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The perils of complete absence of systems thinking in city planning

Posted by Bala Deshpande on Thu, Jun 02, 2011 @ 08:07 AM

GK Chesterton once wrote that "life looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it [really] is". Clearly he had not visited the streets of the silicon plateau of India, Bangalore. Traffic (or life) here looks nowhere near mathematical! If there is any place on the planet that embodies the chaos which arises from uncontrolled entropy, this would be it. In fact, the city provides a text book example of how not to design a system. Forget systems thinking. That would be asking for too much.

Let us stop the ranting here - this is intended to be a quick examination of what the authorities and stake holders of this 9 million (and growing) city must do NOW to ensure that its denizens can claim a livable city in the future.

Mind-numbing "growth"

Cristoph Dittrich in a fascinating study divides the recent history of Bangalore into 4 phases starting with the 1960s. The city has undergone a significant visible shift from late 80's to the early 2000's. The main drag, Brigade road shows this change on the upper end of the economic spectrum.

Brigade Road in 1980s ...                   and more recently.

systems thinking for city planning - Bangalore 1980s

systems thinking for city planning - Bangalore today










Key areas where systems thinking must be applied

While the images above might give one the impression that change is positive, scratching below the surface reveals alarming trends.

  • The city produces more than 3000 tonnes of solid waste out of which less than a third is collected for land-fills, the rest are simply found rotting by street corners.
  • Of the 625 "lakes" in the city, the Times of India reports (May 31,2011) that 100 of them have no water!
  • The city has according to some estimates, 3.2 million private vehicles, with nearly 1300 being added daily. The metro, once commissioned is expected to carry less than 5% of the population. 

Unfortunately the powers that-be are unable to see the interconnections between the different elements of the city system and how they must function in harmony in order to be effective. They are purely focused on pumping money to build fly-overs, underpasses and metro lines. A simple fact that is obvious to anyone who has worked with positive feedback in complex systems is that expanding roads will simply encourage more vehicles and defeat the very purpose of the expansion.

Peer Pressure and the future

Competition from China which apparently spends more than Rs. 5000 ($111) per citizen where as India spends only Rs. 732 ($16) per citizen is clearly pressurizing Indian policy makers. However, key questions are unaddressed.

The prognosis for the next 20 years is scarier: Indian cities are expected to double in population and contribute to nearly 70% of India's GDP. But what kind of life can the denizens of these megapolises look forward to? Systems thinking is the most urgent need of the day, not just "development".

Images courtesy:

Discover Bangalore

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Topics: systems thinking, entropy, complexity management