Urban tinkering

Thomas Elmqvist, José Siri, Erik Andersson, Pippin Anderson, Xuemei Bai, Pranab Kishore Das, Tatu Gatere, Andrew Gonzalez, Julie Goodness, Steven N. Handel, Ellika Hermansson Török, Jessica Kavonic, Jakub Kronenberg, Elisabet Lindgren, David Maddox, Raymond Maher, Cheikh Mbow, Timon McPhearson, Joe Mulligan, Guy NordensonMeggan Spires, Ulrika Stenkula, Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Coleen Vogel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Cities are currently experiencing serious, multifaceted impacts from global environmental change, especially climate change, and the degree to which they will need to cope with and adapt to such challenges will continue to increase. A complex systems approach inspired by evolutionary theory can inform strategies for policies and interventions to deal with growing urban vulnerabilities. Such an approach would guide the design of new (and redesign of existing) urban structures, while promoting innovative integration of grey, green and blue infrastructure in service of environmental and health objectives. Moreover, it would contribute to more flexible, effective policies for urban management and the use of urban space. Four decades ago, in a seminal paper in Science, the French evolutionary biologist and philosopher Francois Jacob noted that evolution differs significantly in its characteristic modes of action from processes that are designed and engineered de novo (Jacob in Science 196(4295):1161–1166, 1977). He labeled the evolutionary process “tinkering”, recognizing its foundation in the modification and molding of existing traits and forms, with occasional dramatic shifts in function in the context of changing conditions. This contrasts greatly with conventional engineering and design approaches that apply tailor-made materials and tools to achieve well-defined functions that are specified a priori. We here propose that urban tinkering is the application of evolutionary thinking to urban design, engineering, ecological restoration, management and governance. We define urban tinkering as:A mode of operation, encompassing policy, planning and management processes, that seeks to transform the use of existing and design of new urban systems in ways that diversify their functions, anticipate new uses and enhance adaptability, to better meet the social, economic and ecological needs of cities under conditions of deep uncertainty about the future.This approach has the potential to substantially complement and augment conventional urban development, replacing predictability, linearity and monofunctional design with anticipation of uncertainty and non-linearity and design for multiple, potentially shifting functions. Urban tinkering can function by promoting a diversity of small-scale urban experiments that, in aggregate, lead to large-scale often playful innovative solutions to the problems of sustainable development. Moreover, the tinkering approach is naturally suited to exploring multi-functional uses and approaches (e.g., bricolage) for new and existing urban structures and policies through collaborative engagement and analysis. It is thus well worth exploring as a means of delivering co-benefits for environment and human health and wellbeing. Indeed, urban tinkering has close ties to systems approaches, which often are recognized as critical to sustainable development. We believe this concept can help forge much-closer, much-needed ties among engineers, architects, evolutionary ecologists, health specialists, and numerous other urban stakeholders in developing innovative, widely beneficial solutions for society and contribute to successful implementation of SDG11 and the New Urban Agenda.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1549-1564
Number of pages16
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Ecology


  • Latent multi-functionality
  • Social–ecological–technological system
  • Urban infrastructure


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