Understanding and managing the complexity of urban systems under climate change

Matthias Ruth*, Dana Coelho

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent case studies for individual locations and on individual urban challenges reveal the growing complexity of managing interrelations among population, infrastructure and institutions. Climate change is increasing the pressures on many urban systems and adding to this complexity. Many of the case studies investigating urban dynamics in the light of climate change have chosen narrow, sector-specific approaches. Few projects have built on insights from complexity theory and related bodies of knowledge which are more consistent with the perspective that urban infrastructure systems are tightly coupled with one another and must respond to often subtle, long-term changes of technological, social and environmental conditions. Drawing on that knowledge, and building on insights from previous case studies, this article explores the potential roles of complexity theory in guiding investment and policy decisions in the urban context. Policy and management that are consistent with insights from complexity theory will need to anticipate a wide array of potential trajectories for urban dynamics, identify and implement strategies that are robust under a range of potential developments, continuously innovate the policy-making and management institutions, and intensify the exchange of knowledge between science and society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-336
Number of pages20
JournalClimate policy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • Adaptation
  • Adaptive management
  • Cities
  • Climate change
  • Complex systems
  • Environmental impact
  • Infrastructure
  • Public policy
  • Urban resilience

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