Urban Tinkering –innovation in nature-based solutions to simultaneously address climate change and uncertainty, improve urban health and generate multiple other benefits

In this session, we will address how innovative thinking around existing and new urban infrastructure may lead to transformative changes that could be beneficial in addressing climate change and uncertainty and lead to solutions that can also address important urban health issues.


Cities are already experiencing effects driven by climate change, and the extent to which cities will need to cope with these challenges will continue to increase. Innovative integration of gray, green and blue infrastructure can provide strategies to deal with growing urban vulnerabilities. We argue that adopting a complex system view inspired by advances in evolutionary theory might prove helpful to guide the future design of new urban infrastructure and the redesign of existing structures. Several decades ago, the French evolutionary biologist and philosopher Francois Jacob, pointed out, in a seminal paper in Science, how evolution is proceeding distinctly differently from a process that is de novo designed and engineered (Jacob 1977). He labelled this evolutionary process, tinkering, being primarily based on modifying and moulding existing traits and occasionally resulting in totally shifting functions when conditions changed (e.g. divergent evolution of base extremities to function as fins in the water, legs on land or wings in air). This contrasts greatly to a designed and engineered process, which starts with tailor-made material and tools and always with a specific function in mind. Urban tinkering as an approach, have the potential for moving beyond conventional urban engineering by replacing predictability, linearity and design for one function, with anticipation of uncertainty and non-linearity and design for a potential of shifting and multiple functions. There is a challenge with strong urban path-dependencies where investments in infrastructure to fulfill one function often may prove to be a lock-in situation lasting decades to centuries. An Urban tinkering approach may help reduce such lock-ins by designing infrastructure with an inherent potential to change function in the future if needed/desired. An Urban tinkering approach may also help invent new functions of existing infrastructure. An example of such a shift is how abandoned urban railway systems in many cities around the has transformed into highly popular and frequently visited linear parks.

We argue that the concept of Urban tinkering, could be very useful in addressing many of the urban challenges ahead: 1) prepare for uncertainty and non-linear changes, 2) reduce strong path dependencies and anticipate that some infra-structure may completely change function 3) by transformative changes in urban infrastructure generate multiple benefits including improving health conditions in urban areas.

The SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda adopted by Habitat III, seeks to guide future urban development to address multiple benefits where human health is a top priority both in developed and less developed countries. For example, air pollution in cities is today viewed as one of the more serious health issues in both affluent cities in e.g. Europe as well as less affluent cities in Africa and Asia. We argue that an urban tinkering approach with an urban health focus and including a diverse set of nature based solutions, may generate innovations needed for transformative changes of existing transport systems and other infrastructure to address this serious global health issue.

We believe that this concept may attract interest and forge close collaboration among engineers, architects, evolutionary ecologists and health specialists in developing innovative systems solutions that generate multiple benefits.