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+ The next generation will have different expectations of their city and what it ought to offer.

Like many countries, Australia is becoming increasingly urban. Here, 90% of us now work in cities. But how do we make our cities work for people? I believe 'systems thinking' holds the key.

Understanding a city as a whole and finding pathways to more sustainable futures means integrating urban design, strategic thinking, economic analysis and engineering knowledge. It requires an appreciation of the complex interactions between different urban systems – everything from transport networks to social networks.

Crucially, we must consider the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements of city systems, and how they exist and interact. Too often we think only in terms of hard systems that have easily quantifiable elements. A new rail line can reduce journey times, but how do we measure the impact of hard-to-quantify elements of the city system, such as community engagement, multi-cultural diversity or precinct livability?

To do this, we need to reframe what we mean by infrastructure and how we deliver it – we need systems thinking. This demands informed dialogue between government, developers and communities. After all, perhaps there are good reasons to invest in more cycleways, wi-fi hotspots and informatics, rather than trying to mend our ailing road networks.

With the benefit of emerging informatics solutions, people will be able to engage ever more deeply with their environment at home or in the office. For example, they could adjust their energy use or travel plans in response to real-time feedback on the potential carbon emissions involved.

We don’t know everything the future will hold. But we do know that the next generation will have different expectations of their city and what it ought to offer. And we think meeting those expectations demands the kind of systems thinking that is already gaining traction in industries such as healthcare, energy distribution and biotechnology.

We’re applying this approach in our UrbanLife workshops with the C40, a group of 40 of the world’s largest cities committed to tackling climate change. The workshops address specific issue faced by cities, resulting in a strategic plan for action.

Do you think this systems focus make sense for our cities? I’d love to hear your thoughts.