Hybrid 4th KoMet-Conference discussed Urban Complexity - Summary of the KoMet-Conference

Urban Complexity – Complexity and transformation science perspectives on sustainable urban development

Preface & thematic framework

Cities are complex adaptive systems. The constitutive element are the manifold interactions between heterogeneous actors whose behaviours change throughout time, as they react and adapt to other actors actions and changed environmental conditions. Since the 1980s cities around the world have been studied in a complex manner. The aim is to gain a better understanding of

      ▶ how cities emerge, develop, grow or shrink,

      ▶ what promotes or inhibits social as well as technological innovations in cities and

      ▶ which planning and managing instruments are necessary for their formation.

      ▶ Science Perspective: What does the complexity theory teach us regarding the solution of “wicked problems” within cities?

      ▶ Practice Perspective: What are we doing right and wrong within the Ruhr area? Do we have to rethink urban politics and management?

      ▶ Combined Perspective: How can we reinvent or rethink science and practice to improve their cooperation?

When looking at the primacy of sustainability, the ability of urban spaces to change and adapt becomes more urgent. The challenges following this transformative process are wicked problems, meaning they are characterised by a high complexity, uncertainty and divergence of values and objectives. In order to be able to properly face these problems, a set of adequate instruments that deal with complexity and uncertainty are required. Further, the divergent objectives of the actors and thus resulting conflicts need to be addressed. Collaborative approaches for transformative research make an important contribution.

In this context the Competence Field of Metropolitan Research (KoMet), supported by the Mercator foundation, the Emschergenossenschaft and the NRW.BANK, designated the 4th KoMet Conference to the thematic framework of “Urban Complexity – Complexity and transformation science perspectives on sustainable urban development”.

In charge of the thematical conception and organization of this year’s hybrid event was KoMet-Researcher Michael Roos (Ruhr-University Bochum). Under the moderation of Klaus Kordowski (Stiftung Mercator), researchers, young academics and international guests presented their research approaches to an interested audience of over 100 guests at the 4th KoMet Conference and highlighted potentials and challenges for actors from academia, business, politics, administration and civil society. The aim was to create a dialogue between theory and practice and find new collaboration opportunities.

The Urban Systems Group (University Duisburg-Essen), consisting of young researchers, organised an online workshop two days prior to the 4th KoMet Conference, inviting PhD students and Post-Docs to discuss the topic of “Transformative Research in Cities”. The documentation of this workshop can be downloaded in a separate document on the KoMet website. The results of this workshop were presented in the afternoon of the event and are summarized in this document.


Prelude and introduction In their welcoming speech Thorsten Wiechmann, Uli Paetzel and Birgit Maria Roscyzk unanimously pointed out that although there is a high potential for transformation in the Ruhr Metropolis, it still lacks the adequate implementation of sustainability plans. Michael Roos followed this up by introducing the content of the conference. He started his introduction by claiming that the beginning of the transformation is of great importance within the area. The cities of the Ruhr Metropolis are exposed to a great pressure for innovation as a consequence of structural change, the ongoing digitalisation, demographic change and – above all – climate change. Roos described cities as complex adaptive systems whose transformative development depends on context as well as path dependencies and is characterised by a non-linearity. Furthermore, multiple causalities act together within cities – the emerging interdependencies turned planning into a challenge. Michael Roos exemplified the confrontation of complex adaptive systems with “wicked problems”, which have to be solved and which are followed by structural challenges, by referring to the migration and climate crisis. Cities around the globe have since the 1980s been studied in a complex scientific manner regarding these characteristics. Within the framework of the 4th KoMet Conference, Michael Roos mainly put the following questions up for discussion:

Michael Roos’ introduction was followed by Diego Rybski’s presentation of “Cities as complex systems” and Lasse Gerrits’ presentation of “Governance in complex adaptive systems”.


Cities as complex systems Diego Rybski, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

In his presentation, Diego Rybski describes metropoles as complex systems, which are characterised by emergent traits ongoingly created by interactions of countless entities. Rybski emphasises this complexity using two examples: he discusses the interplay of city size distribution (Auerbach 1913, Zipf 1949), the central places theory (Christaller 1933) and increasing returns to scale in economic variables in cities (Bettencourt 2007) on one hand. On the other hand he points out the spatial complexity of urban systems using the percolation theory, which originates in statistical physics. According to Rybski, there is an abrupt transition between cohesive and fragmented structures. In this context, he uses Behnisch et al.’s 2019 study on German building stocks, which quantifyies sealed grounds, to further amplify his point: by taking 1,5 km steps we could reach 99% of all buildings nationwide. Finally, he emphasised that the German “Points of Inaccessibility”, meaning the points furthest away from any building, can be found predominantly on military training areas.


Governance in complex adaptive systems Lasse Gerrits, Erasmus University Rotterdam

In his presentation on governance in and of complex adaptive systems, Lasse Gerrits stressed that there is strong path dependency within governance structures. This results in a difficulty to implement radical planning choices in times of quickly changing circumstances. Coincidence is an important parameter in path dependencies, since decisions made on the basis of coincidences still carry their impact, even if the decision-making coincidence has long been forgotten. According to Gerrits, this leads to multi- (same initial conditions, different outcomes) as well as equifinalities (vice versa) within urban transformation. Planners are therefore exposed to significant difficulties when dealing with the complexity of circumstances. In such complex situations, planners tend to resort to their own experience. Different heuristics are be used to recognise their own role and to act accordingly. Lasse Gerrits argued that at times knowledge based on experience and heuristics is more effective than formal planning procedures and legal structures.

The two presentations were followed by an award ceremony for the KoMet sponsorship prizes for outstanding dissertations and Master’s theses.


Awarding of two KoMet sponsorship prizes Uta Hohn, RUB/KoMet-Speaker; Jens Gurr UDE/KoMet-Speaker; Uli Paetzel EGLV

For the first time ever sponsorship prizes for outstanding dissertations and Master’s theses, founded by the Emschergenossenschaft, were given out by KoMet-Speakers Uta Hohn and Jens Gurr as well as the CEO of the Emschergenossenschaft, Uli Paetzel, on this year’s KoMet Conference. Awarded was Anna-Lena Bergmann’s (RUB) master’s thesis titled “Essen 51 – tomorrow’s district in today’s city. Development of new city districts and their implementation into the urban space.”. Helen Wagner (UDE) won the sponsorship prize for her dissertation titled “The past as the future? Historical culture as a field of future actions for the management of structural change within the Ruhrgebiet”.

After the lunch break, the researchers Claudia Binder and Markus Schläpfer held presentations on the topic of transformative cities and complexity. The topic was viewed from diverse perspectives and positions: Claudia Binder took a social science approach, while Markus Schläpfer reviewed the issue from a technological perspective. The speakers joined the meeting via Zoom.


Technological and social innovations – Limits and complementaries of sustainable city transformation 1. Claudia Binder (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne – EPFL)

In her presentation, which approached the limits and complementarities in the sustainable transformation of cities from a social science perspective, Claudia Binder posed the question of tipping points in socio-technical-ecological systems. The past has shown that there is no distinct for a certain time measurable tipping point. These tipping points can rather be seen as a cascade, which – if triggered – can accelerate the process of transformation. Whereas in the past and in ecological systems tipping points tended to be viewed negatively, Binder posed the question of the extent to which "positive" tipping points could be initiated or supported. She put forward the thesis that three elements were relevant: i) framework conditions that produced the necessary "energy" for change (e.g. political conditions, financial incentives), (ii) a trigger (e.g. Fridays for Future, wars), (iii) social networks that could either support or prevent transformation. Using the example of the energy transition, Binder continued talking about the relevance of technological innovations that could, together with social innovations, support and promote transformation.

2. Markus Schläpfer (Columbia University, New York)

In his presentation, which focused on the technological perspective, Markus Schläpfer emphasised the importance of aggregated data for complexity modelling in cities, and cited the 15-minute city, which is on the planning agenda in Paris, as an example. According to the latest data collections, the 15-minute city carries the risk to be a segregating factor, despite having positive effects on individual districts. Segregation, however, would contradict the actual function of the city to connect people. Technological innovations were essential when trying to prevent unwanted developments – albeit these increased the complexity significantly.

In the afternoon of the 4th KoMet Conference, the practice partners were given the floor in a panel discussion moderated by Klaus Kordowski.


Transformative Practice – Discussion on current developments in the region Ruhr Simone Raskob (City of Essen, Business Unit Director: Environment, Traffic and Sports), Denes Kücuk (City of Bochum, Chief Digital Officer), Volker Lindner (City of Herten, h2-Network Ruhr)

Simone Raskob, Denes Kücük and Volker Lindner discussed current transformative practice in the Ruhr region. Klaus Kordowski led two-way conversations with each of the panelists. Simone Raskob was first asked about the status quo of climate neutrality in Essen and her assessment of the controllability of the transport system. Raskob emphasised that the city of Essen was well on the way to achieving climate neutrality by 2040, but that the effects of the current "general" energy crisis could not be estimated. In addition, inter-communal cooperation of all local transport companies in the Ruhr area is absolutely necessary for the success of a functioning and attractive transport system.

Denes Kücük was asked by Kordowski to explain the digitalisation strategy and the smart city concept of the city of Bochum in more detail: The Bochum concept – as Kücük explained – encompasses a common understanding of smart city and defines five guiding themes in which the city of Bochum is striving for greater digitalisation. These guiding themes are Sustainable Infrastructure, Intelligent City Management, Digital Society, Sustainable Mobility & Environment and Innovative Economy & Science. The special feature of the Smart City concept is above all the participatory approach, which is continuously developed further together with all partners, the citizens and the municipal bodies.

In the last dialogue, Klaus Kordowski asked Volker Lindner for his assessment of the expansion of the hydrogen economy in the Ruhr region. Lindner affirmed that hydrogen as a secondary energy carrier could make a valuable contribution to the transformation. He made it clear, however, that so far only "brown" hydrogen was available in the Ruhr region. Just like Simone Raskob for the transport companies, he also urged that cooperation between the energy suppliers of the Ruhr region was central to its further development.

Following the panel discussion, the representatives of the Urban Systems Group (UDE), joined via video call and presented the results collected in the young researchers workshop on 29 November 2022.

New perspectives on transformative urban research?! Results of the workshop for aspiring scientists Julia-Lena Reinermann, Bettina Pahlen, Anna Lea Eggert, Klaus Krumme (UDE/Urban Systems Group)

Julia Reinermann and Bettina Pahlen focused their presentation on the global North-South perspective and the methods used in transformative research. The speakers then addressed the role of academics as change agents in research processes. They pointed to a dichotomy of transformative research. On the one hand, prevailing power structures are challenged in order to produce more emancipatory research; on the other hand, the research direction is sometimes strongly influenced by Western ways of thinking. In the further course of their presentation, they pleaded for inclusive methods such as decision theatre and emphasised the high identification potential with agent-based modelling. It is important and at the same time challenging to ensure the interdisciplinarity of the team. With regard to the science system, Julia Reinermann and Bettina Pahlen criticised persistent structures that did not allow transformative research at the beginning of an academic career (e.g. due to financial restrictions).

Both the presentations and the slides on the 'First Results' of the English-language workshop of the young researchers can be viewed and downloaded on the following page: https://metropolenforschung.uaruhr.de/home/aktivitaeten/online-workshop-transformative-research-in-cities-november-29th-2022-83/.

The last presentation for the 4th KoMet Conference was held by Derk Loorbach (Erasmus-University Rotterdam) and addressed the institutionalisation of transformative research.

Transformative Research: How to do it and how to institutionalize it? Derk Loorbach (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Derk Loorbach pleaded to introduce a fundamental, systematic change towards more interdisciplinarity, experimental culture, collaboration and reflection – also at universities. Only then could science effectively contribute to a change in sustainability. The approach of transformation research or transformative research provides a suitable framework for identifying the origins of persistent social problems in cities and regions, for enabling experimental cooperation between science and practice, and thus for experimentally exploring alternative and desired futures and ultimately implementing them in practice.

The closing remarks were given to the leading organizer of the 4th KoMet Conference Michael Roos.

Closing remarks Michael Roos (RUB/KoMet)

In the context of this year’s KoMet Conference, cities were defined as complex adaptive systems, said Roos. Based on this, the conference highlighted a number of areas of tension: self-organisation versus planning, science versus practice and the field of tension between different perceptions of science. All these are elements of complex urban systems, which in turn can cause "wicked problems" of various kinds.

Roos summed up the day's lectures by saying that the heterogeneous actors in such complex systems have to combine on the one hand a willingness to experiment and clear visions of goals, but also knowledge and acceptance of the uncontrollability of complex adaptive systems. From this competence and "humility", the "wicked problems" in cities can be adequately addressed. Complexity theory and transformation research can be important tools for this, as they already include openness to new things and adaptability as scientific and political desiderata.