Planning and Complexity

Aesop’s Thematic Group meeting on READING 18 – 19 November 2005

Published at: 19 November 2005


Centre of Planning Studies

Department of Real Estate and Planning

Reading University


Angelique Chettipramba

Jean Hillier

Gert de Roo

Kristina Nilsson

Pieter van den Broeck

Chris Zuidema

Nikos Karadimitriou

Joe Doak

Cletus Moobela

Anssi Joutsiniemi

Chris Webster

Jens Grunau

Philip Allmendinger

Elisabete Silva

Gavin Parker

Elisabete Cidre


Chair thanks Nikos Karadimitriou for making all the arrangements for this gathering on Complexity and Planning

Introductions and discussions

(personal interpretation by the chair, Gert de Roo)

Angelique enfolded two routes to understanding complexity: the systems level route and the emergence route. The systems route is a sort of a look from the outside in, while the emergence route is a ‘within’ look (an observation of importance, taking the overall discussion in mind). Angelique continues following the systems route explaining that while traditional systems thinking is from an ontological perspective focused on the systems structure. Tradition systems thinking is about maintaining identity while complex self organizing systems are about processes of iteration, contextual feet back and the system getting identity through its environment. This is just one step away from the question how to recognize emergence within planning (and as such we encounter the ‘within’ look and the emergence route to complexity).

Jean challenged us to relate developments within planning theory to complexity theory, and how to understand this idea of complexity from a planning perspective. Her conclusions were intriguing. Jean argued that from a planning perspective we could either consider complexity as ‘baroque’ or as ‘romantic’. These perspectives were a trigger for debate, which ended with the consensus that these perspectives were indeed a contribution to the way we could see the relationship between planning and complexity, with the baroque perspective meaning an understanding of complexity within planning or ‘amongst’. This perspective embraces the dynamics of complex behaviour and focuses on understanding the complexity and dynamics of particular ‘complex’ systems within planning. The romantic view is more a look from the outside in, focussing on about what is going with regard to the complexity of planning. This perspective is therefore trying to understand complexity in planning as a state of the art (state of the system).

Gert considers himself to be a romantic type: his presentation is about three assumptions with regard to complexity, being relevant in understanding the relationship between complexity and planning.

Assumption 1: An open system evolves due to a growing complexity in a movement from order to chaos.

Assumption 2: Complex systems emerge at the edge of order and chaos.

Assumption 3: New, orderly systems emerge out of these complex systems, at a higher level.

Assumptions 1 and 2 are seen important for planning. Gert considers assumption 1 as a major argument to see a spectrum in between the two opposing worlds within the planning theoretical debate: technical rationality on the hand and communicative on the other. Assumption 1 allows to consider to see a growing ‘ degree of complexity’ from a technical rational mode of planning towards a communicative mode of planning, as a tool to differentiate planning issues and planning actions: a ‘romantic’ view, and from the outside in. Causality, stability, connectivity and entity are important qualifications. Assumption 2 states that somewhere on this spectrum between technical and communicative rationale, complex systems can be allocated, with notions such as emergence, self organisation, adaptation and co-evolution being important: a ‘baroque’ view, from within or amongst.

Pieter went for the counter attack: while looking for the ‘state of the system’ (including the ‘complex’ ones) he seriously wonders about complexity being just another metaphor or is it indeed a reality we should embrace. His point is that we don’t need complexity for most planning issues. Planners are already well equipped. Nevertheless Pieter underlines the importance of the ‘state of the system’: a view from the outside in, as expressed by assumption 1. And if the state of the system presents us complex behaviour, transitions, adaptive behaviour and co-evolution become important.

Chris Z digs deeper into the assumption 1 idea: a degree of complexity as a concept to understand or judge each system’s complexity, identity and differentiation. Chris presents a method to deconstruct issues in planning. Using this method, he concludes systems with a low degree of complexity have hardly any relationship with their context. A focus on its parts is the way to go (technical rationale). While highly complex systems need awareness of a intervening context, and meaning and opinion become more important for planning actions (communicative rationale). With this introduction the relation between planning and complexity gets another perspective: complexity not only being a reality and a construction but also a matter of choice.

Nikos and Joe use the brownfield issue to discus the autopoeisis network of communications: self referential networks. Their focus is to get from ‘meaning’ to ‘action’, acknowledging the fact that space is constantly under negotiation. As such, space and place emerge from processes and interactions among stakeholders.

Cletus gave us a quite interesting perspective, what he called ‘transcendental realism’. His point is that thinking in degrees of complexity and in complex systems is nice, but… in some cases you need ‘chaos’ to get to the edge of order and chaos, and to get a change that works out for the good. He used as an example a construction site build in the sixties, which presented a sort of ‘bauhaus’ complex, at that time highly innovative however it ignores its environmental context completely. The result was rather negative, being quite a push to identify more realistic innovations, that included the environmental context.

Anssi takes the complexity of urban form as a phenomenon to ask ‘what is the order behind it?’. He uses travel time as a factor of relevance to understand spatial behaviour: we could have the idea that people and various functions should be brought together. Or – in other words – the time span to get from A to B should be reduced by intervention. Anssi states that this classic perspective could very well be wrong, arguing that while improving accessibility, people really (re)act or move around on the basis of a ‘constant travel time budget’. Taking this seriously we might have to consider a self-organising and adapting social system, instead of a classic physical infrastructure system, to make decisions upon.

Between the various introductions Chris W managed to come up with intriguing examples in real planning life representing fractal behaviour (for example reflecting upon property rights). In his own presentation he builds (coincidentally) upon Cletus his argument that there is more to complexity than ‘just’ complex systems. But instead of taking chaos as a start for his argument, he shows us emergence of order and orderly structures within planning related issues: a hierarchy of cities and so forth. His point is we should not ignore these phenomena out there, to understand planning and the way we interfere in the build environment. In other words: what is the rationale for intervening in emerging order?

How to continue

In April we will continue our discussions, in Cardiff UK.

In July, in Mexico City we might have two sessions within the theory track allocated for our Complexity and Planning discussions.

A special edition of Planning Theory on Complexity and Planning seems unlikely as it will be until 2008 before such an issue will be published.

Likely more successful is working on a book together. Jean Hillier and Gert de Roo will both use their contacts to see of a publisher would be interested.