Urban Futures and the Complex Systems Approach

Intellectual Property of Vincent Callebaut Architecture

“The most general purpose of futures studies is to maintain or improve the freedom and welfare of humankind…

A distinctive contribution of futurists is prospective thinking.  Through prospective thinking, futurists aim to contribute to the well-being both of presently living people and of the as-yet-voiceless people of future generations.”

Wendell Bell, 1997

“One of the founding principles of the field of futures studies is the idea of personal and organizational choice. Although the future is unknown, a person can identify possibilities, select the most favorable outcomes and attempt to influence events to create a desired future.”


As I’ve been researching complexity science and complex urban systems especially for more than a decade, it was probably inevitable that I would stumble across futures studies and the concept of urban futures.  I read Wendell Bell’s book a couple of years ago and have been considering ever since how the varied (and yet interrelated) studies of urban futures and complexity optimise our approach to understanding urban systems and ensure more effective planning of these environments for the future.  The following is by no means a comprehensive discussion on the subject, but rather an attempt to collate the notes from numerous post-its in an organised manner and hopefully provide some useful information along the way:

The Association of Professional Futurists emphasises the fact that it’s not the aim of the professional futurist to predict what will happen in the future, but rather to study the future by using foresight and helping individuals or organisations understand, anticipate and prepare for coming changes.  Consequently, through the use of formal methods to develop descriptions of possible futures the result of a futures study “may include the driving forces, assumption, evidence or indicators of the futures” (APF).

Moir et al. (2014) pointed out that the origins, definitions and trends of ‘future cities’ are beyond the focus of sustainability.  It is very likely that the cities of the future will be much different from the present, due to a constantly and rapidly evolving world.  Hence, Hunt and Rogers (2016) argues that the amount of change will depend on how far into the future cities are considered and the related amount of uncertainty acknowledged.  Consequently, this should be reflected in the application of methodologies to ensure most effective urban policy development.  This is where foresight approaches are most effective for the policy making for future cities (Foresight, 2014).  Hunt and Rogers (2016) outlined these approaches as follows:

  • Trend analysis – although a fundamental approach, longer term trend predictions will be incorrect with change and increased uncertainty over time
  • ‘Horizon Scanning’ or ‘3 horizons’ technique – a popular approach considering the appearance and emergence of issues in 3 horizons/time periods: short (0-2 years), medium (2-5 years) and longer term (5+ years).  Various models and related toolkits are available.
  • Side-Swipes or Black Swans – “mega shocks” of low probability, but with a high impact and affecting future policies severely (natural disasters or major technological disruptions for example)
  • Scenarios analysis – more advantageous to longer term policy making by allowing for the challenging of assumptions and values. Presents an exploratory approach to generate ‘what-if’ scenarios and foresight tools allow for better decision making

Hence, formulating a better understanding of urban process and potential change is essential.  Undertaking a complex systems approach to enhance this understanding will allow for the consideration of the city’s key variables and drivers:  agents, emergence, self-organisation and criticality (Alberti et al., 2018).  The following only provides a brief definition for each of these concepts, as they would be considered in more detail in a separate discussion in the near future:

Agents:  heterogeneous entities manifesting complex interactions across various scales, such as households, businesses, academic institutions etc.

Emergence:  emergent properties from the dynamic interaction of agents over time and space (physical properties, such as sprawl; behavioural properties, such as travel; social properties, such as segregation)

Self-organisation:  the continuous growth of cities results in complexity that is not managed from an external source and is thus self-organising

Criticality:  the critical state of self-organised urban systems or systems in transition at which ‘distress’ is spread over long temporal scales or large spatial scales.

The development of complexity theory now enables us to consider the emergent nature of cities as complex social-ecological-technological systems, rather than just social-technological systems.  Alberti et al. (2018) rightfully define cities as major drivers of global change, with an essential role in enabling the planet’s transition to sustainability.  To gain new urban futures insight and enhance strategic foresight, it is important to understand the complex dynamics which link urban change to social-ecological-technological change.



Alberti, M., McPhearson, T. and Gonzalez, A. (2018). Cities in the Context of the Anthropocene in Urban Planet.  Cambridge University Press.

Bell, W., 2003. Foundations of Futures Studies: History, Purposes, and Knowledge: 1, 1 edition. ed. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J.

Foresight (2014). Futures Toolkit: tools for strategic futures for policy-makers and analysts.  Cabinet Office for Science. http://www.foresight.gov.uk/microsites/hsctoolkit/The-tools.html

Hunt, D.V.L. and Rogers, C.D.F. (2016). Aspirational City Futures: A short review of Foresight approaches.  UK Government’s Foresight Future of Cities Project.

Moir, E., Moonen, T. and Clark, G. (2014). What are Future Cities? Origins Meanings and Uses. Government Office for Science, London, UK. 100 pages.