The Challenges of Large Urban Systems

With global urbanization trends, the governance of large urban systems has become a key issue not only for practitioners in the field but also for scientists interested in the multiple and interconnected areas of research that are needed to address these challenges.

More than half the population of our planet now lives in urban areas and, according to the United Nations, by 2017 this will be the case even in the least developed countries around the globe. If calculations are correct, by 2030 more than five billion people will flock to the cities, creating ever-growing challenges for urban managers, planners and administrators.

One initiative that tries to bridge the gap between practice and theory in regards to these pressing matters is called IGLUS (Innovative Governance of Large Urban Systems), a long-term research and education project of the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL). What is radically new about this is the combination of brainy research with hands-on experience. By initiating an Executive Master class, IGLUS has developed a curriculum for seven workshops that address specific localized (yet globally relevant) challenges and use these for problem-based learning approaches.

Catering to practitioners of urban planning and city management, the Master program offers 20 ’students‘ (all of which need existing job experience in infrastructure management) a chance to visit seven major hotspots around the world and in concentrated workshops learn about the local challenges and the tactics to deal with them. „The program is a means to develop a global network of practitioners, academics and companies that look at the issues of urban governance from a holistic perspective“, Mohamad Razaghi, the project’s manager, says. At each workshop, researchers and managers come together to discuss the individual challenges; in addition the Master program invites local students, thus bringing together global expertise and localized experience.

The local aspect is an important factor, as each city faces different challenges, each region needs individual approaches. Whereas the Mexican city of Guadalajara faces social inequality, the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul struggles with the cultural divergence of Occident and Orient, literally bridging Europe and Asia. In Hong Kong, city planners are still faced with the historical dimension of its colonial heritage, facing down jurisdictional challenges of regional vs. national interests. Dubai, as a vastly growing city raised from desert sands is plagued by sustainability issues, whereas Detroit and Chicago are challenged by economic decline and a path towards revitalization. The Korean megacity of Seoul provides an excellent example of modernization and how to implement smart city technology on such a large scale. Finally, the German Rhine-Ruhr area faces the political challenge of seven distinct city councils working in unison to create a large metropolitan complex.

In bringing the master workshops to the cities themselves, the program is able to focus the different aspects of governance and the specific needs of the regions. When you want to learn about social injustice, it makes the most sense to go where the social challenges are the greatest, Razaghi argues: „Also, travelling to different cities provides a specific opportunity to our participants to hear the different perspectives (by having participants and lecturers from several cities around the world) on these ‚global challenges.‘ This helps our students realize the different ways that a single problem can be addressed (i.e. governance of urban transportation system)“.

In addition, IGLUS engages in long-term research towards finding new solutions to improving the way that cities are run. The theoretical side of the initiative brings together international researchers from fields as diverse as Urban Planning, Forestry, Governance, Systems and Enterprises, Informational Science, Architectural Design, Anthropology, Civil Engineering and Public Policy. Their focus is to understand the dynamics in governing urban infrastructure systems such as transportation, energy, information technology, water and waste. In addition though, researchers want to take into account the political, technical, social and economic aspects that are involved when governing these systems.

Razaghi explains the two-fold approach like this: „In the qualitative studies we use case studies to provide a detailed and rich explanation of the governance process of large urban systems and its influence on the performance of the system, i.e. public transport. In the quantitative studies, we use two modeling techniques (i.e. system dynamics and agent based modeling) to simulate the effects of different governance arrangements on the performance of the system.“

At the philosophical level, the initiative thus views challenges to urban living as holistic, complex and multidisciplinary. Finding ways to improve our life in large urban centers will thus involve the cooperation of many fields and specialists, as well as the engagement of citizens and partnerships between the private, the public and the economic sectors. The localized problems discussed in the Master connect in this interdisciplinary network, thus giving students and researchers the ideal opportunity to find better and more innovative ways to govern urban systems, so that in the future we will be better prepared to face life in the big cities of this world.


Originally solicited by Bettery Magazine – never published there.