Urban design for complexity 

Throughout history, cities have faced many problems: War and violence, disease, disasters, housing, utilities, traffic, crime, inequality, poverty, and greed. Moreover, the pace of population growth in cities is frightening. Every day, urban population increases by almost 150,000 – mostly poor – people, due to migration or births. Between to date and 2050, the world’s urban population is projected to rise from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion residents.

The litany of problems affects all cities in the world, but not in the same degree. To cope with these problems, each city must make a diagnose of its own challenges and define solutions. 

City-life is complex and most afore-mentioned problems are related and often at odds, think about struggling poverty and reversing global heating. Therefore, these problems cannot be solved in separated silos. This is the reason reason that I reject reductionist approaches like ‘smart city’, ‘sharing city’, ‘circular city’ and the like. 

Instead, framing the challenges that cities face must start from the complexity of the city as such and the interrelations of people causing these problems. In this respect, I found the concept of a doughnut economy particularly helpful. It is elaborated by the British economist Kate Raworth in a report entitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity. The report takes the simultaneous application of social and environmental sustainability as the point of department for humane behavior.

In essence, Raworth says that people have a great deal of freedom in the choice of activities in their city, if they stay within two types of boundaries:

The first limit is set by ecosystems; which make life on earth possible. However, we can also frustrate their operation, which has a direct impact on our living conditions. 

Something similar applies to society. Here you can also distinguish several aspects and each of them has a level that people should not fall below, the second limit. If this does happen, it will jeopardize the survival of society.

If you look at a donut, you will see a small circle in the center and a large circle on the outside. The small circle represents the social foundation, the lower limit of the quality of society. The large circle refers to the ecological ceiling. Between the two circles lies the space within which people can act as they please. Kate Raworth calls this space a safe and just space for humanity.

On the way to a city for humanity , what we need to do is, first of all, to define human actions that comply with or are threatening the ecological ceiling and social foundation of our own city. What follows is the formulation of targets to correct and subsequently enforce all actual violations of ecological and social boundaries. This applies to the city itself and the global effects of its activities.

As an exercise, I created a table of principles for 10 clusters of activities to address the challenges that many cities in developed countries share, combined with one target for each principle. You may want to download this table here.

I recommend this procedure to any city that intends to develop an integral vision starting from the complexity of city life and the interdependency of its activities. Amsterdam went through this process, together with Kate Raworth. The Amsterdam city donut is worth exploring closely.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)


Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies


11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City