All posts by Colin Harrison

Embracing the Autocatalytic City (colin)

Here is a great article in The Atlantic Cities by Benjamin de la Pina. Benjamin is with the Rockefeller Foundation and is a sponsor of work on Urban Systems, including the Santa Fe Institute’s workshops that are chaired by Jose Lobos, Geoff West, and Luis Bettencourt. The article is about how the reality of the complexity of large cities, e.g. Nairobi, has outstripped our ability to manage and govern them. Great read and very sobering for our efforts on GSS.

Frontiers in Pattern Languages

You may recall some of my haranguing on the need to do on-the-ground study (a la Jane Jacobs) of patterns in cities, in addition to the 100,000 foot views that we get from economic statistics.  A colleague in the UK familiar with my passion over this sent me a terrific link to a deck that makes this point.  The context for this is a new Wiki-based tool for collaborative scenario development, which also seems like a useful addition.

When the problem is simply too big

Last week I went for the first time to Mexico City to take part in a technical conference at the Universidad PanAmerica (UP). The USA newspapers have been full for many months with stories of murder and kidnapping and so I approached the trip with some apprehension. I am delighted to say that my expectations were enormously exceeded. No doubt there are many dangerous areas in Mexico City, but that is true of many cities around the world. As a photographer I was enchanted with the colours and the light in Mexico City and our hosts at the UP were amazingly well organized, gracious, and generous.

The one big problem we faced however was that of getting around in this city of 20 (25?) million people spread over some 2000 km2. The conference used a 20 seater van or a 50 seater bus on different occasions and we seemed to spend 2-4 hours per day crawling through the congested streets. More independent participants used the MetroBus, a very popular (and overcrowded) Bus Rapid Transit system, or walked. But mostly we suffered in the very nice van.

So it would be wonderful to wave a Smart City wand over this and magically solve these problems. Surely this level of congestion must be having some impact on Mexico City’s further economic development and it definitely has an impact on the quality of life of all economic classes. But transportation is only one of many substantial challenges that the city faces. Despite efforts by the city to prevent it, many (millions?) people live in unauthorised developments where they receive no services, including fresh water and sewage. And this in a city that has had repeated epidemics of Avian Flu.

I can barely imagine what it must be like to be a senior administrator in the city government who is confronted with these totally unmanageable and highly inter-connected problems. So what does GSS have to say about problems of this scale and complexity? Or can it only deal with the easy stuff, such as London?

Your thoughts?

Research priorities from the workshop

1. We need a crisper definition of what we mean by GSS. All new fields suffer from this problem, but a first step to establishing GSS as a valuable new approach to solving global problems is to be able to explain concisely and in plain language what it means and intends.

2. Phenomenology In my experience it is hard to get modelers out of their offices, but frankly we have little structured understanding of what goes on in cities and this is most likely going to require a small army of Jane Jacobs’. The goal of this work is to develop archetypes of patterns and principles that can be refined over time by validating them in Big Database. I do not believe in simply collecting Big Data and then hoping that the data mining tools will find these patterns for us without any guidance.

3. I found the debates about how GSS will sort out the massive problems of global financial, governance,, climate change, and a few other problems to be very inspirational. I am sure we would all love to see these problems solved. But I generally encourage learning to walk before engaging in hyper-marathons. These problems have been around a long time and many very bright people have worked hard to solve them. Why should anyone believe the GSS can succeed where they have failed? We need some proof points based on tackling smaller but still quite important problems. There are many of these.

4. I was surprised that no one spoke about supply chain networks or more generally the ecosystems that bind multiple players together into industrial systems. These systems are rather invisible but have direct impacts on our lives when things go wrong, e.g. the Tohoku EQ, Hurricane Sandy. These are also the cradles of industrial innovation as networks are disrupted by new members or new technologies.