Systems thinking to manage cities smartly

Application Procedure
Related Files


    Smart solutions promise to transform cities, but this kind of transformation is difficult to predict and manage. The outcomes are often unexpected and depend on social conditions, the attitudes and skills of people and the capacity of the city to innovate. Systems thinking offers city managers tools to better understand the potential impacts of smart interventions, to select the optimal intervention and to influence successful outcomes.

    This course introduces city managers to systems thinking and explains how it can be used to analyse the functioning of a city and the impact of smart interventions. We explore the different understandings that stakeholders have of smart cities and how to navigate them. We work through a process to evaluate different smart interventions from a systems perspective and introduce an agile approach to transforming cities to be smarter and more sustainable.

    Why this program?

    • It is credible: designed, developed and delivered by the United Nations University, with trusted expert partners;
    • It is practical: you will practice applying the tools on real-life cases and develop confidence in using them;
    • It is relevant: you bring cases from your city and cities like it so that what you learn can be applied in your context, with your resources;
    • It is enjoyable: the process is active and fun with lots of time to share problems and work on designing solutions;
    • It is flexible: we don’t have ready-made solutions for you, we will show you how to design solutions that really work, whatever your city’s challenges.

    Who is it for?

    This program is for managers of cities and settlements at middle to senior management levels. The course will benefit directors, deputy directors, line managers, program managers, project managers and system managers; anyone who is responsible for managing a team or function in local government. The program will also benefit the staff of supplier organisations by building common understandings and skills.


    This course can be run at our premises in Guimarães, or in your city or organisation. Please contact us to arrange this option.


    The course is delivered in four days of face-to-face training. Please contact us to discuss your needs and receive a quotation.

  • To apply for this course, please complete the following steps:

    1. Fill and submit the registration online form available here.
    2. Follow the payment instructions on the invoice we will send you by email.
    3. Forward proof of payment by email to

    Please note that confirmation of registration will occur only after successful payment.

  • The course will take place at the UNU-EGOV premises in the city of Guimarães, located in the north of Portugal. Below you can find a practical guide about the country and the city to help plan your trip, how to arrive, where to stay, etc.

    Portugal and Guimarães – Practical Guide

  • Module M1: systems and systems thinking


    This module introduces participants to systems and systems thinking. We start by discussing what a system is and why smart solutions are mostly about systemic change. We examine the components of a system and how they interact and introduce ways to understand systems dynamics, emergent properties and unintended consequences.

    Participants examine one of the city challenges that they have discussed from a systemic perspective, identifying key flows and obstacles as well as points of conflict in the system.

    We discuss how hard it is to control systems and the tools that are available to influence systems, as well as feedback loops and how they work. We look at the importance of monitoring systems and how this can be done. Participants consider one of the proposed smart city solutions and the process of implementation as systemic change.

    Learning outcomes

    At the end of this module participants will:

    1. Be able to describe what a system is and what is meant by systemic change;
    2. Understand why complex adaptive systems are unpredictable and difficult to manage;
    3. Have some systems concepts and tools that will help them to understand and describe what is happening in systems;
    4. Know how a system can be influenced and be able to identify such levers for systems that they work with;
    5. Be able to identify what should be monitored to observe systemic effects.

    Practical application

    During this module participants will:

    1. Learn to draw rich pictures of systems, identifying flows, bottlenecks and points of conflict;
    2. Identify the systemic changes involved in implementing smart city solutions and evaluating their feasibility;
    3. Learn to use systems concepts to influence systems and identify ways to observe the effects.

    Module M2: smart and sustainable


    This module establishes some important concepts and a common language to talk about them. It also encourages city managers to think critically about these concepts and how they relate to their own work in their own cities.

    Participants will discuss what a smart city is and some of the different conceptions and expectations that stakeholders have of the smart city. This enables city managers to identify appropriate responses to the different views and expectations that city stakeholders have.

    Participants are introduced to the components of a smart city, the idea of smart governance and the role of innovation in the smart city. Participants discuss which of these components are within their control and influence so that they can understand their own role in smart city governance.

    City managers are introduced to the Sustainable Development Goals, their background and why they are considered important. They will discuss how the SDGs relate to the goals of their own city and the challenges of balancing different goals and priorities.

    Learning outcomes

    At the end of this module participants will:

    1. Understand the different views of smart cities and be able to identify them;
    2. Identify the dominant views in their own city plans and among stakeholders;
    3. Be aware of the major components of a smart city and smart governance;
    4. Have a sense of the components of a smart city and smart governance they can control and influence;
    5. Understand the goals of SDG 11 and how they relate to their own city’s goals.

    Practical application

    During this module participants will:

    1. Use city plans and strategies to identify the views of smart cities held by different city stakeholders and analyse the extent to which these converge or diverge;
    2. Examine their own role and responsibilities in the smart city and smart governance;
    3. Compare the goals of their own city with those of SDG11 and identify challenges and priorities in their cities in terms of smart city domains.

    Module M3: smart technologies and their capabilities


    This module introduces city managers and senior operatives to core capabilities of smart technologies and how these change the landscape for cities. The intention is to opens up the minds of participants to the possibilities of smart technologies. The focus is on both what technologies can do and their limitations.

    First, participants are introduced to the common smart city dimensions as a means to think about the complex task of city management. They identify the city dimensions that are most relevant to their cities and areas of responsibility and share challenges that they are experiencing in these different dimensions.

    Second, participants are introduced to current technology trends with examples of how these are being used to address city challenges. Case studies of smart city solutions are explored looking at a range of different levels of intervention, cost and complexity. Participants brainstorm potential solutions to the challenges they have discussed.

    Finally, participants learn tools for evaluating technology solutions. They perform high-level analyses of selected solutions and examine the potential benefits and risks, taking a systemic view.

    Learning outcomes

    At the end of this module participants will:

    1. Be able to identify the smart city dimensions most challenging to their city and relevant to their area of responsibility;
    2. Be aware of some of the current technology trends and the capabilities of new technologies;
    3. Be familiar with examples of how technologies are being applied to address city problems;
    4. Identify technology capabilities that may be able to solve current problems in their city or area of responsibility;
    5. Be able to use evaluation tools to realistically assess the potential and risks of technology solutions.

    Practical application

    During this module participants will:

    1. Share with peers a challenge that they are responsible for or experiencing in their city:
    2. Brainstorm ways in which technologies might be useful in addressing specific city challenges:
    3. Analyse the potential of one or more technology solutions to address their challenge and identify associated risks.

    Module M4: smart city action plans


    This module focuses on developing programmes and projects for a smart city. We examine smart city strategy documents and discuss how to translate them into programmes. Participants take one or more of the solutions already explored and develop a programme of work for their city.

    Current challenges and hoped-for outcomes are established. Measures for the current state and monitoring options are identified along with areas for further research needed to strengthen the proposal.

    A high-level plan is developed including identifying systemic changes needed to implement. From this we discuss funding, staffing and infrastructure needs and identify risks and potential points of failure. Plans are shared and participants engage with each other’s plans suggesting ways to strengthen them.

    Learning outcomes

    At the end of this module participants will:

    1. Understand the process of turning a strategy into a plan;
    2. Apply the tools learned to identify systemic changes needed by a smart city project;
    3. Be able to establish goals and measures for a smart project;
    4. Be able to develop a high-level plan for smart city projects and identify the information needed to establish a detailed plan;
    5. Be able to critique a smart city project plan and identify its shortcomings.

    Practical application

    During this module participants will:

    1. Identify smart projects that support smart city strategies;
    2. Analyse the systemic changes needed for a smart project to succeed;
    3. Create a plan for a smart project, and identify information needed to complete the plan in detail.

    Senior Academic Fellow
    United Nations University (UNU-EGOV)

    Judy Backhouse has experience as both an academic scholar and an information and communications technologies (ICT) practitioner. She is currently a Senior Academic Fellow at UNU-EGOV, after eight years as an Associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

    Judy’s full profile is available here.

    Mohanasundar RADHAKRISHNAN

    Postdoc Researcher
    IHE Delft Institute for Water Education

    Mohanasundar Radhakrishnan is a Civil Engineer from India. He obtained his Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering from University of Madras in 2002 and Msc. degree in Municipal Water and Infrastructure from IHE Delft in 2009. He worked as a design engineer and was involved in the hydraulic design of drinking water distribution networks and bulk water transmission main in various water supply schemes in India from June 2002 to Oct 2007.

    Mohanasundar’s full profile is available here.

  • Please email if you require more information about this course.

  • SPSC - Cours 1 flyer

    (2.5 MB PDF)