Safiya El Ghmari

SFI Complexity Interactive

Safiya El Ghmari is an advanced Ph.D. Candidate at the National Institute of Urban and Spatial Planning in Rabat, Morocco. She holds a B.Arch and M.Arch from the National School of Architecture in Rabat and is a trained architect. El Ghmari co-produces and co-hosts the Early Birds podcast, a bimonthly discussion of a variety of topics. She attended SFI's inagural Complexity Interactive (SFI-CI) in 2020.


Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.

My research focuses on understanding cities, particularly informal cities. The highest rates of urbanization are recorded in developing countries, where most of this development happens informally without prior planification. In my research, studying informality offers a curious case study to learn more about cities' dynamics and epistemology. To narrow down my research, I’m mostly interested in two levels of informality: urban policy and urban sociology. While the former is more related to analysing policy tools and strategies from a top-down approach, the former is based on understanding local social dynamics shaping and shaped by urban informality.

Simply put, my main research question is: If informality is the answer, what was the question?” Studying informality sounds deceptively easy, but even defining informality is a challenge, up to today there is no clear definition or consensus on its definition. I find that navigating different levels of informality requires a transdisciplinary approach that I hope to use to shed light on its dynamics.


In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?

When I first picked this research topic, I was looking at it from a technocrat’s point of view and discarded the diversity of agents interacting in urban informality. I remember taking my first course on Complexity Explorer on Agent-Based Modeling with Bill Rand and suddenly opening my eyes to the complexity of my topic. Currently, I’m using complexity science methods and tools to try find an approximation or an analogy across disciplines that could help me describe and define urban informality. 

Learning about complexity has allowed me to take a step back and observe urban informality in a new way. In fact, after any complexity science seminar or class, I always end up with more questions than answers, and completely new and different ways of looking at informality informed by my colleagues and their approaches.


How did your experience at SFI-CI impact your professional (or personal) perspective?

The first impression I got when I took part in SFI-CI was how diverse the participants' backgrounds were, who also joined from almost every time zone. This was a significant input in my experience and has helped me add more perspectives to my research, which is essential for my exploratory approach.

Thanks to these programs I was able to take part in different international workshops and programs around complexity sciences and urban studies: next fall I will be under the joint supervision of Luis Bettencourt at the University of Chicago to look at urban informality within a complex and computational sciences framework.


What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?

I’m not sure about it as being surprising, but when I’m not reading in my free time, nor painting, I’m usually found at the dojo practicing Aikido: the art of peace.

After starting my journey in complexity sciences, I’ve noticed many common points with Aikido. Aikido has combined different techniques from other martial arts and encourages us to observe and learn from other martial arts, which reminds me of complexity science tools. And both share the same safe and diverse atmosphere of learning and exchange with a focus on the process.


This interview was conducted in August of 2021