What drives the success of cities?

Dr. Neave O’Clery

The Oxford Urbanists' inaugural New Literacies Lecture was given by Dr Neave O' Clery, Senior Research Fellow at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, where she leads a new research programme on Urban Dynamics and Policy. Her key insight was that we need to see cities as complex adaptive systems - characterised by non-linearity, interdependence among its agents (both human and non-human) and emergence or constantly unfolding, self-revealing phenomena (as opposed to stable and predictable equilibria). In this respect, her lecture drew extensively on the field of complexity theory, which moves away from pure Cartesian views of the world and recognises the difficulty of articulating cause-effect relationships ex ante. One implication of a complexity-based approach is the insight that creating formal employment (one measure of a city's success) is intricately linked to the embedded capability base or "economic complexity" of a city - so cities with the human skills to produce a broader and more complex range of products is more likely to succeed at .creating jobs to sustain its future growth, and keep its city-zens satisfied. Neave fielded a wide array of questions after her formal lecture, including how policymakers can apply the insights from complexity-based approaches like hers, and the difficulties of doing such intrinsically multi-disciplinary research when many academic departments (and grant-giving bodies) operate within traditional disciplinary siloes. Neave struck a note of cautious optimism, noting that complexity-based approaches are much needed in understanding phenomena, like cities , that transcend orthodox academic divides.

Does a formula to predict the perfect city size exist? Urban economists since the industrial revolution have long sought to develop equilibrium models for how cities evolve and grow. Yet the emergence of increasingly diverse spatial networks of industries, people, and jobs entails new ways of thinking about urban ecosystems. This lecture offers a brief introduction to complexity theory, which offers a multi-disciplinary approach combining the social, mathematical and physical sciences. It applies this lens and way of thinking to understanding what constrains and enables cities to become inclusive engines of growth. In particular, it will examine the relationship between the creation of formal employment and the embedded capability base or complexity of the city.

Dr Neave O'Clery is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford and leads a new research programme on Urban Dynamics and Policy. Her work focuses on studying processes underlying economic development and the emergence of complexity for cities, using tools from graph theory and network science. She was previously a Fulbright Scholar and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School.