Beyond Administrative Delimitations: Uncovering Patterns Using Complexity Science

Calendar 22 July 2019 
Time 10.30 am – 12.00 noon. Registration from 10.00am, seated by 10.20am 
Location NTU@one-north Auditorium, 11 Slim Barracks Rise, NTU @ one-north, room 302, 3rd floor, Singapore 138664
 rsvp Free event.
cpd 1 SILA CPD pts, 2 BOA-SIA CPD pts

Seats are available on a first come, first served basis. Please be seated 10 minutes before lecture begins, after which we will open the venue to walk-in guests.


Lecture Poster (PDF: 1.1MB)
Lecture Slides (PDF: 5.3MB)

Lecture Photos



 This lecture looks at how to construct the territorial organisation of the space beyond administrative delimitations. This refers to the way people interact and share a sense of community given by the connectivity of the space. We will see how this methodology can bring insights into the organisation of 11th century Britain, using data from the oldest census in Europe, compiled under King William the Conqueror. When applied to current Europe, this methodology shows that the street network leaves footprints of how communities form and differentiate from one another. Unfortunately, such differentiation sometimes leads to conflict. Lastly, we will look at the role city boundaries for the evaluation of city performance, in particular under the framework of urban scaling laws.

Lecture Report

“Cities are complex systems. One cannot only assume that a specific aspect will determine all other aspects. You shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture.”

- Dr Elsa Arcaute


Cities are a consolidation of complex systems with multiple moving parts. They are best understood through their interactions within the system, rather than through individual components.


Modelling cities

The main factors that help us understand a city are its people, transport movements, urban typology and how it has evolved. Through various indices and measurements of these factors, one can better grasp and deal with issues such as inequality, segregation and access to opportunities.


Such modelling, also known as complexity science modelling, can reveal patterns of settlement, land-use and economic flows. This is by identifying patterns that persist through different time periods, connections between and within communities, and those beyond administrative boundaries.


These models have the potential to support urban planning and policy. Laying out the possible outcomes and patterns that emerge allows better understanding of interactions between people, infrastructure, the economy and other urban networks, said Dr Elsa Arcaute of University College London at a CLC lecture in July 2019.


Cities as places of connectivity

“Cities can be seen as places of connectivity,” she said. “Interactions and networks within cities may not be unique, but it becomes unique when you see how one place is connected to another, and how connections are forged between people and places.”


She also introduced the concept of emergent behavious, which is a behaviour that is unique from the whole system. It is usually very different from the single interacting component it came from.


“From all the interacting bits, you need to determine how they fit into the environment, and thus causing which environment change. The loop constantly changes, and this is the crucial bit of complexity science,” said Dr Arcaute.


Considerations taken during city modelling

The intricacies of each system within a city and their different characteristics makes modelling these relationships a tricky task. However, complexity science can show patterns that bear comparison across diverse cities.


Dr Arcaute noted that each country is unique because it has a history and trajectory that has led it to where it is. Despite their differences, it is possible to detect generic patterns that are modelling the same way everywhere. “Which of these patterns are generic and how generic they are, is the main quest of what we’re trying to understand. We are interested in how the systems intervene at particular points, and how they can be incorporated into models,” Dr Arcaute added.



She demonstrated how the distance between communities influenced the interactions between people. Her study was based on a region in the UK across a time period, with centuries for intervals. The data, though limited, showed that the larger the distance between one community of people from another, the less likely they were to interact, and vice versa. People networks were not limited to “administrative boundaries”, but the organisation of space. “The patterns from 11th century data to the 2013 data have not changed, and that’s quite surprising.”


The questions that arise from such observations include whether present-day communities have moved beyond or still retain similar traits of past communities within the space. Secondly, she considered if distance is still a relevant characteristic to understanding the 21st century world.


Applying models based on the 21st century street networks and population density, Dr Arcaute also showed how communities can form connections beyond administrative boundaries, through common traits such as language and culture. These models revealed hierarchical and nested structures within communities.


“If you think about any kind of hierarchical structure, such as economic activity, it’s a matter of getting the network constructed according to the relationships. So when you look at the street network hierarchical structure, they tell us the history of how things have evolved and how communities have transformed.” she said.


Implications for policy making

The information gleaned from examining the connections in cities can inform policy responses to social issues such as inequality, said Dr Arcaute.


Although people may live in the same city and are therefore connected, there are differences that are shaped by access to things like education and employment opportunities. The question that arises is, “by segregating spaces, are we also creating discrepancies in access to employment and education.” She questions if measures should be taken if the primary goal is to provide opportunity for all.


Dr Arcaute concludes that when devising policies, it is important to understand how these communities connect to each other and how they interact with each other. One must be mindful of connections between different communities in a city, and between different cities.


This report first appeared in the Aug 2019 Better Cities newsletter.


About the Speakers


Dr Elsa Arcaute
Associate Professor
Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis


Dr Elsa Arcaute is an Associate Professor in Spatial Modelling and Complexity at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. She is a physicist with a masters and a PhD in Theoretical Physics from the University of Cambridge. Her field of research is Complexity Sciences, focusing on urban systems, in particular on understanding behaviour at different scales, and its applications to inequality and resilience. She is co-I of an EPSRC grant and advisor for PEAK Urban GCRF programme, UKRI, aiming at building skilled capacity for decision making on urban futures. 


Huang Zhongwen

Director (Digital Planning Lab)
Urban Redevelopment Authority


Huang Zhongwen is an Urban Planner and leads the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Digital Planning Lab (DPLab). In this role, he spearheads efforts, to incubate digital competencies for URA and key partners, to accelerate transformation of planning processes, and to foster innovations and partnerships. He oversees DPLab’s efforts to build analytic methods to provide actionable insights for planning studies, to develop digital tools in-house to enable more data-informed and integrated way of planning, and to conduct vocational analytics training for planners.