Linking complexity, cognition, information, and the city with implications to urban allometry and data

On Thursday, July 19, the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation hosted a lunchtime talk with Juval Portugali, Professor of Human Geography at the Department of Geography and the Human Environment Tel Aviv University. The event drew a standing-room only crowd on a sunny Thursday in July, as students, faculty, and staff from disciplines across the university attended.

Professor Luis Bettencourt, Pritzker Director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, invited Professor Portugali. After the event, he said,


 “I have known Prof. Portugali’s work for many years, and have been inspired by it. He is a pioneer of thinking of cities as complex systems, by bringing together and synthesizing knowledge from many important disciplines, such as archeology, sociology and economics, geography and cognitive sciences. His talk was his own guided tour of these ideas, but I think it resonated with the audience in many ways.”

“Both Institutes – Mansueto and the City Center at Tel Aviv – are relatively new and are places where this interdisciplinary science of cities is emerging, together with new data and methods of analysis. 

These worldwide networks of excellence around urban science and practice are one of the main objectives animating us at the Mansueto Institute.  We are also using our global Centers to nurture partnerships in China, India, Europe, and elsewhere.”

“Frankly, the audience showing blew us away, in terms of numbers but also in terms of the ‘electricity in the room’.  I though it was amazing that people were not deterred by a full room and stayed while sitting everywhere, on the floor, outside, standing on the back…” 

“Michael Batty another pioneer of quantitative geography (based at UCL London) was also in the room to everyone’s delight. We talked later about the history of geography at UChicago, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when great strides in the discipline happened here.” 

“Many people have asked us to formalize a talk series, which we will do.  I would like people to know that we are working hard to make UChicago the hub for urban science and practice and that there will be many more exciting visits and task coming. Juval, Carlie Catlett, and I discussed holding a conference together, perhaps in the Spring in Tel Aviv, so that our researchers and faculty can know each other, and open the possibility for visits and exchanges, including students.”

“I think that there is an immense interest presently all over the world in cities and urbanization as a subject that unifies many concepts across the social sciences (and more). There is a feeling in the air for great possibility in making significant progress in our understanding of the human condition and creating better solutions by bringing together deep concepts and new data and technologies.  I came to Uchicago because I think it is the perfect place to do it. It will take a community to do this, which is why everyone’s participation was so encouraging and made us so happy. Stay tuned, and get in touch to be involved.”

Kate Cagney, Deputy Dean; Professor, Department of Sociology, said:

Kathleen A. CagneyPortugali's seminar was essential for anyone considering cities, their social and physical structure, and the interplay among population groups.  He considers cities at the system level, and was able to articulate a role for both "small" and "big" data in the analysis of population processes in urban context.  The work underscores the need for a theoretically informed approach to the examination of cities and their dynamic and ever-changing nature.  

Sabina Shaikh, Director, Program on Global Environment, Senior Lecturer, The College and the Harris School of Public Policy, and Center for International Social Science Research Faculty Fellow, said:


I was particularly interested in the role of artifacts, and in particular how cities, as complex artificial environments can be shaped by dynamics of human cognition. This has significant implications for urban planning and design, and the role of nature or constructed natural environments in cities. This idea resonates strongly and informs research for a course I team teach with Emily Talen, Professor of Urbanism in SSD entitled "Urban Design with Nature." It is also of significant interest for undergraduates in our the Urban Environment track in our major (Environmental and Urban Studies), which seeks to connect theories from natural and social sciences, and humanities to understand how humans interact with natural and built environments.

Michael Conzen, Professor of Geography, said:

conzen.png“In setting up an intellectual context for his own work, Juval Portugali in his talk covered a vast amount of ground in 60 minutes by summarizing at almost lightning speed the key ideas of a number of giants in the history of social thought and the physical sciences, leading deftly to the importance of his own particular contributions in grasping the complexity of cities.  These, he explained, lie essentially in the incorporation of cognition theory to this broad conceptual ‘domain.’”

“I was delighted with his emphasis on cognitive mapping as the essential gateway to assessing how people perceive and process the built environment they live within and the distinctions they make between its physicality and the role of culture in its formation.  Mental mapping has been a mainstay in geographical science since the pioneering work of Peter Gould, and Portugali is very helpfully placing such work within an even broader multidisciplinary framework.  Had there been time, it would have been nice to hear his views on the various forms human cultural values take in shaping what at times during the talk seemed like an immense galaxy of intersecting networks of automaton-like abstract processes operating as if the routine and not-so-routine thinking of individuals and communities has little effect on the functioning and evolution of the whole. Clearly Juval would decry any hint such was the impression he sought to give, yet the underlying question lingers.”

Robert Vargas, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, and Director of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab, said:

robert-vargas.jpg“As someone who thinks a lot about how violence on streets scales up to larger macro trends, Professor Portugali's discussion of the links between macro and micro urban dynamics forced me to think about some of the assumptions I make in my own work.”