(2nd of 2 posts exploring  self-organisation and emergence in transport / traffic and the relevance for aid strategies – first was last week’s piece on slime moulds)

Traffic planners are increasingly moving away from signs and regulations to increase traffic safety and address congestion. Rather than legislating for driver behaviour, they are requiring drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to actually think about what they are doing. The approach fits many complexity principles – especially notions of emergence and self-organisation. It highlights some useful principles and approaches that development planners might follow, as well as a number of thought-provoking challenges.

A project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities clearing  their streets of traffic signs. Participants in the experiment include Ejby, Denmark; Ipswich, UK and Ostende, Belgium. The underlying hope is that drivers and pedestrians will interact in a free and humane way — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs. As Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman put it:

…Many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior… The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles…

Below is a picture of what such a set-up looks like in reality. This has already been implemented in a variety of urban settings, and is described in some detail by a Wired journalist.

…A sign by the entrance to the town reads “free of traffic signs.” Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions…”

…I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture…  Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now… the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other…. traffic signs and street markings [don’t] encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road…”

For readers who need more visual examples, here are three great clips illustrating such self-organisation in traffic around the world:




The argument by Monderman and his supporters is simple: patterns like the ones illustrated in these clips can come about by design, rather than simply through random accumulation of behaviours. However, the kind of design is what is distinctive: here it is based on principles of minimum rules and of allowing appropriate behaviours to emerge. The approach doesn’t advocate doing away with regulation altogether, but rather to have the kind of regulation that promotes effective and safe behaviour. These include some or all of the following ‘rules’, which usually need to be adapted to different contexts:

  1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road – not signs and signals – dictates traffic flow
  2. Install art: For example, the height of central fountains can indicates how congested an intersection is
  3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the road, but also the pedestrian areas.
  4. Do it in the road: Cafe’s extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
  5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
  6. Eliminate kerbs: Instead of a raised kerb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

As a result of the work by Monderman and others, policy makers in some of the most traffic-intensive places in the world are rethinking their approaches to traffic management, not least because of a growing sense that they have little choice in the matter.

Traditionally, transport and traffic planning has consisted of ‘classical strategic approach’: data collection, goal setting, alternative determination, selection of best alternatives and monitoring.  This has slowly been revised to be more flexible and adaptive to greater citizen participation and sustainability, but as Michael McAdams argues, “this process is still fatally flawed due to the inherent modernist and rationalist approach regardless of the type of revision and the approach. There are elements when taken separately… which might still be valid. Nevertheless, the overall framework and structure is the primary barrier for effective planning in complex contexts.  Although one might look fondly back to early planning theories and practices with a degree of nostalgia, it is seems to be unavoidable that we must discard them.”

This was echoed by Gary Toth, a Director in a US Department of Transportation:

The old way doesn’t work anymore… The folly of traditional [approaches] is all around us… That’s why these new ideas have to catch on…”

Is there a direct analogy with development and humanitarian planning approaches? Certainly, the DoT quote above would resonate with many of us working to bring about change in the international aid system. And there is a growing group – the self-styled ‘aid snarks’, of whom William Easterley is the most well-known – who argue vehemently against any kind of aid planning, and call for the disbanding of agencies wedded to the planning mentality in favour of more business and market-oriented ‘searchers’ who employ trial-and-error approaches.

So the question is, how do we get greater balance in our strategic approaches? The ‘aid snark’ answer is to replace all all agencies that have a tendency to over-plan with ‘searchers’ who employ more trial-and-error approaches, drawing from business practices. But as Amartya Sen has noted, you don’t deal with an affliction by getting rid of the afflicted. And as Owen Barder has argued, market approaches are no panacea to longstanding problems of aid effectiveness.

The key may be finding ways of experimenting within existing strategic frameworks, and bringing new ways of thinking and theories of change to the table. In fact, it is arguable that some of the most significant successes in our sector have been because of a combination of top-down planning and emergent, self-organised behaviours – think of the Abstain, Be Faithful, Use Condoms campaign for HIV-AIDS in Uganda in the 1990s, and the successful Brazil eradication campaign of the 1990s. Elsewhere, the success of the Obama campaign has highlighted the power of an approach which combines a overall strategy with ‘distributed leadership’ (see a 2009 Aid on the Edge post on the landmark campaign).

These successes seem to resonate with the underlying lessons from the work of Monderman and the minimum rules traffic managers – the key is not to eradicate planning, but to plan smart, with a realistic view of the complexity of real-world systems, and of the particularities of  human behaviour, with with space for strategic improvisation built in from the outset.

And as noted here last week, we need to be wary of over-simplifying things in the face of complexity, and expecting that emergence and self-organisation can be planned precisely, or at all.

Minimum rules such as the ones outlined by Monderman above may be helpful in some settings and for certain kinds of problems. However, many social, economic and political issues are fraught with the dynamic unpredictability and multiplicity of human behaviours. In short, the ‘minimum rules’ cannot become ‘best practices’, but need to be constantly revisited and adapted.  The widely acknowledged failure to spread the success of the A-B-C approach to HIV-AIDS approach around the world, despite strong support from the US government, has demonstrated this pretty clearly.

One fundamental issue is how we tell compelling stories about the results of such experiments. Here, the traffic planners may have the upper hand: the changes they work to bring about are visible and tangible – as highlighted by the photo, journo extracts and videos above. Is it ever possible to demonstrate change in social, economic and political realms in so direct a fashion?

All of this reiterates a central point: what we have in complexity science is a potentially very useful set of ideas for re-thinking aid issues, but we do need to engage critically in why and how they are brought to bear on our work.

This area is worth much more attention from both researchers and policymakers in the sector. More on strategy in the face of complexity can be found elsewhere on this blog and on the Broker pages which summarise a major November 2009 conference on strategy and complexity held in the Netherlands.


Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Great post – We are working in risk reduction, and I think there are a lot of compelling success stories, but there is still a poor understanding of motivation. Agency has many drivers, and unfortunately most of them are not directly connected to end results.

  2. The literature on management, innovation and complexity has made important contributions along these lines. There, two types of strategies are recognized. Deliberate strategies are the traditional strategies that come out from planning exercises. These strategies are appropriate for interventions in processes that are relatively well understood. For example, I think it would be very difficult to eradicate a disease without a well-planned campaign of vaccination, disinfection of contaminated sites, distribution of nets, etc.
    On the other hand, emergent strategies are those that arise from complex behaviors and go along the lines of what is described in the comment above.
    Of course, when using deliberate strategies, it is important to be open to emerging problems and opportunities.

  3. […] The book focuses on a number of ‘wicked’ problems, including water scarcity in India, seeds and drought in Africa, epidemics and energy. It employs the memorable metaphor of “motorways” through which  powerful actors and institutions channel fast-moving policies and interventions, which “often [run] over valuable footpaths that respond better to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values, and to more dynamic contexts.” (For more on this metaphor, see a previous Aid on the Edge post comparing development management to traffic management.) […]

  4. I find the science of complexity pretty interesting, and I’m also a long-time fan of Hanoi traffic patterns. I’m not so sure though about many of the claims made in the literature about applying the science of complex adaptive systems.

    For instance, none of the discourse I’ve seen seems to point to any specific evidence that a particular system (cities, social systems, health systems) are really CASs, as opposed to just messy, unplanned, or chaotic. CAS is a mathematical theory, and I’m not sure that discussing it without using any mathematics is meaningful.

    The other are in which I find the discourse around the practical application of complexity disappointing is a general sense that complexity is a good thing, even “natural”. Being scientifically trained, I have no idea what people think they are describing when they imply that some forms of human behaviour are “unnatural”. That kind of normative language used to be the preserve of religious fundamentalists describing certain sexual acts. It has no place in serious analysis.

    For instance, the following question needs to be asked: what kind of traffic system is best for human beings? Planned and controlled, or self-organised? If I look at this table:


    my first impression is that self-organised traffic is a good way to kill people. So as intriguing and interesting as I find these new mathematical insights into nature, as a development worker, I’m cautious about any claims that applying them to aid is going to make aid better.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Leadership, Organisations, Public Policy, Self organisation, Strategy, Traffic, Urbanisation