some of their basic needs and desires with human beings. The metaphor that these are of the same nature as human needs and desires, and the relevant experiences are the same, is still very valid.

    The problem with actually satisfying these non-human needs and desires is that nature, as it currently is, is rife with zero-sum games — with competition for resources, predation &c guaranteeing that some beings will suffer and some will live and die what will seem to us incredibly pointless and brutal lives. Of course, we can say that while it is not our prerogative to re-engineer nature so that all these creatures’ needs are satisfied without conflict, we can still say that we should not introduce additional suffering into the system with our actions.

    When we apply the same metaphor to an ecosystem, it gets very vague. In particular, we don’t have any analogies we can draw to human needs or thought processes, only to metabolic processes. (So, arguing about an ecosystem using the metaphor of it being a living being, feels a bit like gauging the moral life of a human being by graphs of their blood pressure, metabolism and chemical intake, and delta wave activity, without reference to what they think, feel, and experience. It will tell us health and stress levels, but these are only a small part of the question of whether someone is living an acceptable life.)

    Since I cannot comprehend what the higher processes of the earth system, I cannot imagine intrinsic needs of this system that aren’t reduced to the intrinsic needs of its component parts that I *can* understand with reference to my own higher processes.

    So, I cannot imagine what basis we have for judging the health of an ecosystem beyond our desire to maintain resilience — without which there would be massive suffering of humans and nearly-human animals — and our aesthetic preference towards there being lands and seas free from heavy-handed human intervention and teeming with a large selection of charismatic fauna, rather than hordes of differently colored jellyfish and cockroaches that evolved to survive our toxic waste and extreme weather conditions, or somesuch. So, my moral view of things is irrevocably anthropocentric.

    So, I cannot endorse the Eco-centric view’s starting point asserting ‘the Earth is alive’ without immediately saying ‘but not in the same sense that I, or those like myself, am alive, and the difference has moral import’, and thus making a hypocrisy of endorsing the assertion.

    Well, either that, or I would have to abdicate my reasoning about intrinsic value and its demands to some priesthood of mystic insight that is willing to make definitive assertions that the higher processes of the Earth are infringed upon in manner X (that does not necessarily reduce to anthropocentric arguments) and the infringement must be remedied in manner Y. I would likely not be able to verify these assertions according to my own understanding of the world, just agree with them blindly.

  4. Pingback: Blog: Serendipity – by Steve Easterbrook | Finding Connections Towards a Holistic View of City Systems

  5. Pingback: Cities as Systems of Systems | Distilled Wisdom

Leave a Reply

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