Act Locally, Learn Globally: Luis Bettencourt on Building from the Community Up

“Cities are special,” Luis Bettencourt says in an interview for the Cities Research Seminar Series, but they may only be beginning to tap into their full potential.

We need to think about cities more as “collective systems that have their own specific dynamics,” says Bettencourt, director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago and external professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. Bettencourt is known for applying his training in theoretical physics to study the city as a scientific, predictive model. All cities, he says, essentially represent places where we achieve “an amplification of our creativity.” By multiplying people’s networks of connections to and influences on each other, cities become incubators for rapidly scaling individual innovation and productivity.

Cities are complex environments, yet Bettencourt says that what ails modern cities is fairly simple: ultimately, they are not responsive enough to people. Instead of the traditional model of large-scale master planning, he says cities should start at a smaller scale and gather data on the lived experiences of people at the individual, household and neighborhood levels. This includes the role played by social networks and relationships, an element often neglected in infrastructure-focused planning that has proven crucial to sustainable, climate-resilient communities.

In Bettencourt’s ideal urban development model, planners find out what’s going on at the local level, then aggregate that information to understand “across scales” how a city is working as a system of people – how residents rely on their communities, or where there are gaps in safe and affordable access to opportunities, adequate housing, or other core services like water and electricity. This idea of zooming out from local experience and action to a broader vision that helps achieve global sustainable development goals is summed up by Bettencourt as, “act locally, but learn globally.”

At the Santa Fe Institute, Bettencourt worked with Slum Dwellers International and the Know Your City campaign to help informal communities in Kenya, South Africa, and other countries map their settlements – focusing particularly on infrastructure and identifying gaps in coverage and access to services – to collect data needed to advocate for change with local governments. Bettencourt says that this method of identifying residents’ needs and showing exactly where they are or aren’t being met “illustrates, physically, in ways that are verifiable, the problems of people who live there.”

The point of collecting community-level data should ultimately be to generate evidence for issues that need action, but then to also “coordinate people, sometimes people that are on opposite sides of the question, towards finding a solution,” Bettencourt says. He sees hope in on-the-ground, community-driven data collection efforts like Know Your City, and in the effort to make this information part of the conversation at higher levels of municipal and national urban policy. “This is the first time where we have good information at all these scales,” he says.

Cities around the world are beginning to recognize their transformative capacity with innovative, people-focused projects. For cities to truly harness this capacity, and to use their unique coalescence of human knowledge and creativity to build more sustainable, equitable societies, they need to prioritize community-focused development grounded in scalable data.

“This idea,” Bettencourt says, “that information is everywhere and is actionable and can be used to bring people together is, I think, one of the great promises of how we both understand and create sustainable change in cities.”

Hillary Smith is Communications Assistant at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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