Strategic Network: Data and Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems (DACAS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment, Education and Development


Urbanisation has been declared a planetary condition. Cities and urban processes have moved to the core of research agendas across several academic disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. New analytical frameworks and practical tools are needed to model, understand and manage urban transformations. Yet despite the increasing availability of urban (big) data and methods of analysis with the potential to allow an evidence-based understanding of socio-spatial change in different geographical contexts, current approaches fail to understand cities as complex adaptive systems. Although smart cities are seen as offering solutions to pressing global challenges, mainstream strategies do not yet offer an in-depth understanding of correlations and causalities between different urban systems and fail to address the links between 'soft' (economic, ecological and social) and 'hard' (engineered) systems. However, the ability to link and model different kinds of urban data and systems is indispensable for a holistic understanding of cities as complex adaptive systems and will be agenda-setting for future urban research and practice.
The proposed international Strategic Network Data and Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems (DACAS) aims to promote a decisively interdisciplinary approach to understanding urban processes and transformations through (big) urban data using a complexity science framework.
The Strategic Network has three objectives which are closely aligned with the Government's Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (a) smart cities and (b) development assistance strategies in the following ways:
(a) DACAS will bring together noted academics with backgrounds in the social and natural sciences, including architects, engineers, physicists, geographers, mathematicians and ecological economists. Network activities will clarify and calibrate common interdisciplinary terminology using a complexity science framework. Relevant urban systems data will be identified; data sources, structures and methods of acquisition will be compared and methods of data analysis will be tested through cross-case analysis of soft and hard urban data sets (Obj1). Network activities will establish if and how data can be used to link hard and soft urban systems. Modelling techniques will be compared and linked across disciplines and innovative protocols will be established to identify cause-effect relationships in large complex (urban) data sets (Obj2). Network activities will facilitate the development of practical tools and innovative technological applications to exploit (big) urban data, reflect urban complexity and aid urban policy-making and practice (Obj3).
(b) DACAS researchers will be based in Japan and the UK as well as Newton countries Brazil and China. Three events and one summer school (targeting specifically PhD and Early Career Researchers) will link academics with user communities from the public, private and third sectors. Two of these events will be hosted by our partners in Brazil and China.
In view of global environmental and economic crises where the pressures of urbanisation are expanding, DACAS has the potential to make a real impact in academic, policy and practice circles through multiple deliverables. Alongside academic papers produced by individual Network members, DACAS will publish a synthesis article in an internationally renowned journal. In addition to a dedicated website and a series of contributions to popular magazines and web blogs, DACAS will produce synthesis reports for researchers and practitioners and a UNU Policy Report/Policy Brief for policy makers. At the Manchester School of Architecture, students of Architecture will benefit directly from DACAS activities through the digital research-based MArch atelier Complexity, Planning and Urbanism (CPU). Funding proposals for interdisciplinary research will be developed to ensure continued DACAS activities post-award (e.g. RCUK, ERC H2020, Belmont Forum).

Planned Impact

DACAS research and activities have the potential to benefit multiple stakeholders, including policy-makers, government and others within the public, private and third sectors who are involved in the design, planning and management of cities in the UK and internationally:
1. International think tanks and organisations who work on urban issues both within the United Nations system (e.g. UN-HABITAT, FAO, WHO, UNEP) as well as outside of it (e.g. ICLEI, LEDS-GP) will benefit from a better understanding of the potential that integrated data technologies may have to address global issues around climate change, urban health and governance.
2. By involving co-investigators and partners in two Newton countries (Brazil, China), DACAS activities and outputs will also support the UK Government Department for Business, Innovation & Skills by contributing to its development assistance strategy and the Newton Fund. The Fund aims to develop science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. DACAS members in Brazil and China will benefit from the co-creation of knowledge and possibilities for commercialisation.
3. User communities in Brazil, such as urban planning authorities, NGOs and practitioners, will benefit from new knowledge and innovative technological applications which will help them address pressing issues. These include the development of integrated approaches to planning or resource distribution.
4. User communities in China, such as municipal planning authorities and professional societies, will benefit from new knowledge and innovative technological applications to address unprecedented rural-to-urban migration and rapid urbanisation.
5. DACAS will support the UK Government Department for Business, Innovation & Skills by contributing to its recently launched Smart Cities strategy and creating opportunities for research, development and commercialisation of data-driven approaches to urban planning and design. This will benefit the wider UK economy in creating opportunities for commercialisation of city-centred products and services in the UK and globally.
6. DACAS can help UK businesses to become more competitive and profitable both locally an internationally in helping to improve the business environment through evidence-based planning and construction of infrastructure. Improved speed and predictability of spatial and infrastructure planning will help the delivery of vital economic infrastructure and provide greater accessibility.
7. Professional institutions (such as the Royal Society of British Architects (RIBA) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)) will gain new knowledge on the merits of new technologies and big data for design and planning processes and tangible evidence of data-based approaches and applications in urban praxis. This will support their efforts to influence government on related policies, such as the implementation of digitised planning system pilot schemes in the UK.
8. Local authorities will benefit from new knowledge and technology which can feed into informed decision making and integrated approaches to spatial planning across city regions. This is of particular significance with regards to overall strategies for the delivery of future housing, employment land and associated infrastructure.
9. Civil society in the UK and abroad will benefit from improved cities for citizens through better urban service provision, improved efficiency of public services as well as integrated city services.
10. PhD and Early Career Researchers across the social and natural sciences will benefit from capacity building activities, including exposure to and involvement in the development of cutting-edge interdisciplinary methods for the analysis of (big) urban data and multilayer networks.
11. Architecture students at the MSA will benefit from DACAS activities through the digital research-based MArch atelier Complexity, Planning and Urbanism.


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Description The award achieved its aim of bringing together established academics and early career researchers with backgrounds in the social and natural sciences and representatives of the public and private sectors in the UK, Brazil and China. Overall, we connected 110 individuals (including 68 ECRs) who now continue to collaborate on various projects initiated as part of Strategic Network activities. Detailed reports on our methods and findings will be available shortly on

During our four events, DACAS engaged with real urban challenges, such as air pollution in Delhi (India) as an emergent process; the co-evolution of traditional (taxi) and ICT enabled (uber) transport systems in New York; resilience of interdependent urban infrastructure systems in London; rapid urbanisation and resilience infrastructure in China; and urban redevelopment in Manchester.

The Strategic Network largely achieved its three main objectives: (1) to identify interdisciplinary methods for the analysis of hard and soft urban data sets; (2) to develop protocols for modelling of linked urban systems based on data; and (3) design digital tools and technological applications that reflect urban complexity.

We were successful in (1) testing alternative approaches to the study of interlinked urban systems and identifying the most appropriate methods of data analysis for the case studies we selected. Our work is in progress and we are currently collaborating on a co-authored piece which outlines key concepts and proposed definitions for cross-disciplinary work. We (2) shared and compared modelling conventions between different disciplinary practices. Initial protocols for machine readable data sets were developed for digital models.

Finally, using a complexity theory framework, we (3) generated digital tools and technological applications for urban governance, management and planning. Tools were developed to, for instance, (a) simulate trajectories of future change in urban morphology and identify opportunities within temporal cycles to increase natural habitats; (b) test future urban topologies within extreme flooding scenarios; (c) design urban fabric capable of increasing building density whilst enhancing existing ecosystems; or (d) evaluate potential urban topology in terms of ecological performance using a theoretical framework around patch dynamics.

The Network has secured some additional funding for collaborative activities between internal and external partners. Two participants in DACAS events have enrolled in PhD programmes and Network partners have established joint PhD supervisory teams for two additional PhD students. We are working on a co-edited volume showcasing ECR contributions and we are preparing various collaborative funding proposals. A UNU policy brief drawing on DACAS insights and linking them to the new Sustainable Development Goals will be published shortly.
Exploitation Route During two events in Manchester and two events in China and Brazil, respectively, DACAS met with local stakeholders to co-create research and development agendas with the aim to address the specific challenges of rapidly urbanising countries in the Global South as well as the management needs of policy makers and professionals working in the urban sector in the Global North. We created opportunities for research, development and commercialisation of data-driven approaches to urban planning and design. We are now taking some of these opportunities forward.

The research-based MArch atelier Complexity, Planning and Urbanism (CPU) at the Manchester School of Architecture engaged with the translation of complex systems approaches into practical digital tools for (participatory) planning and design. CPU work has also been taken up by the UK Government Office for Science, Foresight, Future of Cities team, who noted the its usefulness for decision makers. The atelier is discussing possibilities for collaboration with renowned global architecture firms, whilst our graduates benefit from excellent employment opportunities with globally leading firms.

Our forthcoming policy brief targets governments at the municipal level and highlights the challenges and opportunities linked with ICT and digital technologies when addressing the new Sustainable Development Goals.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

Description It is too early to develop a narrative around the impact that the Strategic Network may have generated. However, we have produced a policy brief in collaboration with the United Nations University in English, Mandarin and Portuguese (see, Sustainable Smart Cities: Applying Complexity Science to Achieve Urban Sustainability // ???????: ????????????????. // Cidades Inteligentes Sustentáveis: Aplicando a Ciência da Complexidade para Alcançar a Sustentabilidade Urbana.). The briefs have been downloaded some 320 times since being posted online in February 2018. We expect to see these influence policy makers over the course of the coming couple of years. The ESRC produced an Evidence Briefing on Smart Cities and Sustainability based on our recommendations, and we are excited to see where this is going to be picked up. Finally, the work processes and methodological implications that emerged from the Strategic Network collaboration have informed a range of research proposals which we are currently preparing for submission. We expect that this future research - as it engages with real world challenges in the Global South and Global North - will have substantial impact on the lives of urban and rural citizens and the economic and human development of their countries. Unfortunately, our ESRC Large Grant proposal around urban infrastructure planning in East Asia was not selected for submission under the University of Manchester's 'demand management' process. We are currently looking for alternative routes of funding.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Hallsworth Conference Fund
Amount £20,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2018 
End 07/2019
Description Higher Education Innovation Fund
Amount £3,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 06/2016
Description Towards a Sustainable Earth (TaSE)
Amount £323,768 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S012354/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2021