State of Knowledge Papers

These papers are short (between 2,500-5,000 words) non-technical briefing papers on the “state of knowledge” of a particular issue related to the UCRSEA project questions, goals, and themes. These papers may apply a case study approach to understanding a particular issue or may provide a literature review of significant issues related to urban climate resilience in Southeast Asia.

Cities, Complex Systems, and Climate Governance: A Critical Review of the Literature
Rebecca McMillan (University of Toronto)

Complexity theory has returned to vogue particularly within the environmental change literature. Much urban climate resilience literature suggests that cities are complex adaptive systems, so governance and planning must draw on insights from the complexity literature. In the context of climate change, this means that governance must be flexible, participatory, and adaptive in order to confront climate change’s unpredictable effects. This working paper critically reviews the literature at the intersection of complexity and urban climate change governance. It argues that complexity theory’s contributions are more modest than recent interest suggests. While complexity theory brings much-needed attention to dynamic ecologies upon which cities depend and the realities of uncertainty in policymaking – particularly important in contexts of climatic change – it is inadequate for theorizing urbanization and environmental change, which are contested social processes. As critics suggest, complexity theory tends to portray urban change as occurring through relatively neutral evolutionary dynamics that can be objectively understood and managed by actors involved in governance who share similar goals. This disregards important insights from political ecology on how knowledge, power, and urban ecologies are co-produced. How we understand a city is important because these understandings underpin climate change responses with real world effects, particularly for the most vulnerable urban residents.