It is the causal assumption that we have yet to realise the full potential of the complexity sciences to contribute to addressing urban planning and management challenges that motivates this research. The underlying aim is thus aligned with the call to extend discourses on complexity in urban planning beyond semantic praise, so as to open up critical reflections on the value of complexity and expose latent potential. Since the latter half of the 1990s, the “turn” to complexity within the social sciences has propagated an abundance of metaphorical, theoretical and empirically-oriented literature, which has advocated a non-linear approach to analysing and understanding social phenomena1,2,3. Similarly, within planning discourses, the ideology of development as a task dealing in social complexity has continued to gain traction. Planning authors have dared us to engage with complexity,4 described complexity in planning as a necessary encounter,5,6 as an unavoidable truth associated with any intervention aimed at guiding the dynamic interrelatedness of real-world systems and assemblages7 and have propagated the acceptance of extending justifications as to why planning in fact needs complexity8. Moreover, considering the statistic that over half the world’s population – an estimated 54% in 2014 – now resides in urban areas,9 so too has the complexity focus been levied at cities, described themselves as complex adaptive systems on the basis of which new approaches to urban planning are being determined10,11,12,13,14. Fundamentally, planning has become recognised as an exercise in the management of complex social systems15, whereby traditional technical-rational approaches to planning interventions are questioned on their effectiveness, most specifically in regard to the linear, cause-and effect assumptions that underpin expected outcomes. The recognition and acceptance of limited control over the systems with which planners are inherently required to cope has led us to the evolution in planning theory over the past few decades towards collaborative planning, dependant on the establishment of dialogue and consensus building among key stakeholders as fundamental to the planning process16,17. Binary modes of rational, top-down planning have been all but replaced by the demand for planners to consider the complex “interplay of economic, socio-cultural, environmental and political/administrative dynamics”18, whereby the importance of local resident engagement and self-organised forms of planning have become prevalent19 and have given rise to governance-beyond-the-state20. Accordingly, the role of planners has likewise evolved as the practitioner’s job is no longer the provision of recipe-like solutions to clearly definable problems. Rather, the planning practitioner represents only one form of expertise, providing one form of knowledge input, as focus is often on the moderation of the diversity of actors involved in planning dialogues21. The planner’s role is thus nowadays far more dynamic.

Despite much progress, the challenge remains however that, in the opinion of this author, we have yet to fully exploit the potential that complexity theory offers planning, particularly as it relates to the complex social task of realising the development of sustainable, inclusive cities. Furthermore, the applicability of this potential is posited as being of even more value to addressing the wicked development challenges, of which urban violence is one, facing countries in developing contexts. Dynamic urbanisation that continues to take place in these contexts overwhelmingly occurs with a lack of complimentary planning and economic development processes, rendering cities unable to cope as existing infrastructures buckle under increased strain. The resultant, increased severity in infrastructure and institutional capacity deficits means that these contexts are largely characterised by the existence of highly fragile social systems in which the informal production and consumption of urban space is the norm and where uncertainty and the unpredictability of planning interventions is heightened. Furthermore, the prevalence of serious complex social challenges, such as urban violence, severely threatens the ability to achieve inclusive, sustainable urban development in these contexts and thus underscores the sense of urgency to explore new means of addressing such issues.

Recognised as one of the most prominent hindrances to the development of inclusive cities, urban violence has frequently been described by both academics, practitioners and government officials alike, as a highly complex social development challenge22,23,24,25,26. The dominant reference to complexity, however, remains limited to the use of the word as a means by which to indicate the interrelatedness of the multiplicity of drivers and dimensions attributed to urban violence. In other words, the implication of the term complexity is quickly reduced to a mere description of systemic interactions that are not fully understood. On this basis, the application of complexity theory to the pragmatic planning approaches targeting urban violence prevention is argued here as being infantile in their application beyond the initial systems thinking approach that has underpinned the propagation of integrated models for prevention. In exploring the complexity of achieving broad-based integrated violence prevention in the South African context, focus is placed on determining how it is that the movement beyond the carefully constructed closed systems of initiated pilot programmes aimed at “testing” integrated violence prevention initiatives can be supported by the theoretical grounding that the complexity sciences offers. In facilitating this discussion three primary questions are unpacked in the sections that follow: What makes urban violence a complex problem? How have planners thus far responded to this complexity? And, how can the applications of complexity theory further expedite the achievement of broad-based integrated violence prevention?

Essentially, this paper highlights the persistent conundrum of defining urban violence as complex – implying high levels of uncertainty and thus limited control over the outcomes we seek to achieve – while at the same time the aspiration for generic “blueprints”27 for violence prevention seem to prevail. Despite large scale consensus on the complexity of urban violence as a social development challenge, the persistent linearity of existing approaches renders an infliction that supports scaling through programme fidelity, as opposed to appropriate adaptation, and which thus continues to promulgate what Ramalingam28 so aptly refers to as the epidemic of “best practicitis”. The prime assertion being made is that devising approaches to address urban violence at scale is not an exercise in finding the perfect fit or choosing from a menu of experiences. Rather, it is about understanding the dynamics of complexity in its varying degrees, it is about recognising that all complex systems have points of robustness that aid orientation in dealing with uncertainty and thus, it is about achieving a balance between the necessity for intervention fidelity and context-specific adaptation in responding to dynamic, multivariate needs. On this basis, the conceptual framework proposed demonstrates the potential of the understanding of complex systems and their functionality to contribute to devising more adaptable urban planning and management processes that leverage points of systemic robustness while simultaneously being able to embrace uncertainty in remaining flexible.

The wickedness of urban violence

To borrow a well-formulated summary of that which constitutes a “wicked” problem, as originally elaborated by Rittel & Weber,29 wicked problems may be defined as problems that are “…difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise because of complex interdependencies that create other problems, if an effort is made to solve one aspect of a wicked problem”30. In being defined as wicked, complex social problems are inherently made up of multiple dilemmas, affecting multiple levels within both localised and extended environments. It is this non-linear interrelatedness of the various networks, causal factors and multitude of possible outcomes that makes wicked problems so resilient to resolution (Horn & Weber 2007). Alongside issues such as climate change, social exclusion and unemployment, so too does [urban] violence constitute a wicked problem24. The scale and impacts of urban violence are, however, exacerbated in poorer communities, where unrelentingly high levels of violence have often become normalised – routinized as a “functional reality of everyday life”22. The creation of “fearscapes”31 within cities that evolve on the basis of both the real and imagined fear of victimisation exudes significant impacts on how urban space is used and determines social organisation in that the generation of fear works to restrict participation in daily community life32,33. In countries such as South Africa, urban violence is one of the prime destructors of local quality of life. Residents are unable to go about even menial daily tasks such as transiting to work or even visiting ablutions without a constant fear of victimisation. Entrepreneurial activity is stifled and the cycle of poverty deepened. Despite being exceedingly difficult to accurately measure, the calculable (e.g. loss of property and economic potential) and incalculable (e.g. the erosion of social capital) costs of urban violence are well documented34,35,36,37,38,39,40. Illustrative of such costs in South Africa, an empirical study undertaken in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town (a focus site of this research) demonstrates that, where residents are perpetually vulnerable to violence, victimisation and the fear of victimisation are marked as the primary hindrance to local economic development through engagement in entrepreneurial activity. More recently, an ethnographic study of the same area demonstrates “pervasive levels of fear of violence in public and private spaces”41.

The framing of urban violence as a complex social phenomenon — as a wicked problem — rests primarily in the multiplicity and systemic interdependency of the recognised drivers and dimensions that coalesce to result in violence and which similarly manifest in a multitude of ways.

A multitude of drivers, a multitude of dimensions

No longer linearly determined as being a direct effect of poverty alone,22 increased experiences in urban violence are most prevalent where inequality and other forms of relative social and economic deprivation converge. Thus, a wide range of causal factors are associated with the prevalence of urban violence. These broadly include but are certainly not limited to factors that contribute to the pervasiveness of inadequate, degraded urban environments, exacerbated by exclusionary spatial design42,43,44,45 and heightened levels of social disorganisation46,47,39 for example in terms of the breakdown of supportive family structures as well as social exclusion, intensified by the inability to access basic services, education and economic opportunity.

The range of causal factors driving urban violence and the way in which impacts manifest are also highly context specific. In South Africa, violence is disproportionately concentrated in urban areas, “compounded by factors such as a) the rapid growth and transformation of cities (including high-levels of migration), b) the opportunities for criminals that urban settings provide and c) enormous socio-economic disparities, socio-spatial contrasts and spatial segregation”48. This is a situation that has been largely attributed to the legacy of Apartheid as a political system founded on violence,49,50 coupled with a spatial planning history of enforced segregation51,52. Additional underlying causes of violence have been progressively detailed by the South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation53,54,55. The primary drivers of violence cited include, entrenched spatial and economic inequality, the embeddedness of brutality and a general culture of violence, the varied impacts of Apartheid policies on family structures, inequalities in access to education, a legacy of institutionalised racism and the ineffectiveness of state institutions in their ability to adequately deal with violence, as well as a culture of gun ownership as a means to guarantee security and impunity in township areas where forms of non-state order — themselves based on violence — have thrived (ibid.).

Moreover, the ways in which expressions of violence are manifested are similarly diverse. Arguably the most well propagated typology of violence is that of the World Health Organization (WHO), developed in the early 2000s36. This typology characterises the difference types of violence, highlighting the linkages between them (Figure 1). Here, the manifestations of violence are divided into three broad categories, according to the characteristics of the perpetrator. These include: self-directed violence or violence that a person inflicts on him/herself, interpersonal violence understood as violence inflicted by another individual or small group of individuals and collective violence, violence inflicted by larger groups such as the state, political groups or terrorist organisations.


Fig. 1: WHO typology of violence, 36

Despite fully recognising the breadth and depth of the various ways in which violence manifests, this research is primarily focused on the level of interpersonal violence. This is largely due to the need to maintain coherence with the focus on interpersonal violence which is at the core of the case study analysis on the integrated intervention programmes being implemented, as it is interpersonal violence that constitutes one of the leading causes of non-natural deaths in South Africa56. The manifestations of interpersonal violence itself likewise take many forms, including, but not limited to, murder, assault, robbery, rape, vigilante or mob violence, taxi wars, gang-related turf wars, police brutality, kidnappings, and violent protest53,48, all of which severely affect the quality of life of citizens involved.

Responding to the wickedness — integrated approaches to violence prevention

The recognition of urban violence as a wicked problem has been an important one in facilitating prevention, as it infers that traditional linear approaches to dealing with violence will be ineffectual. Indeed, it is non-linear, non-standardised approaches that are required and which need to place focus on addressing the diversity of causal factors and manifestations of violence simultaneously. For this reason, as with planning approaches to other complex social challenges, the response to complexity in relation to urban violence has propagated integrated approaches to prevention that aim to address the various underlying causes of violence – whether they be spatial, institutional or social – in a coordinated manner. Such integrated approaches emerged largely from the pivotal application of an ecological model to understanding violence36, encouraging integrated approaches to prevention that tackle the nested causal factors and outcomes of violence at the individual level as well as in terms of the relational dynamics to broader community and societal contexts. Accordingly, approaches to combatting urban violence have developed significantly and have tackled the challenge from a variety of perspectives. These include, among others, the consideration of urban violence as a public health issue36,57, requiring a life-cycle approach and early intervention58, the role of urban upgrading in the form of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED)59,60,61,62 and the importance of community-based policing and governance63,64, established on the basis of the importance of utilising social capital and creating social cohesion65,66.

The consensus in global discussions is clear, no single factor is alone responsible for situations of urban violence and thus urban violence and its causes must be tackled from a multi-disciplinary, multi-scalar perspective that requires holistic responses, which encompass various scales and spheres of intervention. Therefore, justified on the basis of open, interconnectedness across social systems, constituting innumerable components and their interactions with multiple agents, integrated planning models targeting violence prevention tout the obligation for active citizenship through community engagement while concurrently pursuing prevention through a triumvirate of spatial reform (environmental design), localised social development interventions and cooperative governance (institutional reform)36,67,26. The following sections thus explore the application of integrated violence prevention methodologies in the South African context. Much progress has been made in reforming the stance on how to tackle urban violence as a complex issue embedded in interrelated social systems. However, the persistent gap between the theoretically determined policy elements and that which actually occurs in practice demonstrates an obstinate problematic in that the implementation of prevention initiatives in South Africa still very much exude characteristics of command and control planning, calling the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of these interventions into question.

Integrated violence prevention in South Africa: Policy and practice

The realisation of integrated planning, tackling violence prevention or any other complex issue, is inherently reliant on policy that embraces complexity and recognises the need for the multi-scale, horizontal and vertical alignment of governance required to achieve the coordinated implementation of the multiple-sphere spatial, institutional and social interventions required to combat the varied and dynamic causal factors of urban violence. Therefore, in moving forward, the notion of integrated violence prevention in the South African context is explored bi-directionally, focusing firstly on the theoretical positioning of integrated prevention as it permeates national policy development and secondly on the practice of integrated prevention, drawing on current experiences being had in the implementation and transfer of a piloted integrated violence prevention programme across three South African cities; Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay and the City of Tshwane.

Policy: The “what” of integrated prevention

The policy landscape related to [urban] violence prevention and the overarching promotion of safety in post-Apartheid South Africa has made huge progress, at least on paper. In keeping with developments in international discourses, progressive policy developments have embraced the necessity for an integrated approach to tackling the country’s persistently high levels of violence and have highlighted the role of local government as well as the need to engage local communities in policing and other community-based prevention initiatives.

Right from the get-go, the 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) positioned crime and violence as complex problems, openly recognising that the “search for single causes will merely lead to simplistic and therefore ineffective solutions”68. Furthermore, the NCPS advocated a multi-pillar framework for addressing South Africa’s various manifestations of crime and violence, namely, improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, community values and education in changing the ways in which communities participate in crime prevention, as well as environmental design aimed at reducing the opportunities for crime to occur and transnational crime prevention that sought to establish regional cooperation in addressing cross-border crime. Moreover, the NCPS signified innovation in its promotion of a problem-solving framework that called for multi-agency solutions in linking governmental spheres and civil society organisations to promote prevention69,70. Supporting this, the consequent White Paper on Safety and Security tabled in 1998 detailed the need for cross-cutting institutional reform in order to support the implementation of the multi-sphere framework expounded in the NCPS and also made provision for an increased role for local government involvement in prevention, legally allowing for the establishment of local community policing forums71. The importance of a decentralised, community-based approach to prevention was echoed in the White Paper on Local Government, which introduced the concept of developmental local government and recognised the need for cooperation between local government and communities so as to establish more appropriate ways to meet localised, context specific needs and thus improve the overall quality of life of local residents72.

Despite the clearly determined policy support for an integrated approach to violence and crime prevention, the development reality has seen South African social and economic policies work in opposition to one another on the basis of an inability to reconcile and align the objectives of addressing past inequalities entrenched through Apartheid and the neoliberal pursuit of global economic competitiveness26. In light of this, and coupled with the economic need to secure private sector investment as well as the political need to “be seen to be doing something”, the release of the National Crime Combatting Strategy (NCCS) in 2000 saw an ill-fated return to hard-line policing through the revival of paramilitary policing structures operating on “shoot-to-kill” orders25. This return to forceful policing is a challenge that remains and the lack of coordination between social crime prevention policy and policing continues to pose a dangerous challenge in that such tactics quickly dissolve the trust and community cooperation required for the implementation of a whole-of-society approach to tackling urban violence. As other case studies have demonstrated, this lack of coordination may be attributed to the fact that although prevention is earmarked as a local government mandate, the South African Police Services (SAPS) remains highly centralised under the control of national government, whereby local government has little influence on how policing at local-level occurs, thus constituting a fundamental point of misalignment that hinders the effective implementation of an integrated approach26. Furthermore, “while social crime prevention is very much a part of the discourse of community safety, the police have frequently found themselves with very little practical support when it comes to addressing the economic and social causes of crime”73.

The perceived failure of the South African State to appropriately back a social crime prevention agenda in favour of law enforcement characterised by robust policing measures “because it holds out the promise of quick results”74, clearly demonstrates the on-going struggle of realising even the most well-formulated policy imperatives. In a further attempt to respond, the 2011 Integrated Social Crime Prevention Strategy (ISCPS) once again underscored the complexity of the task at hand, advocating that “based on the assertion that the causes of crime are complex… successful prevention will require a range of appropriate approaches that are tailor-made to address specific conditions”75. Importantly, the ISCPS also stipulated crime and violence prevention as a local government mandate and inverted the originally top-down approach, emphasising “a more community-focused representation of government”75. However, whereas the focus on local-level integrated social crime prevention requires the embedding of prevention within local integrated development plans (IDPs), analyses of local IDPs has demonstrated that “there is still a lack of crime and violence prevention content or sector planning in current IDPs” and that most often, safety plans are limited to issues of policing, road safety and disaster response73.

Currently, it is the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 that sets the benchmark for safety in South Africa:

In 2030 people living in South Africa feel safe and have no fear of crime. They feel safe at home, at school and at work, and they enjoy an active community life free of fear. Women can walk freely in the streets and children can play safely outside. The police service is a well-resourced professional institution staffed by highly skilled officers who value their work, serve the community, safeguard lives and property without discrimination, protect the peaceful against violence, and respect the rights of all to equality and justice76.

The NDP clearly stipulates the challenges of policy-making in a complex environment and dedicates an entire chapter to the development of safer communities in South Africa. Here, the need for an integrated approach beyond law enforcement and policing, reliant on “active citizen involvement and co-responsibility”, is emphasised76, highlighting the notion that effective approaches require a holistic orientation supported by the consideration of urban safety as a public good to which all citizens not only have a right but for which they are also jointly responsible. Once again, this position has been reaffirmed as part of the updated Draft White Paper on Safety and Security, issued for public comment in the first quarter of 2015. In response to Chapter eight of the NDP, “Transforming human settlements and the national space economy” the on-going development of an Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) for South Africa likewise acknowledges the importance of safety in urban spaces and has been “designed to unlock the development synergy that comes from coordinated investments in people and places”77. As part of the IUDF[1], urban safety is placed alongside rural-urban interdependency and disaster risk reduction and climate change as one of three cross-cutting issues affecting all elements associated with sustainable and inclusive urban development. The IUDF has been viewed by academics and policy-makers alike as a positive opportunity to embed a common vision of urban safety as an integral element associated with all levels and spheres of urban development, deemed important in guiding the cooperative governance required to realise an integrated approach48,26. However, practitioners working on integrated violence prevention at the local level remain critical; “We do not need an IUDF, what is needed is the linking of local level IDPs with what is happening on the ground within the local context” (Interview Uithaler, November 2015). More generally, others criticise that, despite progress on paper, none of South Africa’s various policies that support violence and crime prevention adequately conceptualise what a developmental approach to violence prevention should actually entail58. Despite the clear statement on the recognition of the multi-sector, multi-scalar approach required to tackle urban violence, the recognition of complexity is a far cry from the establishment of coordinated institutions that are able to cope with this complexity, as the South African developmental landscape remains “. . . locked into an overly technical, path dependent paradigm that is unlikely to be capable of embracing the complex challenges identified by the recent National Development Plan”78.

The brief review of the South African policy landscape demonstrates a clear recognition of the complex nature of urban violence and concepts of integrated prevention have formed an important part of the policy agenda for almost two decades, notably outlining what it is that should be achieved. However, the reality of the continued fall-back to linear, prescribed “solutions”, elicits the assertion that it is the how of realising integrated policy implementation that remains in question. The following section thus considers the complexity of achieving broad-based integrated violence prevention from a practice perspective, drawing on a decade of experience in the implementation of the internationally supported, award-winning Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) Programme.

Integrated prevention in practice: the “how”

In considering the implementation of integrated prevention in practice, it would be an impossible task to cover all modalities of [integrated] violence prevention interventions being executed by government and non-government institutions across the country. This research therefore limits the practice-orientation to one of the largest, most well-funded and politically championed integrated violence prevention initiatives; the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) Programme. Since initial inception in the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town in 2004/5, VPUU has, over the course of the past decade, tackled the complexities of local-level intervention as well as taken the first steps towards the national transfer of the programme through implementation in two additional cities, Nelson Mandela Bay (Helenvale township) and the City of Tshwane (Mamelodi township).

The VPUU programme is representative of an, at the time, innovative approach to integrated violence prevention that extended the World Health Organisation’s holistic life-cycle approach to tackle prevention through a triumvirate of interdependent spheres of intervention, including:

  • spatial interventions in terms of situational urban upgrading,

  • institutional interventions that target the establishment of workable partnerships with local communities and the lobbying of support within local government for sustainable operations and maintenance and

  • social development interventions that promote active citizenship and provide opportunities for self-organised community development and additional community-driven prevention initiatives[2].

Supported by a partnership between the German Development Bank (KfW) and the City of Cape Town, the original VPUU pilot programme received significant political and financial backing both at local and provincial level and due to the holistic, integrated approach taken, embedded in principles of community engagement and active citizenship, has received recognition as one of the “most successful community-based violence prevention initiatives in Africa”79.

Since inception, the VPUU pilot programme has expanded within Khayelitsha as well as to other townships and informal settlement areas within Cape Town. Additionally, established on the perceived successes in violence reduction of the VPUU programme the Cape Town Mayoral Urban Regeneration Programme (MURP) implements the colloquially known “VPUU lite” programme in eight additional areas, whereby identified nodes draw on VPUU’s tested area-based approach in upgrading and ensuring the maintenance of public infrastructure and facilities. The MURP programme focuses on partnering with local communities, guided by the objective of “stabilising areas and providing a platform for more effective public and private investment”[3]. In seeking to extend VPUU’s success in Cape Town to the rest of the Province, the KfW commissioned an additional feasibility study in 2011 that sought to consider the means by which the programme could be transferred and implemented in additional cities within the Western Cape Province80. This so-described “replication” of the VPUU initiative posed the greatest challenge of realising the same kind of coordinated integrated prevention approach within smaller cities, which are largely characterised by far less institutional capacity and the availability of far fewer financial resources than the City of Cape Town80.

Around the same time, an additional feasibility study for the implementation of another VPUU programme to be implemented in the township of Helenvale in Nelson Mandela Bay (formerly Port Elizabeth) was also undertaken. On the basis of this feasibility study, a similar programme now referred to as Safety and Peace through Urban Upgrading[4] (SPUU) was approved with an original plan to roll out first-phase interventions in the 2013/14 financial year. However, due to a number of bureaucratic delays, tenders for the implementation of primary SPUU interventions, largely focusing on infrastructure provision through urban upgrading, were only released in October 2015 (Interview Uithaler November 2015). In addition to Helenvale, the township of Mamelodi in the City of Tshwane has been earmarked for a third implementation of the VPUU – now SPUU – programme. The requisite feasibility study[5] was completed in 2014 and the call for tenders for an international consultant by the KfW Development Bank was concluded in June 2016.

With just over a decade of experience in integrated violence prevention the VPUU/SPUU approach has certainly rendered a number of recognised local level successes, particularly in relation to the improvement of urban environments, the establishment of community partnerships and the leveraging of government support61,26. However, as with any programme that attempts to address such a complex issue a number of key challenges have to be acknowledged and addressed if broad-based intervention, at the scale required, is to be achieved. In an in-depth analysis of the VPUU programme and its implementation as well as transfer experience within the City of Cape Town26, a primary conclusion drawn on the success of the overall implementation concerned the institutional set-up of the programme. Here, the ability of the original VPUU pilot programme to achieve success was found to rest in the political and financial positioning of the implementing agency, which fostered an ability to bypass many of the bureaucratic processes of local government at critical points in the programme life-cycle. The institutional positioning of VPUU as a special unit championed directly by the Mayoral Committee of the City of Cape Town coupled with the significant financial resources managed by the implementing agency itself enabled the significant cutting of red-tape in channelling external funds so as to achieve the timeous implementation of interventions at critical points during implementation. In other words, success of the pilot programme can arguably be attributed to the achievement of heightened control through the simplification of a highly complex governance environment. With respect to initial pilot programme interventions designed to test innovative approaches this is feasible, however it raised serious questions on the ability to realise broad-based transfer of the programme throughout the country. This question thus became a central point of focus in considering and realising the transfer of the programme to the additional sites in Nelson Mandela Bay and the City of Tshwane.

In a first attempt to address this core problem of institutional set-up, the Helenvale SPUU programme is being implemented through the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), established in 2003 as a special purpose development company, which functions as an entity of the directorate of the Mandela Bay Municipality and is governed by council. The MDBA constitutes the driving force behind urban regeneration in Nelson Mandela Bay and was therefore determined as being a means by which a more mainstreamed implementation of the SPUU approach — better integrated with other local municipal departments to encourage horizontal alignment in mandates — could be realised.

Although the programme is still in the planning phases, the 2014 feasibility study for the SPUU programme to be launched in Mamelodi has similarly focused on the fundamental institutional challenge of realising broad-based integrated interventions. The feasibility study undertaken thus similarly proposed the embedding of the SPUU within an existing city-based regeneration programme. Therefore it was recommended that the Mamelodi SPUU be spear-headed locally by the already established and functioning Tsosoloso Township Regeneration Programme that works as part of the Tshwane 2009 Comprehensive Sustainable Human Settlements Strategy and which is aligned with the purpose of leveraging funds through National Treasury’s Neighbourhood Development Partnership Grant (NDPG) and the Integrated Cities Development Grant (ICDG)81.

Due to the limited experience thus far with programme transfer and implementation in Helenvale and Mamelodi, little evidence exists on which to draw any hard and fast conclusions on the improved effectiveness in realising broad-based integrated prevention initiatives through the changes made to the format of local implementing entities in contrast to the original VPUU programme. Therefore the fundamental question remains concerning the effectiveness of the various implementing entities and may only be assessed down the line, over the course of a more longitudinal analysis. What can be observed thus far, however, is that at all levels of implementation, as well as in terms of policy, the greatest challenges to the successful implementation of integrated prevention tend to relate to questions of institutional capacity, effective coordination and the flow of financial resources. The most prominent of these challenges, cited both in investigations of the original VPUU implementation26 as well as in relation to the transfer sites (personal correspondence 2014, 2015), include:

  • The institutional capacity of local government departments to align objectives and coordinate horizontally due to silo operations,

  • the isolated budgetary planning and allocation of financial resources of local government departments,

  • the securing and dissemination of local funding not only within the initial pilot phases but also in terms of the longer-term sustenance of initiatives. Most particularly this relates to concerns over the long-term maintenance and operation of developed assets, such as community centres and other infrastructures, through the embedding of such assets within local portfolios and budgets,

  • the loss of vital time in getting interventions off the ground due to local structures and cumbersome regulatory procedures, and

  • the lack of [coordinated] knowledge sharing and transfer.

In other words, evidence thus far demonstrates that it is a lack of coordinated governance and management of integrated approaches, aligned to a common vision of urban safety, which poses the greatest challenge to the broad-based transfer of integrated violence prevention/safety promotion initiatives. The transfer of the original VPUU programme and its area-based integrated approach to violence prevention to cities outside the Western Cape means that these additional pilot programmes will allow for the testing of integrated prevention in an extended number of contexts. However, despite some learning and adaptation to contextually specific needs of the intervention areas, these implementations essentially still constitute pilot programmes and therefore the major concern persists as to how rapid scaling and the realisation of country-wide broad-based integrated violence prevention can best be facilitated. The practical experience of these pilot programmes thus underscores the policy assessment and critique levied at the existing organisational capacity of government to adequately align objectives and coordinate the resources required to facilitate a fully integrated approach to violence prevention.

It is this key finding that has supported the development of the conceptual framework presented in the final section of this paper in that it is deemed to be the institutional sphere of intervention through which the relative complexity of spatial and social prevention interventions may best be aligned. Therefore, the requirement is for a concentration on how complexity theory can contribute to the creation of institutions and governance processes that are not only able to cope with but in effect also benefit from complexity. In doing so, it is suggested that much is to be learned from advances being made on the development of built-in process agility in the mutually supportive domain of the management sciences and the concept of adaptive planning and management.

The complexity of realising broad-based integrated violence prevention: The need for adaptive strategies

Pilot programmes, in that their functional purpose is to test new approaches, offer an important platform for experience-based learning. The application of broad-based intervention, however, has more stringent implications for the need to deal with complexity. First and foremost, this is based on the fact that broad-based intervention cannot rely on the comparative simplicity and surety offered through the relative institutional isolation and structural control (including control over significant financial resources) enjoyed by pilot programmes. In this sense, reductionism can be a good thing in light of testing interventions and implementation processes, however embedding integrated prevention within the core system at scale extrapolates the complexity exponentially and, the fact is, that broad-based integrated prevention requires a more dynamic approach if it is to be effective.

Drawing on the complexity sciences in aiding the progression towards broad-based integrated implementation offers two very important advantages. Firstly, it provides a structured means through which to re-frame the way we think about violence as a complex social development challenge. Secondly, on the basis of this re-framing, so too does complexity constitute a basis on which to develop more applicable, pragmatic tools for the practice of integrated planning and intervention. This section therefore first looks at how we can use complexity to better understand and re-consider the functionality of the current VPUU/SPUU pilot programmes and subsequently moves on to discuss how it is that complexity can contribute more decidedly to the promotion of broad-based initiatives. The discussion presented draws on a number of fundamental, interrelated principles of complexity, including:

  • Recognising variations in degrees of the applicable complexity of system elements,

  • the presence of systemic robustness and the potential such robustness offers for maintaining orientation within highly uncertain environments and,

  • the inherent certainty of uncertainty, with its implied limitations on the predictability and control over intervention outcomes.

Between fidelity and adaptation: Assessing the complexity of VPUU/SPUU

Analysis of the VPUU pilot programme experience, on the basis of an understanding of complexity and the functionality of complex systems, renders insights that highlight the important role of the institutional sphere of intervention in “bridging” physical urban upgrading interventions that promote violence prevention through improved environmental design and social prevention initiatives that are far broader in definition (Figure 2). Furthermore, this analysis provides an orientation as to how to move forward in terms of achieving broad-based intervention while still paying attention to the contextually critical elements involved in achieving a functional integrated approach. This includes the need to realise short-term wins as a means to build local community trust, as the basis on which to establish collaborative decision-making and secure the long-term engagement of communities through partnerships that foster ownership and extended self-organisation.

The first key point to be made is that, within an integrated approach, not all programme elements and their associated interventions can be considered equal in their degree of complexity. Across multiple spheres and at all scales, the various interventions that contribute spatially, institutionally or socially to the prevention of violence are not uniformly complex, whereby those interventions deemed less complex are characterised by higher levels of certainty in terms of their applicability and can generally be realised over a relatively shorter period of time. Similarly, those interventions deemed more complex in nature are thus characterised by heightened levels of uncertainty, where outcomes and long-term impacts are largely unpredictable. Accordingly, as shown in Figure 2, the various spheres of intervention are placed on a complexity “scale” whereby each sphere can be broadly correlated to a) the perceived level of complexity and b) the length of time associated with the ability to realise the interventions themselves, as well as potential impacts. For example, in the highly deprived, fragile urban environments being addressed, the provision of tangible urban upgrades that constitute situational interventions can, with more (not absolute) certainty, be expected to contribute to key objectives such as improving standards of living for local residents and enabling mobility, as well as perhaps in reducing the opportunity for perpetrators to commit crimes[6]. However, what would remain uncertain would be the prediction of any positive change in the social interactions within communities on the basis of these situational interventions. For instance, the building of a local community hall would not pre-determine the increased frequency of community meetings taking place or any improvement in the effectiveness of such coordinated exchange as an outcome. It is therefore, in effect, the institutional sphere of intervention that is required to bridge the situational and social spheres through working to establish platforms for community engagement, representation and involvement, while simultaneously leveraging local government capacities to ensure the alignment of objectives and resource allocation necessary for cooperative governance.

In terms of achieving broad-based programme transfer the assertion is therefore, that the acknowledgment of variable degrees of complexity and the relative uncertainty associated with predicting positive impacts of interventions would better enable the prioritisation of interventions accordingly, both across and within each sphere of intervention. Essentially, the objective would be to consider those interventions associated with each sphere that are more robust in nature and which, on the basis of reduced complexity and uncertainty, may be most easily transferable in their existing form, requiring limited contextual adaptation. The identification and prioritisation of these more robust interventions calls for the need to realise a balance between maintaining the fidelity of “tested”, pilot programme interventions and the identification of those elements that may require higher levels of adaptation to suit contextual specificities. Such an approach recognises that “some degree of order and simplicity [exists] within complexity”82 and proposes that the identification of robustness is essential to realising the initial short-term wins so vital to building trust and to establishing and maintaining community engagement within the fragile communities where the severity of urban violence is most impeding and where existing social organisation is often very limited.


Fig. 2: Elaborating the complexity of integrated urban violence prevention

In addition, the contention is also that within such fragile social systems, despite the overarching complexity of interventions, we cannot fully disregard the importance of technical rational approaches to certain planning interventions. Where the urban environment is so depleted in terms of functional infrastructure and basic service resources, focus should be placed on assessing local needs and the establishment of a balance between necessary top-down and bottom-up approaches. There is all-too often a tendency to overemphasise the need for community engagement, consensus building and collaboration in devising solutions, however, when such processes begin too early on, what is often forgotten is that in these contexts even the most basic resources do not exist that would promote such engagement or any kind of sustained self-organised response. Achieving such a balance stresses the need for the recognition that, in working across the spectrum between technical-rational planning and collaborative, co-productive planning, the various role(s) of the planner as well as the role of communities change dynamically. For example, the role of the planner shifts from the more simple technical rational provision of identified infrastructure deficits to the enablement of self-organised social development through the provision of resources. Between the roles of provision and enablement so too must the planner fulfil a fluid [stakeholder] management and moderating role in guiding the overall process of integrated intervention towards the overall objective. On the other side, the role of the community and its representatives likewise develops dynamically from engagement in decision-making processes[7] towards collaboration and the ultimate objective of realising a sense of ownership, both in terms of the tangible infrastructure provided and in terms of the recognised responsibility for communities themselves to contribute to the extended promotion of urban safety on the basis of self-organised practices.

Finally, the inherent reality of limited control coupled with the associated inability to pre-determine change on the basis of interventions with any level of assured certainty also underscores the important role of policies such as the National Development Plan and Integrated Urban Development Framework. There are an infinite number of ways by which to achieve the overarching objective of creating safer cities, which cannot all be laid out for rational appraisal and assessment on the basis of their associated strength and weaknesses in a simplistic manner. Therefore, the need exists for national policy to provide a common vision of what it is that is trying to be achieved and clearly link this vision with a set of workable strategies outlining how the various levels and departments of government, as well as other actors such as the private sector, can be positioned to contribute to promoting safety and to the reduction of urban violence. Without a mutually agreed upon strategic vision, no basis exists on which to develop any form of strategic planning, let alone a foundation on which to enable the multi-level, inter-sector cooperation that would in turn enable the realisation of potential synergies and thus the more efficient allocation of limited resources.

Beyond the recognition of the complexity of the challenges we face and of realising integrated implementation, what is now needed are more tangible approaches and tools that enable planners to cope with and even benefit from complexity. Accepting social systems as complex means that the actors involved in the social network cannot be expected to act 100% rationally or predictably and therefore we simply cannot expect to achieve intervention objectives on the basis of assuming outcomes reliant on only one perspective of how interactions within the system may (or may not) occur. Furthermore, with respect to the broad-based transfer of interventions, different actors will react differently even to highly similar situations, dependant on a multitude of influencing factors and local context specificities. This means that uncertainty in planning will always be a sure certainty and in order to support the kind of effective incremental change needed to work with complex systems, this uncertainty must not only be acknowledged but also managed appropriately. The current systems in place, however, fail to do so. One fundamental critique of the original VPUU programme reiterates this determination as a central challenge in that the “VPUU is fundamentally influenced by these international development policy discourses that seek to create a managed society, characterised by ordered and economised social relations and founded on a normative conception of a formalised city and the self-regulating, economic-rational actor”41. The next section therefore addresses this failure in highlighting the need to consider the pursuit of more adaptive systems of governance and localised programme management if progress is to be made.

Utilising complexity: The pursuit of adaptive management for broad-based violence prevention

If the agreement is that planning constitutes an exercise in the management of complex social systems and that it is the institutional sphere of integrated intervention that is best positioned to navigate the dynamics of situational and social development, an inferred requirement for innovative forms of governance and project management systems exists. Managing incrementalism in a dynamic fashion thus becomes the main objective and, considering that organisations likewise constitute complex systems83, the facilitation of effective incremental change can benefit from the further application of the knowledge that the complexity sciences offers. In this, consistency exists as a number of disciplines have made much progress in the application of complexity to developing agile processes, albeit predominantly in the context of private sector product development and the facilitation of organisational change. Many of the principles applied in these fields are, however, proposed here as being highly applicable to aiding advances in cooperative governance and integrated planning methodologies, which may enable the movement beyond the closed-system structures of the pilot programmes implemented thus far. The first question to pose would be, what does adaptive management require? In short, flexibility. Here, flexibility refers to the ability to more dynamically identify and react to systemic change. The second question would thus be, how do we go about incorporating flexibility into the management processes of integrated intervention programmes?

First and foremost, any form of adaptive management would require higher-paced data collection and analysis supported by knowledge management practices that facilitate the incorporation of multi-level feedback loops to support adaptive learning. “Under an adaptive model, urban plans and designs can be understood as hypotheses of how a policy or project will influence particular landscape processes or functions and implemented planning policies or designs become ?experiments? from which experts, professionals, and decision makers may gain new knowledge through monitoring and analysis”84. This differs from traditional “waterfall” management procedures, whereby project implementation progresses in a staged manner, on the basis of linearly set indicators and the achievement of pre-determined milestones85. Project/process management systems that support adaptive learning would thus need to incorporate emerging knowledge timeously so as to facilitate learning at unstipulated intervals, using an integrated, looped feedback system (Fig. 3). Within this kind of process construct, knowledge management, learning and adaptation occurs continuously, as implementation progresses and seeks to support an emergent knowledge process meaning that the kind of knowledge to be extracted from implementation experiences is likewise not pre-determined. Such an emergent knowledge process is valuable in that the future value of many forms of knowledge emerging from interventions and their uncertain outcomes may not be recognisable at the point in time at which such knowledge is generated[8]. The facilitation of scaling beyond one tested intervention may thereby be facilitated in such an approach through the interaction between the various micro and macro levels, extending from the original implementation level and which, using the built-in feedback mechanisms, work with gained experience to improve, reframe and transform future interventions and methods of implementation. Closely linked to this feedback cycle, the ability for this kind of agile approach to function pragmatically would likewise require flexible decision-making structures and associated funding mechanisms. As seen through the empirical experience, the existing uncoordinated, bureaucratic modes of governance do not facilitate such an approach, which once again underscores the sense of urgency to place focus on the institutional mechanisms being used to implement the transfer of the VPUU/SPUU programme and its approach at scale.


Fig. 3: Systemic knowledge management and multi-scalar learning

Over the course of longer-term implementation and the correlated realisation of a larger knowledge base, as the transfer of the integrated intervention approach is scaled, built-in processes of emergent knowledge management for learning and adaptation will also yield the identification of points of consistency. These points of consistency can be considered representative of the more robust systemic elements which, over the course of longitudinal analysis, will constitute programme elements that may be replicable in a wide variety of contexts in a similar manner, without being of detriment to expected outcomes. Such elements would thus enable the identification of interventions that may be rapidly scaled due to the increased fidelity to the original intervention. Likewise, however, there will also be other elements associated with the various levels of integrated intervention that exhibit little impact when implemented across a diversity of contexts and which would thus require higher levels of adaptation in order to achieve success.

The uncertainty associated with the ability to successfully implement a broad range of integrated interventions also means that failure constitutes an inevitable part of integrated programmes. We thus not only need to learn to accept failure, we need to expect it and, therefore, in the management of such programmes we also need to embed mechanisms whereby the failure of a number of interventions at any one time would not render the entire programme obsolete. This requires the structured “dilution” of the programme as a whole, through which problem spaces are identified on the basis of which smaller, more manageable work packages are established, ensuring that each entity is “small enough to fail”86,87 and that programmes themselves are developed according to “safe-to-fail” principles as opposed to “fail-safe” principles84. Creating work packages within a programme that are small enough to fail, essentially means that failure, in its inevitability, is contained, allowing for lessons from such failures to be learned. The existing format of the pilot programme has, in contrast, established a system whereby any disruption levied against the system by unforeseen circumstances puts the entire programme at risk, largely due to the reliance on centralised control, tightly monitored financing procedures and a lack of more dispersed embeddedness within local governance structures. The realisation of such embeddedness in order to move beyond pilot programmes would, however, not only be reliant on the development of more flexible, adaptive programme management in a localised sense, but also on with targeted organisational change management of existing governance structures, as “the implementation of strategic change remains a … problem that cannot be solved by an exclusive focus on project process”88.

Final remarks and a word on where to next

This paper has explored the application of complexity theories to the planning and implementation of integrated urban violence prevention initiatives. The objective here was to critically reflect on what urban violence as a complex problem means and, within the South African context, draw insight into the ways in which complexity thinking has thus far informed policy development and the practice of integrated violence prevention. The analysis presented demonstrates that, despite having fostered multi-sphere integrated approaches for violence prevention, the true potential of understanding the complex nature of urban violence and the social systems which need to be systemically addressed remains untapped.

Overall, the core critique rests in that the success of localised integrated interventions currently being implemented remains based on high levels of determined control. In other words, on the simplification of a highly complex social and political environment, which does not and cannot adequately foster the broad-based realisation of integrated violence prevention. Broad-based integrated intervention, and its long-term sustained success, is dependent on the ability to realise integrated prevention at scale, beyond the controlled, closed environment of pilot programmes. This demands more effective means of coping with the reality of uncertainty and a lack of predictability and control over outcomes. On this basis, it has been argued that the influence and generation of such conditions is reliant on the pursuit of developing more adaptive governance and programme management processes. Additionally, if there is agreement on the fact that institutional reform holds the potential to aid the management of complexities associated with realising integrated planning in general, then perhaps there is validity in the argument to look beyond disciplinary confines and draw on the experiences of the management sciences, as a field that is proactively gathering valuable experience in managing complex adaptive systems and the unavoidable reality of high-paced dynamic change.

Of course, any move towards the development of more agile methods in urban planning and management will not be without its myriad of challenges, however, remaining in the current state of limbo makes little sense. The complexity of urban planning as a social development issue will not dissipate and thus, the sooner we make the shift to working with it and understanding exactly what this means for innovations in planning practice, the better. Unarguably, much remains to be done in addressing the “how” of achieving more flexible governance that copes with complexity through built-in mechanisms to streamline knowledge management, learning and adaptive change, however in light of the case presented, either we take on the task of working with complexity or run the risk that broad-based implementation of integrated violence prevention will remain out of reach.


1 The author formed part of an expert team commissioned to develop the initial chapter on urban safety for inclusion in the IUDF whereby the need to address urban safety as a cross-cutting issue was emphasised.

2 For further information see

3 See City of Cape Town MURP description,

4 This change in name is due to the preference to refer to the project using the more positive, broader terms of safety and peace promotion rather than the restricted, more negative violence prevention orientation. In the transfer of the programme to Mamelodi this has had direct implications for the project design, as focus of interventions is not placed on the most dangerous crime hotspots but rather on identifying the potentials and opportunities to increase safety through preventive strategies by investing in people.

5 The author formed a part of the consulting team recruited by the KfW Development Bank to complete the feasibility study and make recommendations on the institutional organisation for an SPUU programme in Mamelodi, undertaken in mid-2014.

6 The VPUU programme implements situational upgrading according to principles of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) and emphasises the construction of Safe Node Areas (SNAs) connected by lighted walkways so as to encourage natural surveillance.

7 It is beyond the scope of this paper to expand on the need to reflect on approaches to community engagement methods, consensus building and the challenge of what Watson89,90 refers to as “conflicting rationalities” in promoting collaborative governance, however it is recognised that such an inquiry would form an important part in developing the adaptive planning and management methodologies being advocated for.

8 A good example of an emergent process comes from new product development, whereby a series of trial and error experiences are had in which the developer iterates recursively, shifting between problem-finding and solution evaluation91.