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Eco City Complexity Thinking

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Glen Kuecker

on 15 January 2015

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Transcript of Eco City Complexity Thinking

Complexity Thinking
One of the central critiques of modernity holds that it creates an artificial division between humans and nature, what we call the distinction between culture and nature. Arguably, this split, one that derives from enlightenment philosophy, rests at the core of the predicaments we now face. It is one of the central themes for thinking about eco cities.
Driven by the conviction that reason could overcome human suffering and lead to the perfectibility of the human condition, thinkers like Descartes and Bacon viewed nature as an instrument for human agendas. This thinking led to the notion that we can control nature for the progressive betterment of humanity.
The instrumentalist view, sometimes called the Cartesian world view served as one of the rule-sets for how modernity came into formation and how it held together for several centuries.
The Cartesian view was eventually challenged in the 20th Century with the development of non-linear dynamics and thermodynamics. Some scholars, such as Kellner and Best, call it "post modern science," because it disrupted the truth claims resting at the core of the modern rule-set.
The influence of non-linear dynamics and thermodynamics, along with other important developments such as the early years in computer science as well as approaches to management, gave rise to the field of complexity studies, what we can call "complexity thinking."
The purpose of this tutorial is to provide an introduction to complexity thinking so that you can start to develop it as part of your overall critical reasoning skills.
As we walk through the basics, keep in mind that complexity thinking itself is not really that difficult. There are key concepts to learn and practice using, but in a relatively fast way you will find yourself using them as part of your critical thinking. The concepts are especially important for being a critical thinker in the 21st century. While the concepts are straight-forward, it is important to keep in mind that complexity thinking is a very interdisciplinary enterprise, so "complexity" can carry different nuanced meanings depending on the academic discipline. Indeed, one of the big debates in complexity thinking is to what extent understandings of complexity, such as resilience, that come from the study of eco systems (ecology) can be imported into the study of human society [note the legacy of the Cartesian nature-culture split].
Complexity is the interaction of multiple parts that give rise to patterns or order in a spontaneous fashion. Oxford English Dictionary offers a clean sense of this opening definition: "Composite nature or structure."
Note that the notion of spontaneous is important in complexity thinking, especially when we get to emergent properties. For now, be aware of the implications for design and planning. Is something in complexity violated if it is planned or designed? Extend this murky question to your thinking about building an eco-city in general and New Songdo City in Particular.
When parts interact, they sometimes form networks and nodes. Think of the networks as the paths or links between parts. Think of nodes as points of intersection that form between the paths. Nodes can sometimes be thought of as "hubs." Here you can imagine the internet, the air line system of hubs and spokes, or relationships between cities and towns. Keep in mind that New Songdo City aspires to be a "hub" city within the north eastern Asia "system." Ideas about networks, nodes, hubs, etc., are largely derived from systems thinking, which is a close relative of complexity thinking.
A key concept in complexity thinking is emergence. It is the way interacting parts come together [the actual emergence] to form patterns or order. Scale is important: it is the movement from simple interactions to higher order interactions, the movement toward actual complexity. Emergence is really important for thinking about our global predicaments, and it is a concept we will turn to often in our thinking about eco-cities. For now, consider that one of the goals in planning is to foster emergent properties.
Once we have an identifiable system, such as a city, one of the key issues is how sustainable it is. The basic question is if the parts are interacting in a fashion that results in the reproduction of the system. Does it keep going day in and day out? Or, is the system in crisis, where its reproduction is in jeopardy. Note that I argue that our current global system is in deep crisis, that its reproduction has either stopped or is at the brink of stopping. A core question to consider is if eco-cities can bring the system to a state of reproduction or if it will exacerbate the crisis in reproduction?
A system that faces potential challenges to reproduction successfully is an adaptive system. A key concept in complexity thinking is complex adaptive systems (CAS). In the CAS, adaptation tends to add complexity to the system, bringing it to a higher order of complexity. A big part of design and planning is aimed at finding the right adaptive solutions to reproductive challenges. Here we find modernist thinking in overdrive: problems can be solved by applying reason. Often, the solution is a process of innovation, which is nothing more than emergence, the way that the interaction of parts within the system spawns a newer and higher form of order. So, we get a clear question about New Songdo City: is it the appropriate form of adaptation?
When complex systems adapt successfully to their environment, they are complex adaptive systems. Following this key point, it appears that the larger context of "environment' is important for thinking about systemic reproduction and adaptation. When looking at a given system, such as a city, we always need to establish what the larger context or environment is, and determine if adaptations to problems are the appropriate response given the environment. We need to think of environment as the larger social, political, economic, and cultural context. We might as, for example, is building a campus farm the appropriate CAS (DePauw) adaptation to the challenge of sustainability given our environment? Or, is New Songdo City an appropriate adaptation to the environment?
The interaction of parts within a CAS have two (at least) important mechanisms. We call them "feedback loops." There are positive and negative feedback loops. Positive feedback loops tell the system to keep reproducing in fashion that leads to the growth and expansion of the system. When they are not constrained, positive feedback loops will cause the collapse of the system. Think the growth of cancer cells. Negative feedback loops tell the system to constrain or stop growth. They hold unlimited growth in check, which prevents a system from collapsing. Our current global system has too many positive feedback loops and not enough negative loops. Consider the implications of feedback loops for an economy with a rule set defined by capitalism.
CAS are often understood to be self-regulating mechanisms, where the regulating mechanism in society, politics, economics, and culture are key parts of the system's rule-set. Self-regulation assures reproduction.
There is a four phase cycle that most CAS pass through: exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization. Exploitation is when a system comes into formation, when the parts interact in fashion that creates a system. Conservation is when the system evolves into a CAS, and its growth establishes a rule-set that governs how the parts interact. Conservation is when the system relentlessly pursues efficiency within the rule-set (think globalization). Positive feedback loops set in, and the system becomes rigid, unable to creatively and successfully adapt to its environment. The result is collapse, or the entrance into the release phase of the CAS cycle. The release phase is when the system collapses, a process that can be a soft, staged collapse or a hard, catastrophic collapse. The Release phase is defined by innovation and creativity, because the rule-set is no longer defining how everything works. Once collapsed, the system passes into the reorganization phase, when all the parts are disconnected. They will eventually interact and enter the exploitation phase.
Arguably we are in a world historical moment of transition in the CAS defined by the rule-set of modernity. This transition is the departure from the conservation phase and entry into the exploitation phase. Some would argue we are in the late conservation (aka globalization), while others think we have entered modernity's release phase.
The late conservation phase is often characterized by systemic overshoot, a time when positive feedback loops overwhelm the restraints of negative feedback loops. In overshoot, the system is not sustainable, it shows signs of oscillation and instability. The more extreme the overshoot, the great the potential for a hard, catastrophic collapse.
When in overshoot, it is exceptionally difficult to pull back to a sustainable system. One big challenge is how to pull back without provoking a collapse of the system.
Another important feature of the CAS, especially for a system entering the release phase, is resilience, which is a system’s capacity to absorb shocks without fundamentally changing its form and function (not becoming a new system). When the CAS is in the late conservation phase and/or in overshoot, resilience significantly decreases. In part this is because connectivity in the late conservation phase is high, which makes it rigid and less able to adapt. A key objective in preparing for the perfect storm of 21st century crises is to find ways to increase the resilience of the system, a measure that may increase the chances for a soft collapse in the release phase. When evaluating 21st century projects, such as the eco-city, one of the key things to do is determine if and how it increases system resilience.
The point of transition between conservation and release phases is defined by instability and uncertainty in social, political, economic, and cultural systems. It is a time of predicaments, where the problems we face do not appear to have solutions, or the solutions we have a “lesser evil” scenarios that may involve considerable hardship. It is a departure from the enlightenment epistemic where reason leads progressively to the perfection of the human condition. The transition also means that the system’s rule-set begins to lose its hegemonic capacity. Yet, a new rule-set is not yet in formation. The loss of direction, purpose, and certainty compounds the difficulties of entering the release phase.
The point of transition from conservation to release phases is also known as the “edge of chaos,” the “moment of complexity,” or the “tipping point.”
Energy is a critically important topic for understanding the CAS. The connection between parts in a system requires energy. The more complex a system, the more energy is required to keep the parts connected. System reproduction also requires energy. When a system is in overshoot, it requires more energy to keep the system alive than is sustainable. In a global system like ours, energy inputs are immense. We have reached the point where we spend huge amounts of energy just to get the energy to sustain our overshoot. We can use the laws of thermodynamics to further study the importance of energy within the CAS. Entropy, or example, is important for thinking about our predicaments.
Interaction between parts creating higher order system
Interacting parts form networks, nodes, and hubs
Systems are formed from parts, network, nodes, and hubs.
Systems can range in scale from micro to macro, and one system can nest inside a larger, more complex system. These are sub-systems.
Emergence is the actual formation of complexity
Sustainability can be seen as systemic reproduction
Adaptation is the successful response to a reproductive crises that is appropriate for the environment. Such systems are called complex adaptive systems (CAS).
Two kinds of feedback loops: positive and negative.
CAS are often self-regulating systems
CAS have a four phase cycle: exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization
Release phase is collapse. It ranges between soft and catastrophic.
Conservation phase is the relentless pursuit of efficiency within the CAS rule-set.
Modernity is the system’s rule-set.
We are either in the late conservation phase of modernity or we have transitioned into the release phase.
Overshoot is when positive feedback loops drive the system into unsustainable situation.
Resilience is a system’s ability to absorb shock without needing to change its function and form.
Transition from conservation to release phase is unstable and uncertain.
The more complex a system gets, the more energy it needs to sustain itself.

Systems are formed when parts create networks, nodes, and hubs. They can range in size from micro to macro. One system can nest inside a larger, more complex system and be a part in that system, while also being its own system, with sub-systems nested inside of it. A nested system is a subsystem.
Summary of Complexity Tutorial
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guildford, 1997.

Clark, Robert. Global Awareness: Thinking Systematically About the World. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Holland, John. Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Reading, MA: Helix, 1998.

Holland, John. Hidden Order. Reading, MA: Helix, 1995.

Holland, John. “Complex Adaptive Systems.” Daedalus. Vol. 121 (1992): 17-30.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. The Ingenuity Gap. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006.

Johnson, Neil. Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Meadows, Dennis, Donella Meadows, and Jorgen Randers. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. 2004.

Rifkin, Jeremy. Entropy: A New World View. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

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