What’s in a Name? Re-thinking Port Cities as Systems

Hilde Sennema

Within Port City Futures, we use several ways of referencing to the port city. Some definitions are geographical, such as region, cluster or infrastructure, while others are metaphorical or borrowed from other sciences, such as hub, interface or ecosystem. Whereas our multidisciplinary approach enables us to learn from each other’s methods and expertise, these definitions can also get lost in translation and are often cause for discussion. If we look at it as a spatial entity, how do we define its borders? If we look at it as something fluid, how far do we follow flows of money and goods crossing these borders? And to what extent do port city stakeholders share interests that legitimize the port city as an analytical unit?

In order to tackle these kinds of questions, we need to be precise about the words we use and the meanings we attach to them. In an earlier blog, Andrew Littlejohn already addressed the difficulties of systems thinking, particularly in relation to the term resilience. In this blog, I further explore the meaning of the omnipresent word “system” to see where it comes from, how it has been used within different scholarly contexts, and if we can use it within the context of port cities.

Thinking about systems dates back centuries, with the well-known axiom that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ being attributed to thinkers such as Aristotle, Proclus and Aquinas (Christensen 2018). In modern scientific history, systems thinking is often contributed to the rise of sociology in the 19th Century, which focused on the interrelations between people, communities and institutions. Sociologist Georg Simmel, for example, explored the influence of living in the Großstadt (big city) on the mental life of the individual and their surroundings (Simmel 1903).

The most renowned proponent of using the biological system as a metaphor for interconnected phenomena, was theoretical biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. In the 1920s, he encouraged biologists to look at coordinating factors in biology, rather than the elements in itself (Von Bertalanffy 1972). Criticists argued that this went against the Cartesian approach, in which organisms had to be studied in isolation, and ridiculed Von Bertalanffy’s thesis that systems are more than the sum of their parts. They regarded it metaphysical and supernatural.

Simultaneous to Von Bertalanffy’s ideas on interconnections and interrelations, systems thinking took flight because of developments in computer sciences. It is difficult to point exactly at who influenced whom, but in fields from technology and economy to political and cultural sciences, systems thinking brought a new way of looking at the dynamics of correlations and cause and effect. One of the adaptions of systems thinking for governance issues was made by political scientist Arend Lijphart. He developed the idea of political subsystems in 1968. Subsystems, he stated, are powerful coalitions with a shared goal, formed by actors across ideological or party lines. Although it was criticized for its dependence on a single case study (the pillarized society of the Netherlands after World War 2), it was an important step in conceptualizing how formal decision-making often uses informal means.

Around the same time, sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein further developed systems theory on a macro-level. In his world systems theory, which he first published in 1974, he emphasized the interrelationships between the core and periphery in order to maintain a world-wide capitalist system (Wallerstein 1974). His thinking influenced thinkers on global cities (e.g. Janet L. Abu Lughod and Saskia Sassen in the 1990s) and planetary urbanization (e.g. Neil Brenner in the 2000s). The latter described his approach as ‘…“open systems,” according to which the concrete articulations of social relations result from a “concentration of manifold determinations” rather than from singular, all-encompassing causal mechanisms or covering laws’ (Brenner 2018).

More general critiques on systems thinking was that some researchers feared such thinking would reduce human beings to cogs in engineered systems. Moreover: within systems thinking, it is difficult to establish the boundaries of a system (Olsson et al. 2015). Others felt it suggested too much of a top-down, deterministic approach that did not take into account the complexity and messiness of the relationships between actors, objects and structures. In the field of urban studies, different ways to define governance in an urban entity came up, such as regimes in the 1980s (e.g. Stone 1989) or networks in the 1990s (e.g. Enroth and Bevir).

Thinking about systems is therefore paradoxical: on the one hand, the researcher should establish clear boundaries of the system they want to analyze, in order to be able to make their subject measurable and comparable – especially within a multidisciplinary research team. On the other hand: the researcher has to work under the assumption that a system is messy and complex. Why, then, should we still use the word ‘system’ within port city research? Because words as infrastructure, network or interface do not convey what Von Bertalanffy described as the ‘whole’, ‘connectedness’ or even ‘organization’ of the systemic approach, the factor that is especially important to port city research.

Subsequently, it is crucial to address the criticisms. Systems thinking could, for example, be used as a hermeneutic device when studying port cities: as a frame or mindset to designate, interpret and explain the interrelations between port and city. An example of this is the word ecosystem, a term the PCF group has adopted (Jansen 2020), which not only addresses the interrelationships between port, city and its surroundings, but also emphasizes the connection of a port city to its inherited resources:  a coastal or riverine ecosystem, port city culture, as well as social and business networks.

In doing so, it is important to state that the port city system or ecosystem is not one monolithic, top down entity, but – depending on the specific hermeneutic view or mindset that is adopted – can be a myriad of systems that need to be carefully demarcated. Wallerstein emphasized this multiplicity in 2004, referencing to his own work: “A world-system is not the system of the world, but a system that is a world and which can be, most often has been, located in an area less than the entire globe.” 

When we talk about the port city as a system, it is crucial to remember that port cities do not consist of isolable elements one can study in lab-like circumstances. We can analyze the port and the city in isolation, but we would miss out on the systemic, coordinated factors that are crucial to the port city amalgam – in its present, but also when looking at the past and thinking about the future.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Andrew Littlejohn, Carola Hein and Maurice Jansen.


Brenner, Neil. “Debating Planetary Urbanization: For an Engaged Pluralism,” Environment and Planning: Society and Space 36, no. 3 (June 2018): 570–90.

Enroth, Henrik. “Policy Network Theory.” In The SAGE Handbook of Governance, 19–35. Los Angeles, Calif.: SAGE, 2013.

Jansen, Maurice. “Port innovation ecosystem, a symbiosis of capital; a case study of Rotterdam.” Conference proceedings IAME 2020, Hong Kong.

Lijphart, Arend, ed. Politics in Europe. Comparisons and Interpretations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969.

Christensen, Joel.  “No, Aristotle Didn’t Write “A Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts””, Sentientiae Antiquae, blog post July 6, 2018, https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2018/07/06/no-aristotle-didnt-write-a-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/.

Olsson, Lennart, Anne Jerneck, Henrik Thoren, Johannes Persson, and David O’Byrne. “Why Resilience Is Unappealing to Social Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations of the Scientific Use of Resilience.” Science Advances 1, no. 4 (May 2015), 3.

Simmel, Georg. “Die Grosstädte Und Das Geistesleben.” In Die Grossstadt. Vorträge Und Aufsätze Zur Städteausstellung, 185–206. Dresden, 1903.

Stone, Clarence N. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988. Studies in Government and Public Policy. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Von Bertalanffy, Ludwig, “The History and Status of General Systems Theory,” The Academy of Management Journal 15, no. 4 (December 1972), pp. 407-426.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. “The Rise and Future Demise of the World-Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16, no. 4 (1974): 387–415.


Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash.