Systems Thinking for 21st-Century Cities: A Beginners Introduction — Part #1

Why it matters, what it means, and 3 steps to start

Our 21st century demands leadership — and many are turning their eyes towards our world’s cities.

Why? By 2050, 65% of our global population — an estimated 6 billion humans — will live in cities. Cities, accounting for just 2% of earth’s landmass, produce 70% of global GDP, 70% of global C02 emissions, and 66% of energy consumption, they are growing in political power, and enliven society as cultural hubs. One could say that cities are our bellwethers, our global pulse points…as cities go, so goes the world.

To take a pulse today, cities indicate a global system in distress. The symptoms and warning signs are clear. Cape Town is set to run out of water. San Francisco is failing their homeless population. Beijing is enveloped in critical smog levels. San Juan is rolling with power outages. Caracas is stricken with hunger. My home city, Philadelphia, is grappling with 25% poverty.

For decades, scientists and urban experts alike have stated that cities are — borrowing a term from ecology — ecosystems, hybrid ecosystems consisting of both natural and human-made elements. Like natural ecosystems, cities evolve through a combination of chaos and order. The late urban writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, once said, “cities happen to be problems in organized complexity” and warned against predicting city’s futures. “People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists [today]…are always wrong.”

Undoubtedly, the future of our global cities will be emergent in ways we may or may not predict — from social uprisings like new populism, new technologies like blockchain, or climate events like Hurricane Sandy. Yet, we are not powerless in our city ecosystems. Chaos is paired with order, and we have power — with the right leadership, knowledge, and tools — to reimagine a new, 21st-century order for our cities and our world to thrive.

Tackling wicked problems with systems thinking

Today’s cities (and our world-at-large) face wicked problems, problems that are “difficult or impossible to solve…because of complex interdependencies.” One can imagine the complex interdependencies in Cape Town’s current water crisis, for example — natural (drought, groundwater), human (attitudes, household usage, population growth), social (data, media coverage), physical (leaking pipes, desalination equipment availability), political (government leadership, policies), and industrial (water use for industry and agriculture).

Solving a city crisis or challenge — Cape Town’s water crisis or San Francisco’s homelessness - can seem impossible, especially if we take a reductionist approach. Mainstream education and culture often reinforce reductionist thinking — breaking down wholes into parts and studying parts in isolation from their roots. Reductionism, in the case of wicked problems, isolates problems from the complex systems in which they operate, and treats a problem’s observed symptoms instead of its root or systemic causes.

In the case of homelessness, for example, people live on the streets (i.e. a symptom of root causes) and so homeless shelters are created to provide food, shelter, and sanitation for this population of people (i.e. treating the symptom). Treating symptoms will certainly alleviate immediate pains and offer short-term solutions, but homelessness will not be resolved by creating homeless shelters. Homelessness must be solved by addressing the root causes of homelessness — oftentimes poverty, affordable housing, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Rooted in 1940's systems theory, systems thinking offers a different approach than reductionist thinking. Systems thinking, in one of many definitions, can be explained as “a perspective of seeing and understanding systems as wholes rather than as collections of parts — a web of interconnections that creates emerging patterns over time.”

In Introduction to Systems Thinking, Daniel Kim explains that systems thinking is and can be a number of things — a growing field, a mindset, a perspective, a language, and a set of tools. “But to be a true systems thinker”, says Kim, “you need to know how systems fit into the larger context of day-to-day life, how they behave, and how to manage them.”

Systems thinking at scale

Systems thinking scales. Therefore, you can apply systems thinking at multiple levels of thinking related to cities and solving wicked problems.

A global cities perspective

Global cities are interconnected through a number of elements such as politics, trade, commerce, culture, tourism, immigration, media, education, and climate action.

A local city perspective

Local cities are interconnected through elements such as physical space, policy, education, health, safety, transportation, media, communities, and more.

A city’s wicked problem perspective

A city’s wicked problem, such as homelessness, is interconnected with many elements — housing, education, health, policy, funding, storytelling, nonprofit services, weather, and more. While homelessness in San Francisco and Philadelphia might have the same relevant elements, they will inevitably be different because the wicked problems exist in the context of different city systems. For example, affordable housing policies will be different, west coast verse east coast weather will have different implications, available funding will vary, and so on.

3 steps to start practicing systems thinking for cities

Cities, wicked problems, and systems thinking are incredibly complex fields that have been pioneered by leaders and experts for decades. As an impact-focused community builder, convener, and communications strategist interested in the intersection of these three topics, this article is the product of my own initial exploration. Below are a few of the steps and resources that I’m exploring myself:

1) Study systems thinking

2) Explore systems thinking for cities & wicked problems

3) Map your own city or wicked problem

Exploring the resources above or a quick google search will lead you to many systems mapping tools — from causal loop diagrams to the iceberg model, stock and flow charts to actor mapping. Start mapping!

Get in touch & Explore the Series

Are you interested in connecting on this topic? Do you have a recommended resource to share? Please feel free to follow and/or connect with me on Linkedin.

Read on: Systems Thinking for 21st-Century Cities: A Beginner’s Introduction — Part 2 (systems, boundaries, lenses)


A shift is required “from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.” — Peter Senge
One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.