– applying complexity theory to design and planning
Talk by Henrik Valeur at the Open City Summer School, Politecnico di Milano
7 September 2016
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here tonight – and to discuss some important issues with you!
I’ll talk about Bangalore – an Indian city of about ten million inhabitants that is probably best known for its many IT engineers, backroom offices and call centers that are providing services to customers across the globe.
In fact, what is known today as “globalization” initially started with the creation of the Electronic City in Bangalore, India, and the first special economic zone in Shenzhen, China, in the late 1970s. In China, foreign companies could have their products manufactured much cheaper than at home – because of low salaries, tax exemptions, lack of labor regulations and environmental regulations, or the lack of implementation of those regulations. In India, information and communication-based services could be provided and information and communication technologies could be developed and produced much cheaper than at home – for the same reasons as in China and because of a large, well-educated workforce in Indian cities.
Bangalore inspired the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman to write a bestseller book about globalization called The World is Flat (in 2005), in which he argues that cheap transportation costs and new infrastructural networks (the internet) creates a level playing field on which people from poor countries may compete for work on a more or less equal footing with people from rich countries, which is obviously a contentious claim.
However, the functioning of Bangalore does rely, to a large extent, on a complex network of optical fibers, routers and computers.
But it also relies on another network – or so it did.
Historically, a network of tanks and canals provided water for irrigation of crops and vegetation in and around the city making it a pleasant and prosperous place. But in recent decades this network has suffered from increasing ignorance and is now in a state of complete decay.
I want to discuss how the flow of water initially gave shape to sustainable and resilient human settlements in this region and how the subsequent neglect of these natural resources threatens to destroy the modern city.
In order to do that I’ll present a case I worked on with some researchers from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
I will give you a historical background, discuss some challenges and present a proposal.
But first, I want to talk a little bit about complexity theory, which may provide a basis on which to understand this case, and other similar cases, and, perhaps, provide a conceptual tool for how to engage with urban environments in an era in which we are beginning to realize that urbanity and ecology should be integrated rather than be opposed to each other.
2. Complexity theory
Before I came to India, I had lived and worked in China for a few years.
Asian and Western thinking is quite different, I quickly learned. Basically, one is holistic and the other dualistic. (This, of course, is a gross simplification, but if this shouldn’t turn into a month long lecture I have to simplify things a bit …)
According to this ancient Chinese sign, the Yin yang, the world consists of two opposing (or complementary) forces that are interrelated and interdependent; they are contained within the same whole, one is within the other, and one may exchange position with the other: what is light contains the seeds of darkness and may become dark but then that darkness will also include the seeds of light and so on and so on …
The founders of Western thinking, Socrates and Plato, by contrast, claimed that what we see and sense are only shadows of a real and perfect world that we may only grasp through abstraction. These worlds can never be the same or be exchanged for one another they remain forever separated: the concrete world of experience and the abstract world of ideas. This metaphysical dualism is echoed by Descartes, who said the body works like a machine and the mind controls the body.
But it doesn’t stop here. In fact, the understanding of the world is itself shifting between two opposing positions: in one period we see the world in one way and in another period we see it in another, often diametrically opposite, way.
The symbol that represent this kind of dualism, the pendulum, was actually included by Isaac Newton in his seminal publication, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, from the 17th century (1687), where it was used to illustrate the laws of motion and gravity.
In the so-called classical mechanics of Newton, which have exerted immense influence on modern (Western) science and philosophy, the world is perceived as a machine. It is measureable, predictable and therefore, at least theoretically, also controllable.
This is the idea on which most modern scientific and technological breakthroughs, planning and management methods, are based. It constitutes the basic foundation of modern society.
(Newton’s laws describe the motion of bodies under the influence of various forces. And modern society is, to a large extent, based on the control of these forces.)
In the 19th century (1859), Charles Darwin published the seminal book The Origin of Species, in which he argues that the world evolves through a process of diversification – as this illustration demonstrates. And even though the world is still seen as being formed according to certain laws ¬– gravity in the case of Newton and variation and natural selection in the case of Darwin – there is a fundamental difference in the perception, or conception, of the world: according to Darwin the world is not in a state of being (as Newton described it) but in a state of becoming – or emerging, as it were. It is not a machine but as a living organism. And because of that it’s future is not controllable, or even predictable.
This, of course, is in direct opposition to the ideology of communism, but maybe it is worth to point out – in this neo-liberal time of ours – that the theory of evolution is not about the survival of the strongest individual but of the most adaptable community.
(Darwin’s theory of evolution describes how life evolves and adapts through a process of natural selection.)
The difference between Newton and Darwin is due to the fact that one was concerned with things that are moving and the other with things that are changing. And because of that one sees the world as being deterministic and reversible (“what goes up must come down”) while the other sees it as non-deterministic and irreversible (evolution cannot go back to an earlier state).
According to Newton: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things”. However, that is exactly what Darwin did – he studied the messiness of real life, so to speak.
Both Newton and Darwin, however, depended on a kind of reductionist approach in which the whole is divided into (ever smaller) parts that are studied individually in order to better understand the whole.
(Reductionism: to reduce the number of theories needed to explain different phenomena.)
In contrast to the dualistic and reductionist approach of traditional modern (Western) thinking stands not only ancient Asian thinking but also cutting edge modern (Western) thinking in the format of complexity theory (or complexity science), which attempts to apply a more holistic approach by looking for patterns of interconnections and interrelations in the whole.
It sees the world like this … rather than as the tree-structure of Darwin or the pendulum of Newton.
Complexity theory is about the self-organization and self-regulation of dynamic, non-linear systems and networks. It is about possibilities embedded in the local context and the initial conditions that may enable and support creativity and spontaneity in those systems and networks.
Complexity theory is about things that are emerging, changing, growing or shrinking but without being decided or determined … In other words, it is about uncertainty and instability. It is not about Plato’s ideal, abstract world of ideas but rather it is about the ephemeral world we experience in everyday life.
How does that translate into design and planning?
Since the 19th century cities, especially in the West, have been planned and managed like machines for mass production and mass consumption – Cerda’s plan of Barcelona being a case in point.
This kind of mechanization of the urban environment, in which both time and space is divided into discrete elements and each element is assigned a specific function, has created astonishing growth rates and enormous increases in material wealth in the 20th century, especially in the West.
But the ‘urban machine’ depends on standardization, repetition, predictability and control, and this actually makes it vulnerable in an uncertain and unstable world. In addition, I would argue, it also impedes the creative potentials of its inhabitants.
Furthermore, it demands an ever-increasing input of material/energy while its output includes dangerous waste like toxic particles and substances, and greenhouse gasses.
The best example, perhaps, of a city planned as a machine is the Indian city of Chandigarh, which is, of course, completely at odds with traditional Indian culture, philosophy and values.
Here we see how the two opposing positions in the Western pendulum – Newton’s machine and Darwin’s organism – have been reduced to a simple question of curved lines (representing organic life) versus straight lines (representing the machine).
(See: Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (1959): cosmic, machine and organic city forms.)
It is the first master plan of Chandigarh by the American architect Albert Mayer on the left, and the implemented one by the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier on the right.
(Le Corbusier’s plan reflects the rationality of René Descartes.)
Despite the symbolic differences, the plans are actually quite similar. They include ideas from both the garden city movement, which saw the city as an organism, and the machine-like plans of the Italian futurists.
(In the book Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard describes a utopian city in which people live harmoniously together with nature. With the project La Città Nuova (1912–1914), the Italian architect Sant’Elia aimed to create a city as an efficient, fast-paced machine.)
In both cases, the aim of the planner is to design, predict and ultimately control the future.
By the way, if anybody has been wondering what the symbol on the poster for the summer school is, I can inform you that it is the “open hand monument” that Le Corbusier designed for the city of Chandigarh. A bit misplaced, perhaps, since Chandigarh is planned as a closed rather than as an open system.
Chandigarh is planned from above as a rational and measurable system that reflects a simplistic and linear understanding of the world. (As I said, totally at odds with the traditional Indian worldview but also at odds with the worldview of cutting-edge thinking in the West.)
Hopefully the urban environments of the 21st century will be different (from those of the 19th and 20th century)!
Hopefully they won’t be designed and planned as if their future was predictable and, therefore by implication, controllable, as the advocates of the smart-city vision would like it, which is of course a machine-vision taken to the extreme, because then there won’t be any room for spontaneity and creativity, and no reason for experimentation and learning.
Hopefully those environments could be self-organized.
Self-organization, as I have mentioned, is an important principle of complexity theory. It basically means that order may emerge spontaneously.
(See: Ilya Prigogine)
Let me give you an example of how this principle could be applied to design.
3. Self-organizing Office spaces
In India I met Kamal Meattle, a businessman and an environmentalist, who wanted to build the world’s most energy efficient large-scale office complex in Delhi. He had only about 65% of his lung capacity left, due to the air pollution in Delhi, and his doctors had told him that if he didn’t move away, the pollution would kill him.
Instead of moving away, however, he invented a simple system of creating clean air indoor with the use of three commonly available plants in India. (In fact, this is actually an adaptation of a concept developed by NASA for its possible missions to Mars).
Two plants, producing oxygen during the day and during the night respectively, would be placed in a greenhouse on top of the building and connected to its air condition system.
A third plant, the Money plant, would be placed in the individual office spaces, where it would absorb pollutants in the air.
Our contribution to this project was really very minimal: it was to use the Money plants as space dividers – instead of having conventional walls – and to put wheels on the plants.
These small changes of the initial context and conditions could have substantial impact on how this system, which we called the Self-organized Office System, would evolve.
It could evolve into something slightly chaotic … with the employees being responsible for taking care of and moving around four plants each.
But it could also evolve into something slightly rigid.
Or, into more creative patterns …
In fact, an endless number of patterns could be imagined, as chairs and tables would also be fitted with wheels, and these office spaces would therefore possibly be in a constant state of becoming (rather than of being in one particular state).
Another example of self-organization, but at a planning level, could be the early settlements of Bangalore …
This is what the metropolitan area of Bangalore look like without its roads and it buildings.
It consists of a hilly, undulating terrain in which water reservoirs would naturally form – or could be created with minimal interventions. Thus, it is believed that Bangalore initially consisted of many smaller settlements, each of which would be located next to one of these reservoirs (or tanks as they came to be known as). Between them were wetlands through which water from higher elevated reservoirs could flow to lower elevated reservoirs, together with rich red loamy soil from the bedrocks, thus creating a huge rainwater-harvesting (and fertilizing) system.
One may imagine, that different settlements would grow different crops according to the different quality of soil and availability of water at the different locations.
Water may have been distributed among the settlements according to the requirements of different crops and the different crops may then have been traded among the settlements.
Thus, the settlements were highly interconnected and interdependent – it is likely that this interdependency was enhanced through intermarriages and other social activities.
Because of that, this kind of landscape has been referred to as “a continuous social landscape”. Today, of course, this has all changed with motorized transportation and gated communities, which give rise to what is rather a markedly discontinuous and anti-social landscape (where the previous harmony between man and nature has been completely lost).
The network of waterways and water bodies would ensure a highly efficient use of water in much the same way as a network like Facebook may ensure more efficient circulation of information than individual two-way connections (though, because Facebook is ultimately centrally controlled, it may also ensure other things that are not so nice, but which we are not going to discuss today).
This (the fact the water is circulated more efficiently in a network) is also what the engineers of the contemporary Angkor Wat in Cambodia realized, but there, the water network was planned and centrally controlled (like Facebook). In Bangalore, apparently, it emerged spontaneously in response to the local context and conditions.
It was a dynamic urban–ecological system in which increased connectivity and complexity led to increased resilience of the system.
What I mean by that is that as long as all the settlements were interconnected they would be able to withstand even severe drought, for example, but if some of the settlements decided to drop out of the network – that is, if they had wanted to withhold the water for themselves – it could have had cascading and devastating consequences for the rest of the settlements.
Thus, it was a system that constantly had to be nurtured – for instance through intermarriages.
Then, at some point (in 1537, to be exact) a “king” (Kempe Gowda he was called) eventually came around, conquered the area and built a fort, thus establishing the foundations of a city – a centrally controlled system, if you want.
Kempe Gowda began to transform the wetlands into canals, and when the British later conquered and settled down in the area, they continued that practice, in order to increase the efficiency of the system and provide land for urban development.
At this point, Bangalore – at least the spacious British part of it – had a very pleasant climate due to its lush green vegetation that grew along the water canals and water tanks and the effect of natural air condition that this network provided.
In recent decades, however, widespread urbanization and the disappearance of agriculture have led to the neglect of this network. Many of the canals have been put underground into pipes or else they are being used for dumping garbage and sewage and the tanks, which also replenished the aquifers of groundwater, gradually dry up.
Water, or rather the lack of it, is a very serious problem in India today!
While India had abundant water at the time of Independence in 1947, today it experience water stress and in the not too distant future it may experience actual water shortage.
What that means is that parts of India today are already experiencing chronic or periodic water shortage.
The reason for that has a lot to do with the so-called “green revolution” of the 1960s, which not only introduced new farming tools and technologies, as well as chemical fertilizers and pesticides (causing pollution of the water), but also drilling of ground water for irrigation instead of using surface water from tanks and canals.
(It could perhaps be argued that “the green revolution” prevented hunger but created thirst instead.)
Other reasons for decreased water availability are the increasing number of consumers (population growth enabled by “the green revolution”) and the increasing consumption of each consumer, as the country becomes more developed.
And then, of course, there is the neglect of the existing water system – and the pollution of it.
Apart from the problem of water stress – or water shortage – there is, paradoxically, also the problem of too much water.
This drain was supposed to take care of that but as more and more nodes and links – in this case tanks and canals – are disabled, the network itself becomes dysfunctional and can no longer absorb surplus water or replenish groundwater resources. And then you have both drought and flooding …
Somewhat related to the crisis of water are the three other major crises of Indian cities – and of many other cities: the environmental crisis, the health crisis and the social crisis.
All of these three crises have to do with the congestion of another network, namely the road network of the city, due to the exponential growth in the number of motorized vehicles – in Bangalore alone, on average, about one thousand new motor vehicles have been added to the streets each and every day for more than ten years now.
This has caused the disappearance of road space used by poor people for a variety of economic activities … The pollution of the local, regional and global environment and … The deterioration of public health, not only because of sedentary life styles, stress, noise and accidents, but also because of the pollution.
This is the result of 90 min. drive on bicycle in Bangalore!
And what is the answer? According to the local politicians and (the “wise guys” in) the administration, it is to cover up the canals and use that space to construct more roads!
More roads, as everyone knows, leads to more traffic!
Of course, putting the canals underground may prevent people from dumping their garbage and sewage there …
… but it will not necessarily solve the problems of waste in the city.
Despite these various crises, in 2011 (the year I first came to Bangalore), Harvard professor, Ed Glaeser, published a book entitled The Triumph of the City, in which he refers to Bangalore as one of the most successful cities today, on par with London, New York and Singapore.
I guess you have to be a professor at Harvard to say something so stupid!?
So I worked with some researchers from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. At least they understand the problem!
Together we made a proposal to recreate and reconnect the water canals and to create a network of pathways for pedestrians and cyclists along these canals, and in between where needed, in order to make the network coherent.
This alternative network of transportation would connect living and work areas with transit hubs, recreational spaces, market places, religious places etc., thus promoting non-motorized transportation in the city while giving the network of waterways and water bodies a new raison d’etre.
Apart from recreating the rainwater harvesting system in the city so that it can again absorb storm water and replenish ground water resources, this project could, potentially, also create livelihood opportunities and opportunities for recreation and social interaction … and improve biodiversity in the city by creating provide wildlife corridors.
Existing housing (slum rehabilitation colonies) are turning their backs on the water canal.
Cleaning up – and maintaining the canal clean – will provide livelihood opportunities for poor people living around the canal. It may also give them a sense of ownership!
More houses, so-called slum, are turning their backs on the water.
Enhance the potentials of these houses by improving the surroundings!
Connecting the city, integrating wildlife
A hidden canal in a central part of the city
A hidden potential for recreation and leisure!
Water is important in many religious activities and practices.
Create ghats along the canal and connect it to the temple!
Thank you for your attention!