Building collective intelligence for healthier CITIES

“The way we measure progress and well-being, and that includes health in cities, needs to be changed.”

Franz Gatzweiler

Do you want to reduce traffic noise? Easy: reduce the number of vehicles on the road. But, as Franz Gatzweiler points out, not always what seems intuitive may be the best solution – you can have buildings with façades that absorb noise instead of amplifying it; and you can have roads with green areas that help minimise that noise. So, as he explains, to understand complex issues, you need to look at all the different interactions of a system’s components – and that includes involving people, too. That is how you can build collective intelligence, and better solutions for the future.

With a background in agricultural sciences and a PhD in Resource Economics, Franz Gatzweiler has been applying systems thinking principles through participatory modelling for many years in his work. “It is a research method that is used to understand better complex problem situations in which people are involved in, and, at the same time, build their capacity in solving problems”, he explains. It is especially useful to address complex problems – also known as wicked problems –, in which “there are no simple solutions to them, or simple solutions don’t work”.
Systems thinking, he says, “is a way of thinking the interactions and feedbacks of many components, which, altogether, constitute a system”. But it is “not the typical scientific approach or method”, which usually “tries to reduce the system as much as possible to clearly find causal relationships or only one causal relationship”, he notes. At UNU Macau, however, where Franz Gatzweiler is a Senior Research Advisor, systems thinking and participatory approaches are two main pillars of the Institute’s strategy, aimed at building collective intelligence around digital technologies and sustainable development.

So, participatory modelling “is applied systems thinking”, Franz Gatzweiler says. It is bringing people together and involving them in the process of trying to find “a consensus to solve a certain problem”. “People can have different ideas of what the system is, and what the problem is and how it can be solved”, he explains. And a model, he adds, is not necessarily a computer model, “it can be any idea you have of your own reality”.

One of the main challenges of using such approach, the researcher says, “is to bring people together, talking to them in the same language”. It is “not necessarily about linguistics
”, but about “the mindsets people have when they talk and use certain terms, because there are different perceptions of the same exact thing”.

In fact, as he explains, the specific nature of participatory approaches is that, “while building collective intelligence”, “the information sometimes is vague, the facts are not clear, values are in dispute, things are changing all the time”, and “it cannot be measured easily”.

Although there are “very often decision makers who do want to join this process”, there are also policy makers who “very often shy away from complexity and from involving people in solving complex problems”, Franz Gatzweiler notes.

“There is a certain fear from the side of some decision makers. Some have expressed that clearly, openly. Because the usual decision-making process is ‘to ask the scientist for a very specific piece of knowledge’ that they can use to make decisions”, he says.

So, how can scientists address that fear? “It needs to be shown that the participatory approach and the collective building approach is an easier, more effective way of making decisions for the conventional decision makers. And if they apply it, their role as representatives of the people, or their role as decision makers, is not threatened, but supported”, the researcher suggests.
Franz Gatzweiler believes UNU Macau is well positioned to use these research methods and to try to make best use of digital technologies by using them in the process of building collective intelligence. Its multidisciplinary team, he adds, is an advantage to try to “solve complex problems better”, “in the interest of more people”.

He believes this kind of approach is also linked to the need of “giving up the understanding of researchers or scientists as the holders of knowledge”, and of “shifting that to the community you are dealing with and you are trying to support when you create knowledge”. “So, the researcher actually becomes a facilitator in the knowledge building process and not the sole knowledge holder, the wise man or the oracle you just have to ask in order to find solutions to complex problems.”

Franz Gatzweiler recalls Humboldt’s education ideal, which argues you cannot be a good researcher if you don’t teach, if you don’t have the interaction with the students, because that is where knowledge is challenged and advances.

Urban Health


Before joining UNU Macau, Franz Gatzweiler was a Professor at the Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Science in Xiamen, and executive director of the global science programme on Urban Health and Wellbeing: A Systems Approach, which is an affiliated body of the International Science Council (ISC).

“My takeaway from nearly ten years of research in urban health is that the way we measure progress and well-being, and that includes health in cities, needs to be changed”, he says.

Cities usually portraited as being healthy and where people are wealthy, he explains, are usually densely populated areas, with high population densities, as well as high incomes. But Franz Gatzweiler questions this idea, even if such cities “manage to organise themselves in the way that everybody is supplied for, that public services are provided for everybody”, and so on.

“Because there are other measures of health which are being overlooked, especially social health and mental health aspects. And if we look at those indicators of urban health, then progress looks a bit different”, he warns.

Franz Gatzweiler believes a healthier city is a city where people have “healthier, better social relationships”. And that, he says, doesn’t happen if you stack people on top of each other in high-rise buildings – the opposite happens. “We know that because research has shown that the anonymity of people – even if they are pressed together in high density – increases, and social relations do not improve.”

Another factor that can contribute to the health of people in cities is “more urban green”. He notes research has shown this can improve mental health, not only because more parks mean more places for people to actually get together socially in the urban space, but also because urban green brings into the city a certain microbiome that can have a positive impact in an individual’s mental health.

The argument in favour of densely populated cities, he explains, is that the resource use per capita decreases, and so the ecological footprint per capita is lower in these cities than in the countryside. “That is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are many more people in the city, and that these efficiency gains are compensated by other uses”, he says, alluding to what is known as the Jevons paradox, according to which increases in the efficiency of the use of a certain resource may actually increase its demand, and therefore increase its use.

“The picture that comes to my mind is a group of people who want to take the elevator to ‘move up’ (develop, improve, progress). The elevator cabin is too small for all. What do you do? Squeeze people inside, like we squeeze people into cities? Build more elevators, like we build more cities? Let the elevator go faster, like the pace of life in cities is speeding up? Build bigger elevators, like cities are growing into mega-cities and city regions?”

“The dilemmas here are obvious”, he says, “especially if the development goals are the same for all and if we do not want to leave anyone behind”. “We can and probably have to make compromises and we need to re-imagine our development goals. In that process, we also need to re-imagine and redefine what it means to live a good life on a planet which has boundaries.”