10: Adding depth: a ‘CERN’ for urban science

An appropriate ambition of the model-building component of urban science is the construction of the best possible comprehensive model which represents the interdependencies that make cities complex (and interesting) systems. To articulate this is to spell out a kind of research programme: how do we combine the best of what we know into such a general model? Most of the available ‘depth’ is in the application of particular submodels – notably transport and retail. If we seek to identify the ‘best’ – many subjective decisions here in a contested area – we define a large scale computing operation underpinned by a substantial information system that houses relevant data. Though a large task, this is feasible! How would we set about it?

The initial thinking through would be an iterative process. The first step would be to review all the submodels and in particular, their categorisation of their main variables – their system definitions. Almost certainly, these would not be consistent: each would have detail appropriate to that system. It would be necessary then – or would it? – to find a common set of definitions. Continue reading

1: Systems Thinking

When I was studying physics, I was introduced to the idea of ‘system of interest’: defining at the outset that ‘thing’ you were immediately interested in learning about. There are three ideas to be developed from this starting point. First, it is important simply to list all the components of the system, what Graham Chapman called ‘entitation’; secondly, to simplify as far as possible by excluding all possible extraneous elements from this list; and thirdly, taking us beyond what the physicists were thinking at the time, to recognise the idea of a ‘system’ as made up of related elements, and so it was as important to understand these relationships as it was to enumerate the components. all three ideas are important. Identifying the components will also lead us into counting them; simplification is the application of Occam’s Razor to the problem; and the relationships take us into the realms of interdependence. Around the time that I was learning about the physicists’ ideas of a ‘system’, something more general, ‘systems theory’ was in the air though I didn’t become aware of it until much later. Continue reading