City As a System Analytical Framework: A Structured Analytical Approach to Understanding and Acting in Urban Environments

City As a System Analytical Framework: A Structured Analytical Approach to Understanding and Acting in Urban Environments

Mark Lomedico and Elizabeth M. Bartels


On-going research on “mega-cities” highlights aspects of large, unplanned cities that make them an operational challenge. This work has a clear perspective on the potential threats posed by cities, and makes the case that current doctrine is ill prepared to manage these problems. However, these research efforts have focused on the conceptual challenges of cities rather than practical approaches to analyzing and operating in urban environments. In response, Caerus Associates has created an analytical framework to enable military analysts and planners to develop a systems perspective of the urban operational environment. The framework is designed to enable the continuous updating of analysis and premised on the idea of iteration in the face of a changing environment. This article discusses the characteristics of urban environments, suggests opportunities, as well as challenges, resulting from urban complexity, and describes the framework’s approach to understanding and acting in urban settings.


Caerus Associates developed an analytical framework for assessing urban environments to support current military planning and analysis processes. The purpose of the project was to develop a nuanced way of understanding hyper-connected cities, highlighting interactions between the physical and social domains. Building on ideas developed by Caerus founder David Kilcullen in his book Out of the Mountains, the team’s work drew on current social science research, best practices curated through interviews with military and intelligence organizations, and team members’ own operational experience. Caerus rigorously tested the framework using workshops, case studies, and wargames over the course of 15 months. These engagements with general purpose and special operations forces, the intelligence community, and academia ensured that the framework was useful to, and usable by operational staffs during analysis and planning.

The Urban Environment’s Challenges

Rapid and unplanned urbanization continues to concentrate the global population in cities. A growing consensus of military thinkers argue that as cities struggle to plan for and manage this growth, threats to US interests will require US military engagement.[i] In some cases, these threats will take the form of non-state actors empowered by gaps in host-nation capacity. In others, normal urban functions will be overcome by natural disasters or popular unrest. As a result, the US military will be called to conduct decisive action (offense, defense, stability, or defense support of civil authorities[ii]) in cities.[iii] Many of these missions will not be adversary-centric, requiring analysis of the environment be given the same level of emphasis traditionally given to the adversary.

In order to be successful in cities, military analysts and planners will require tools to understand urban environments. The City As a System Analytical Framework describes the urban environment and recommends a systems approach to analysis. Cities are complex, adaptive systems due to their connectedness; their unique terrain; and the diversity of territorial controllers (each explained in more detail below). These qualities lead to a high density of interaction between the population, infrastructure, and the physical terrain, which overwhelms traditional reductive analysis. Systems approaches to analysis seek to understand these interactions and how they contribute to broad patterns of behavior over space and time.

The framework is not unique in advocating a systems approach to understanding the connected, complex nature of urban environments. Many academic and military thinkers have argued that adopting a systems approach is crucial to understanding urban environments. For example, urban operations subject matter expert Russell Glenn wrote: “Urban areas are by nature systems, which are themselves parts of even larger systems.”[iv]  More recent writings within the military have also taken this approach. The Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group stated: "...Simply understanding the behavior of individual parts of a complex system is insufficient. One must develop an appreciation for the whole of the system to comprehend the behavior of its sub-components."[v]  Other Army thinkers have agreed, arguing: “Megacities can be best described as systems of systems, comparable to a living organism. They are dynamic environments that change not only block by block, but day to day. While this is not a new idea, the magnitude of the challenge to gain situational understanding is significantly greater due to the complexity, density, and scale of the physical and human terrain.”[vi]

Connected and Data Rich

Cities are saturated with information due to their internal and external connectedness. The constant interaction between people and between people and physical terrain creates a large amount of information, which is collected by ubiquitous sensors throughout the urban environment. This rich data offers big data analytical opportunities, but it can also be overwhelming for analysts, risking the loss of critical signals in the noise of the city. For example, those seeking concealment in urban environments must work carefully to remain unobserved, but for those who are able to blend into the daily patterns of urban life, detection can be extremely difficult. Data is also difficult to interpret, and changes rapidly over time. Residents cope with size, density, and complexity by developing personalized understandings of the city, which can cause conflicting interpretations and observations of how elements of the urban environment work and their importance. Cities also change due to both outside stimuli and due to interactions between elements of the city over time.

As a result of urban connectedness, methods for gathering necessary information about cities differ from methods used in traditional environments. Analysts need to be prepared to leverage open source information and local perspectives. However, they must also be prepared to synthesize multiple, conflicting perspectives and dynamic information. Better intelligence collection requirements, and structured but flexible approaches to store and share date will be critical to sense making in these environments. Additionally, traditional analytical methods that silo information do not enable analysts to observe relationships that exist in the environment. This presents a problem—one that the framework seeks to remedy—as the urban environment is hyper-connected and thus yields many cross-cutting relationships.

Unique Terrain

As a result of the growing size of cities and connectivity, cities no longer terminate at their administrative edges. Expanding populations settle in outlying neighborhoods, slowly connecting cities to neighboring urban centers to form uninterrupted areas of settlement. Resulting urban agglomerations—such as the northeast corridor of the US with its string of urban settlements from Washington DC to Boston—function as an integrated whole, even when outdated political divisions remain. Infrastructure, such as utility systems and transit networks, also extend past administrative boundaries. Social networks connect the city to people outside of the city, whether 5 miles outside or 5,000. These networks can influence certain sectors of a city’s population through information sharing, messaging, and an influx of money. As a result, areas of operation determined by political boundaries fail to encompass the true extent of the cities’ social and physical reach, removing potential threats and vectors of influence from the analysis.

Edgelessness requires a fundamental change in approach to urban operations. Existing joint concepts stress the importance of isolating cities before undertaking urban operations.[vii] Caerus’ findings, however, conclude that it is very difficult to cordon and lay siege to a medium or large city. Urban agglomerations do not terminate in permissible areas, making it difficult to emplace walls and checkpoints needed to isolate the city. Systematic clearing of city blocks requires battalions of forces that are rarely available, leaving openings for enemies to reinfiltrate cleared areas. Even when resources are available, cordoning a city and cutting off the flow of goods and people can cause long-term damage to the health of the city, risking strategic defeat despite tactical victories. Instead, US forces can achieve micro-isolation by denying the problem system of certain critical flows and nodes that may be accessible to friendly forces. Alternatively, friendly forces may be able to work within the existing system, by strengthening some aspects of the problem system allowing cities to continue to function while removing potential threats. In some cases, these approaches can be achieved from outside of the city as urban connectedness enables US forces to influence systems from afar.

Diversity of Controllers

Cities are rarely controlled by a single coherent actor. Most cities have social, political, economic, and infrastructure hubs located in multiple places throughout the city. These hubs are often controlled by different actors who influence the population by permitting or denying access to areas, people, goods, and services. While the state attempts to create rules to make these centers legible and accessible to state rule,[viii] often cities are too overwhelming to be completely managed by one actor. To compensate, the state will devolve control to sub-state actors or non-governmental entities. In some cases, this is done in a very controlled, official way, by granting authority over specific aspects of the city to approved entities, like religious organizations and businesses. For example, states sometimes grant authority to churches to manage behavior of their congregations. However, in other cases devolution occurs because the state lacks the capacity, allowing unauthorized actors to gain control over an area.

As a result, analysts of, and operators in cities must be prepared to navigate interactions with a range of powerful actors. Understanding the relationships between different actors, and how friendly and adversary forces are connected as part of systems, is critical to effective operations. Furthermore, it is critical to understand how territorial logics of the physical environment empower and constrain actors’ behavior. The natural and man-made physical terrain shapes the behavior of adversary forces, friendly agencies, and the population. Territorial logic refers to the strategies and behaviors of systems and actors resulting from the limits of terrain.

City Size

Caerus’ findings indicate that population size is not a proxy for connectivity, unique terrain, or the diversity of actors in the city. The difficulty of managing urban problems is not meaningfully reduced by operating in a smaller city, if that city is still hyper-connected, edgeless, and exhibiting fractured control. Size also rarely predicts whether a city is relevant to US national security interests, or permissible to US actors on the ground.

Many stakeholders in the urban operations community of interest place an emphasis on megacities—cities of 10 million or more people—and their size, rapid growth, and scale. However, Caerus research shows that megacities are not growing as quickly as are medium sized cities. In fact, the fastest growing cities are cities with 500,000 to 1 million people in Asia and Africa.[ix] Furthermore, there are many more medium sized cities than there are megacities. In 2014, there were 952 cities with populations between 500,000 and 5 million, 43 cities with populations between 5 and 10 million, and only 28 megacities, with populations 10 million or more.[x] Caerus is not alone in reaching this finding.[xi] The complex, adaptive nature of cities is present in small and large cities as well as megacities. The quantity of middleweight cities might mean that the US military is more likely to operate in these medium sized cities than in megacities. A similar argument is made in “The Case Against Megacities” by Michael Evans in Parameters.[xii]

City As a System Analytical Framework

In light of these urban challenges, Caerus built a framework to enhance existing doctrinal planning and analysis techniques. The framework is a method for developing a holistic perspective of the urban environment and its problem systems in order to better aid US military course of action development and course of action analysis. The framework also motivates data collection and organization practices to address critical gaps, as well as long term collection to support baselining.

Design Principles

The framework encourages analysts to take a broad view of the urban operational environment by combining adversary-, population-, and terrain-centric approaches that are common to various military planning processes. The complexity of the urban environment makes it impossible to isolate these aspects of the environment from one another. Terrain and infrastructure shape the behavior of not only friendly and adversary forces, but also contribute to the behavior of the population. Adversary action affects both the behavior of the population and the physical terrain of the city. In order to account for these relationships, the framework encourages the consideration of friendly and adversary actors as part of the environment, rather than as an isolated element of analysis.

Relatedly, the framework elevates the importance of the environment (to include physical and man-made terrain, infrastructure, and the population) to the same level of emphasis given to the adversary. Traditional intelligence preparation of the operational environment (IPOE) focuses heavily on the adversary, their tactics, techniques, and procedures, and their most likely courses of action (COAs). The framework posits that other aspects of the environment—like infrastructure and the population—contribute to urban problems as much as, and perhaps more than, the adversary. Giving the environment this level of emphasis and importance ensures analysts and planners are considering how the system of systems across the physical and social domains impact the operational environment, a key component of IPOE step 2.


The framework is a three-step process: define the urban operational environment, frame and map urban problem systems, and develop and analyze urban COAs.

Step I: Define the Urban Operational Environment guides analysts to develop an understanding of the current and historical operational environment. The framework’s techniques offer lines of questions for staffs to work though in order to gain an initial understanding of the urban environment. The framework provides an ontology for urban environments that highlights 13 Significant Characteristics (illustrated in Figure 1 below), and commonly occurring “types” for each.

Figure 1 Significant Characteristics of the Urban Operational Environment.

These characteristics and the research that goes into defining them helps analysts and planners understand the connections between elements of the Urban Triad[xiii]—the population, infrastructure, and physical environment of the city. In contrast to traditional approaches like the operational variables (PMESII[xiv]), the framework does not encourage a reductive method but helps tease out the important systems that exist within an urban environment. The Urban Triad also supports cataloging and storing data to encourage collection over time and coordination between units. Figure 2 illustrates this approach with some notional (though frequently relevant) elements of the environment. It is important to note that the framework does not use the Urban Triad as a mandatory matrix to populate as part of a deep dive. It is merely a method to catalog research.

Taken together, the techniques provided in Step 1 of the framework generate a picture of the current and historical state of the environment. It improves on current practice by guiding analysts to collect and analyze information that highlights the relationships between elements of the environment. This approach integrates adversary-, terrain-, and population centric perspective to create a more holistic picture.

Figure 2 Example of the Urban Triad.

Step II: Frame and Map Urban Problem Systems directs analysts and planners to develop problem statements and understand the elements and interactions of the environment that contribute to the problem. The framework’s structured process for defining the urban operational environment in Step I enables comparison of the current state of the environment to the desired future state defined by commander’s guidance in order to identify problems. The framework then guides the analyst to identify elements of problem systems in systems terms. The framework identifies flows and nodes as the elements of problem systems. Flows are the tangibles and intangibles, whether in constant or periodic motion, that serve as a system’s inputs and outputs and enable system capability. Nodes are the shipping, storage, and receiving locations of various flows. The framework offers a structured approach, called FASCOPE,[xv] to identify and document elements of the system and their key considerations.

After determining the problem system and identifying its elements, the framework directs analysts and planners to analyze the problem system as a whole by conceptually diagramming and geospatially mapping it. Depicting how these elements of the environment interact can help provide an explanation why and how systems behave and reveal the associated territorial logics. Conceptual and geospatial mapping is crucial to developing a sense of systematic behavior and territorial logics as they can be used for process and flow pathway tracing. Simply inputting information about a system into an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint deck will not reveal these logics. It is important to reiterate that problem systems can include the adversary, friendly forces, the population, infrastructure networks, and elements of the physical terrain.

Step III: Develop and Analyze Urban Courses of Action provides the analysis needed to determine how best to affect the environment through the identification of Environmental Centers of Gravity (E-COGs). Based on the maps of the problem system developed in Step II, analysts and planners can begin to identify E-COGs. E-COGs are the nodes and/or flows—of which there can be one or many—that are most critical to a problem system. As a result, affecting these components can have a sizeable impact on the broader system.

E-COGs expand traditional adversary-centric center of gravity analysis to be used for examining urban problem systems in order to identify the elements on which the system critically depends. The concept also picks up on themes from newer applications of systems thinking to military analysis and planning such as the 2003 Institute for Defense Analyses ideas of nodal capture and nodal isolation, as mentioned in the Kevin M. Felix and Frederick D. Wong article, “The Case For Megacities,” in Parameters.[xvi] However, the E-COG concept introduces the possibility of isolating important nodes (and flows) outside the scope of the adversary. Furthermore, the E-COG concept seeks to stress that not all E-COGs must be destroyed, degraded, neutralized, or isolated. Some E-COGs—for example a potable water infrastructure network—must be buttressed, protected, or improved.

After identifying the E-COGs of problem systems, analysts and planners can begin developing tentative COAs to degrade or buttress E-COGs, and understanding how the COAs might impact the broader environment. Analysts and planners can assess COAs for their acceptability and feasibility, by returning to their conceptual diagram and thinking through how the proposed COAs might affect the elements of the problem system. This visualization and accompanying narrative can serve as a way to promote discussion amongst the staff and also as a briefing tool to the commander. Planners should also brainstorm how the COAs can affect systems that are related to the problem system. Because consequences of military action do not unfold neatly and linearly, the staff and commander must return to their definition of the urban operational environment (Step I) and re-assess how the COAs will impact the significant characteristics of the urban operational environment. The commander and staff must identify whether the COAs’ actions on the E-COGs will contribute to achieving the desired future state.


The community of interest concerned with future urban operations generally agrees on the types of challenges the urban environment poses. While there are slight disagreements with regard to city size as a driver for force and concept development, there is a growing effort to devote time and resources to study the problem. With this in mind, Caerus sought to ground and operationalize these concepts in the creation of the framework. By developing a process for establishing a systems perspective of the city and its problem systems, Caerus believes it addressed a gap in urban operations doctrine guiding analysis and planning.

For more information about the framework, its components, and its development process, contact Caerus Associates regarding the City As a System Analytical Framework at or (703) 649-5300.

End Notes

[i] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, 2013.

[ii] “The term decisive action replaces the term full spectrum operations as the concept of continuous, simultaneous offense, defense, stability, or defense support of civil authorities. Defense support of civil authorities replaces civil support as a task under decisive action.” Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0 “Unified Land Operations,” 2012, v.

[iii] US Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1 "The U.S. Army Operating Concept," 2014, 12.

[iv] Russell W. Glenn, "Managing Complexity During Military Urban Operations: Visualizing the Elephant," RAND, 2004, x.

[v] “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future,” Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group, 2014, 10.

[vi] Kevin M. Felix and Frederick D. Wong, "The Case For Megacities," Parameters, Spring 2015, Vol. 45 No. 1, 24.

[vii] William G. Adamson, “Megacities and the US Army,” Parameters, Spring 2015, Vol. 45 No. 1, 51-52.

[viii] For more on this, see James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1998.

[ix] "World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision," United Nations, 2014, 2.

[x] "World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision," United Nations, 2014, 13.

[xi] See Diane E. Davis, “Insecure and Secure Cities: Towards a Reclassification of World Cities in a Global Era,” MIT International Review, Spring 2008, p 30-41.; Christopher Paul et. al “Identifying Urban Flashpoints: A Delphi-Derived Model for Scoring Cities’ Vulnerability to Large-Scale Unrest,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31:981-1000, 2008.; and Brett G. Sylvia, “Megacities: Geopolitical Dominator or Distractor?” USAWC Strategy Paper, 2014.

[xii] Michael Evans, “The Case Against Megacities,” Parameters, Spring 2015, Vol. 45 No. 1, 36.

[xiii] Joint Publication 3-06 “Joint Urban Operations,” 2013, I-2.

[xiv] Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure. Joint Publication 2-01.3 “Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment,” 2009, I-1.

[xv] Flows, Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events.

[xvi] Kevin M. Felix and Frederick D. Wong, "The Case For Megacities," Parameters, Spring 2015, Vol. 45 No. 1, 29.


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I re-visited this article after reading Complex IPB posted on SWJ recently. My initial thoughts involve how this framework can integrate the fitness landscape, group and population centric analysis demonstrated in the developmental complex IPB process. I'll re-read both later.

I enjoyed your thought provoking article very much. I have one question and one very minor critique.

Question: Have you studied the implications of this on our intelligence organizations? Will this require our organizations to transform? Where does the expertise come from to analyze urban systems? How do we collect and process the data beyond beating the streets and gradually developing an understanding (often after we make a misstep)? This challenge seems like the long pole in the tent to me. Conceptually I think most of our folks get it, putting it into practice is a different challenge altogether.

Minor Critique: I wonder how transformative it would be if the SECDEF directed that the military not use three for a year? The trinity, triads, three courses of action, three lines of effort . . . . The idea that everything we do must adapt to 3 (it is the Pi for military operations), then we reject it. Tying this to your article, the three step process focused on defining, framing, and developing/analyzing COAs. Seems like we're missing something, assessing? And perhaps a couple of other things. A minor critique that may not be relevant to your article after further reflection.

This is a great concept. PMESII-PT and ASCOPE give you the individual pieces of the puzzle. Mark and Elizabeth bring those pieces together to form the whole picture. Large cities will only become more important over time as more and more people move away from rural areas and into large urban centers. Our struggles in Baghdad and Mosul are only the tip of the iceberg of how difficult operating in cities like these will be.

This framework is an outstanding augmentation to the Military Decision Making Process and allows for deeper analysis resulting in more thorough information collection and more informed decisions. System mapping assists Priority Information Requirement refinement by delving a bit deeper into critical areas of emphasis to develop more acute indicators leading to quicker decisions where applicable. This is excellent work with applicability to virtually any problem set where units find themselves in an urban environment.

In general i like the approach of systematizing how we view urban environments. No particular critique in that direction. My question is one of comprehension and completeness.

I would like to see this approach grounded in a broader theoretical framework that can be taught in such a way that cities are a subset of environments. The military, and the Army especially, struggle mightily with transferring one framework of understanding to environments that were not envisioned in the original framework that comes to dominate our thinking. What we have lacked consistently in the last two decades is a theory that can house urban, rural, desert, jungle, arctic, irregular, regular, conventional, unconventional, littoral, culturally familiar, and culturally unfamiliar environments under one framework.

This is critical because in the absence of an articulated and taught theoretical position, the officer corps will evolve an organic one. Thus we get sucked into the COIN or the UW or conventional or whatever default mindset that then can't account for other environments. This makes every environment we operate in that isn't part of the party line a novel environment that we then bend over backwards to adapt to...the very definition of reaction vs. proaction.

When a framework is presented without a theoretical and ROMO based grounding we end up with niche capabilities that often require experts. We do no have the resources or the plasticity to rapidly adapt such frameworks, leaving the general force no better equipped. The issue with specialized frameworks is also scalability. An urban fight mentality will invariably lead us astray when we can't resource every operational environment we are currently operating in with its own tailored and niche framework.

Thus, I ask the authors, understanding that they are invested in this approach via Caerus and Dr. Kilcullen's Feral Cities hypothesis, to wargame the impact of their framework being adopted. Such adoption would invariably require us to organize, train, and equip for success in that environment, leading to specialization and therefore tradeoffs in capabilities in other environments.

Thank you for taking the time to read the article and provide your feedback.

Though the Framework was designed for the urban operational environment, we received a lot of end-user feedback during our development tests indicating that the Framework could be applied to environments other than an urban one. We found that other environments often exhibit complexity and social/physical interconnectedness, which are phenomena the Framework was designed to highlight and help analysts understand.

We spent a lot of time ensuring that the Framework integrates into the military decision-making process in order to lessen the burden on learning the Framework. We endeavored to create a useable Framework that doesn't require Framework expertise for the very reasons you noted: the Army's lack of resources and plasticity to adopt shiny new concepts.

Because the Framework attempts to enhance certain aspects of doctrinal analysis and the decision-making process and doesn't call for a doctrinal revolution, we posit that Framework adoption wouldn't require an organize, train, and equip effort at the expense of the readiness to understand/analyze other environments.