Lesson from WUF9: Comping with complexity for urban health and sustainable development


It is a common question we ask ourselves when visiting a new city: Can I imagine living here? Some people choose to live in smaller cities where easy access to nature is an attraction factor for them. In contrast, big cities can be oppressing because of the high buildings, dense population, the high cost of living and other factors stressing our health and wellbeing. But not everyone shares the same preferences. So, what kind of city do we want to live in the future? The World Urban Forum 9 which just had its curtain call mid-February in Kuala Lumpur, provided an answer: The KUALA LUMPUR DECLARATION ON CITIES 2030, which calls to “inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all” – an ideal profile of a city in the future for many, as pictured in the New Urban Agenda and to be implemented by 2030.

However, building such ideal city also needs to consider: 1) whether all people are free and capable of choosing the city they aspire to live in, 2) whether people can participate in decision-making to co-create their city and 3) people being aware of the broader global challenges their cities are facing. How free are we to build the ideal city of the New Urban Agenda, given the global challenges cities need to master, such as climate change, migration, inequality, drastic degradation of environmental quality and biodiversity loss? Those are complex issues that loom above cities and to which cities are seeking effective and long-term solutions.

Nevertheless, it is a good attempt to start identifying issues and put the dots together. In reality, the global challenges we are facing are generated from our own development achievements and have now become a permanent condition, affecting human and planetary health. Although the rise of cities has been celebrated as a triumph, we have not triumphed in coping with the global challenges to which cities have significantly contributed. In fact, we are struggling to cope with the emerging realities of the Anthropocene epoch, which are more complex and more profound. What is the reason for our incompetence to cope with these complex challenges?

The science community has come to a general consensus with the way we need to coordinate knowledge, for understanding and co-designing cities as complex systems, with health as a key performance indicator, such as the International Science Council (ISC, then International Council for Science, abb. ISCU) program on Urban Health and Wellbeing. Given the variety of interconnected and intersectoral challenges with profound impacts on human health in cities, it is paramount to better understand how current systems of knowledge production work and why it is so difficult to act on the knowledge we have. Lessons from complexity science for urban health and wellbeing, in a nutshell, tell us, that the requisite variety of institutional mechanisms, needs to match the complexities of urban challenges, to achieve urban health and wellbeing in the cities aimed at in the New Urban Agenda.

Today, the bulk of knowledge produced in and for cities, is to a large extent disciplinary, sectoral and in silos. It is also produced by experts and segregated from the majority of urban inhabitants, who are not just the end-user of the knowledge produced, but also should be key co-producers of the knowledge needed.  That insight prompted an emerging trend of conducting knowledge production and policy-making in a more participatory, systemic and inclusive manner – using a Systems Approach – in order to address human, urban environmental and global health issues, which could seriously jeopardise our efforts of improving environmental health and achieving the sustainable development goals, such as cored in the New Urban Agenda. A good example is the case studies presented as the outcome of the SCHEMA project, which capacitate in systems and place-based methods, urban planning and public health to examine urban health in Malaysia, coordinated by the UNU-IIGH.

However, as participants to the UN Habitat’s WUF9, we frequently picked up the complaint and frustration that WUF9 fell short in coming much closer to coping with the complexities of urban health and wellbeing. The expert knowledge and experiences of urban practices shared during WUF9, despite the consensus-seeking intention, were usually confined in each of their own institutional mental models of how cities should be governed and overgeneralized by  UN-style framing language. Not just because of institutional language, the UN-Habitat now faces increasing credibility issues and the establishment of a new multi-agency coordinating mechanism called UN-Urban, recognising that the majority of earth’s inhabitants are urban, is in the making.

What can we learn from WUF9? Our attempts to make progress in achieving the New Urban Agenda are often constrained by our existing mental models, values and our ability to adopt new approaches and new thinking to address complex challenges. We have the knowledge but lack the knowledge-action systems, or the “urban brain”, to act on that knowledge collectively and in time for achieving the SDGs in 2030. Knowledge-action systems are the social networks of actors involved in the production, sharing and use of knowledge for action and all other types of infrastructure facilitating the flow of resources, including data and knowledge, and thereby enabling feedback, response and learning for action.

Example of a complex interactive social-ecological-technological system: nested cross-cutting governance challenges for water resource management in the Chi-Mun Basin.

To govern the complex global environmental risks, gain resilience, develop and urbanise, further sustainably towards the kind of urban future as declared at the WUF9, we need to take a systems approach in knowledge and action. Acknowledging cities as socio-ecological-technological systems (SETS) that are intrinsically interlinked, complex and co-evolving systems, and recognising the status and limits of our resources, would be the first step leading to a systems approach in governing these complex global challenges. Thinking systemically in cities requires such a collective urban brain across disciplines, sectors, departments and professions; and thinking comprehensively requires a strong integration of both natural and social sciences – acknowledging the “precise” and the fuzzy sciences, the diversity of knowledge cultures and respect of the diversity and uniqueness of local issues. A systems approach to the New Urban Agenda further requires co-creating solutions that are place-based and people-centred, not merely driven by monetary incentives nor political ambitions. 


  1. Franz Gatzweiler, Executive director of the URBAN HEALTH AND WELLBEING: A SYSTEMS APPROACH Programme of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xiamen, China Email: gatzweiler02@gmail.com

2. Jieling Liu, PhD candidate in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal. E-mail: jielingliu@campus.ul.pt

Originally posted on urbangateway.org in March 2018.

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