Nothing is what it seems to be and it’s fine. That’s the way the world has always been and it’s time that we take off our blinkers and allow the complexity and chaos to seep into our thought processes
Only that exceptional logician and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein could have brought forth the limitations of human intellect in such a pithy and matter of fact manner: the limits of my language are the limits of my world. ‘What is quantum urbanism?’ is a question that has the same quality as Wittgenstein’s deep reading of the human condition. In exploring that question, we will get into a rabbit hole of where every twist will reveal a turn that can both be a twist and a turn and exist as both till you decide what you want it to be. A twist or a turn. It might appear as one matter hatter of a counterintuitive double twist more suited for bizarre theme parks than daily life. Yet, this is the heart of quantum urbanism. To understand and apply it to make sense of our daily lives will need us to discard conventional logic in the way we know it. In the way, we have been taught in schools, colleges and universities as systems thinking.
In the way, it informs every aspect of our sense making with sensing conceived as a process of identifying its constituent parts and way it connects with each other. In the way, it turns into commonsense.
Quantum urbanism is not esoteric. Nor is it rocket science, a frequently used counter-example to convey the simplicity of things. The analogy is used here not so much as a representative symbol of simplicity as it’s a literal repudiation of a classical worldview of a natural world that could be discerned through universal laws. This brings us to the first point. Rocket science is classical Newtonian physics, the best manifestation of the Englishman’s third law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That law is true. So are a set of physical laws that make the natural world discernible and understandable to us in absolute and universal terms. It’s true that gravity, force, mass and momentum have a specific relationship that can be mathematically computed.
It’s true that these physical laws allow the characteristics of each element of the natural world to be converted into specific numerical values and decimal points. It’s also true that this ability to deconstruct the natural world into constituent elements represented as numbers powers the logic of systems thinking and systems.
This is classical science in a nutshell as it is classical urbanism. Both represent the commanding heights of systems thinking. If the cornerstone of scientificity in classical science is consistent replicability in laboratory conditions as any high school chemistry or physics experiment would heartily attest to, the cornerstone of urbanity in classical urbanism is consistent predictability in standard city conditions as any public transportation system worth its salt would readily agree to. The immutability of the physical laws of classical science and the unchanging systemic norms of classical urbanism comes with one big fine print.
This brings us to the second point. These physical laws and systemic norms are applicable to a world of a certain size. In the case of classical science, these laws hold true till an atomic world of protons, neutrons and electrons. Once the probe goes deeper into the arena of subatomic particles, a world of neutrinos, positrons and Higgs Boson, forget being immutable, these laws are not even applicable. Enter the quantum universe.
A universe is an apt descriptor as scientists are discovering that the forces powering the contraindicative and counterintuitive dynamics between the subatomic particles are also the same forces, the mysterious dark matter being a prominent one, that have powered our universe for 13.82 billion years right from the moment of Big Bang. Quantum theory is the rabbit hole that helps you enter the universe and getting lost is a certainty. If classical science was a world of physical certainties and immutabilities, of binaries, of clear-as-daylight objectivities, and pitch dark-as-night subjectivities, the quantum universe is a perpetually grey mist of dualities, possibilities and tendencies. In this world a photon, which we get exposed to every day as light from the hot sun to the cool moon, is both a particle and a wave. The light particle can choose, yes choose, to be in that probabilistic dual state behaving as if it were in two places at the same time. Its final state of a particle or a wave is determined at the moment of observation, as if the very act of observation and the subjectivity of the observer somehow determines its character. Everything in the quantum world is about complexity, chaos, multiple states and dynamic emergent possibilities.
If this sounds fascinatingly impossible, the short rejoinder to it is it isn’t. And if this sound infuriatingly subjective, the short rejoinder to it is it is. For those who are interested in slipping happily further into the rabbit hole, I would strongly recommend reading about the double slit experiment, which split a photon particle into two and proved its duality. In the same breath, I would also point in the direction of the thought experiment designed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger called ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’, a scenario where the cat is both simultaneously dead and alive, which led to two important concepts of quantum superposition and entanglement.
The consistent predictability of systemic norms in the case of classical urbanism holds true till a world of the smallest administrative unit, a locality or a neighbourhood. Once the interrogation goes deeper into the sub-administrative world of small informal groups or the invisible people populating the gaps between administrative units, the universe of quantum urbanism, the systemic norms are no long predictable or replicable. In fact, they are not even applicable. In this world an individual, like a subatomic particle, is always in a dual state with the emergent possibility of being in two places at the same time with his or her final position determined by the moment of observation, with the very act of observation and the subjectivity of the observer determining the final state. This duality is of two distinct kinds, one primeval like the 13.82 billion-year-old ancient universe and one contemporary and modern like the god particle aka Higgs Boson.
An illustration will make this concrete. When a ragpicker from an extremely marginalised dalit community is hiding away from prying eyes and rummaging through a rubbish heap, the act of observing him or her determines his or her end state: an unclean vagabond or a small entrepreneur looking for daily opportunity. It’s a duality with primeval roots. When a highly educated homemaker uses open source digital platforms, downloads blueprints about hand-held vacuum cleaners and prints them on home 3D printers and sells them, the act of observing her determines her end state: a homemaker who uses her free time to do some entrepreneurial activities or an entrepreneur who uses her free time to carry out some activities related to the management of a home.
This brings us to the third point of entanglement and superposition. Just as classical science and its underlying principles of replicability powers the modern world, so does classical urbanism and its underlying principles of predictability that powers the modern city. That point cannot be overstated: the extremely efficient and predictable suburban train network of Mumbai is a system by all definitions.
The point is about the expanding quantum worlds within our cities where people are continuously entangled with each other despite the system and by default outside of it creating numerous superpositions where every state in a multiplicity of states has equal probability of being the end state of a person. Such quantum worlds are expanding. Many are invisible and marginalised, like ragpickers, several are choosing to selectively connect and disconnect with the system, like the entrepreneur-homemaker, and a few are consciously deciding to stay away from it as much as possible, like the urban farmer who sell his organic produce over a digital platform. All of us can feel it. All of us can also see it. It’s also something that doesn’t need data or research to prove it, both being a representation of a systems overhang. The fact is that systems and system thinking is collapsing simply because they don’t have the language, grammar and idiom to understand and accommodate the sheer counterintuitive nature of quantum urbanism. Without the semantic architecture, cities will increasingly have smaller and smaller islands of systems, covered by a large swathe of quantum worlds of various kinds which would not be served simply because systems thinking just cannot comprehend it and hence would not know how to engage with it.
If systems thinking has run its course, and that does seem to be case, the question of alternatives arise. This brings us to the fourth and last point for this part of the series. The point is about striking the right balance between classical urbanism and quantum urbanism. This is where urbanists and people associated with cities can draw inspiration from the world of science where a balance, even if an uneasy one, has been established between the classical world and the quantum world. Quantum urbanism is a completely new way of looking at an urban world that is becoming extremely complex and chaotic.
It’s also a way to understand, analyse and cater to the sub-administrative forces and dynamics of interaction, engagement, negotiation and contestation that are binding people today in seemingly contradictory ways: it’s necessary to keep in mind that the word ‘contradictory’ is used as defined by systems thinking. Using the frame of quantum urbanism to define old problems in innovative ways brings to the fore emergent possibilities of creating new architectures of governance and management of urban resources that can bring about distributed and disaggregated models of people engagement that puts sustainability, resilience, local ownership and democratic participation at the centre of the production, distribution and consumption of every kind of public and private goods. Quantum urbanism will also directly impact and change our ways of life, living and doing business at a fundamental level, and we will discover how in the remaining parts of the series.
Next: Quantum urbanism in action: Transforming jobs into work & why it’s good for us and the earth
Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University Sweden where he is part the project ‘Future Urbanism’. He is also research director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University.
(The article appears in the August 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)