Hand to heart, we all secretly know that our cities don’t make sense to us anymore. It’s become so complex that we feel as if we are subatomic particles with the seeming possibility to be anything, anywhere, anytime. The question then is: why are we still using 19th century mental models to make sense of our lives?
Feel your favourite city. The words that typically come to your mind are liberally fused with adjectives in a valiant effort to give shape to our deeply felt emotions. It is quite common to find descriptions that are a chaotic and joyful mix of traits and idiosyncrasies that one can mistake for a good friend rather than a city. Now, think your favourite city. The words that spring up are analytical and by contrast downright pedantic, more suited to policy papers, textbooks and academic tomes. It’s par for the course to find analyses that are liberally peppered with statistics and numbers about everything from civic infrastructure to the number of vada pavs or burgers, as the case maybe, consumed every day.
Yet, we are discovering literally every day that the human cognitive architecture is attuned to arrive at decisions, ironically in the final analysis, through a complex mix of likes, dislikes, impulses and emotions. The number of behavioural economists winning the Nobel prize post 2000 is one indication. The sudden interest in social sciences and cognitive psychology by companies developing cutting-edge artificial intelligence, simulations and models is another. Perhaps the clinching evidence of the fact that humans use informed instinct over analytical intellect comes from the high priests of stock markets Warren Buffet and his lesser-known partner Charles Thomas Munger aka Charlie Munger whose many investments have been based on ‘counterintuitive logic’ or informed instinct in other words. In fact, Charlie Munger has unpacked the mechanics of informed instinct through his ‘latticework of mental models’.
In short, humans prefer to ‘feel’ their decisions rather than ‘make’ it. Yet, we are continuously taught how to ‘make’ decisions rather than ‘feel’ them. And, therein lies a tale of how a 19th century thought architecture that emerged from the smoky, coal powered factories of industrial revolution and powered the rise of a 20th century world built upon extraction of raw materials, massive centralised factories, shop-floors and complicated big corporation-owned value chains and retail networks continues to dominate a 21st century world that’s increasingly out of tune with that thought architecture.
Unpacking systems thinking
We know this thought architecture as systems thinking. Unpacking it layer by layer reveals that its roots are directly and inexorably linked to the three high principles of modernity that underpins most of our world today: scientific rationality, predictability and an industrial logic of scale, speed and efficiency.
These three principles are in turn directly connected to a Newtonian worldview, with Isaac Newton more as a moniker rather than as a majority equity holder, that human progress is directly proportional to our collective ability to control and contour nature by isolating its various elements, making them discernible, divisible, malleable and reconstituting them to human needs and purposes.
In conceptualising Nature as a subordinate entity to human enterprise, the world is ironically turned into the ultimate system that could be understood and completely controlled by humans. The corollary of this internally consistent, circular and a hard-to-break logic is that if the world and its natural vagaries, the holy grail, can be dismantled into its constituent parts and put together again, then there isn’t any aspect of daily life and communal living that’s essentially human that cannot be ordered and controlled through systems thinking. It permeates every single aspect of our daily life, from the air we breathe to the food we eat, and positions daily life and communal living as a set of issues that require expertise and by extension ‘system experts’. Think professional managers, engineers, bankers, financiers and bureaucrats. And nowhere is system thinking more evident than our modern cities.
All modern cities are manifestations of systems thinking. Some are representative of a more sophisticated, complex and layered thought architecture and others are relatively simple, functional and direct. Some cities have a minutely detailed thought architecture, most visible in policy papers, laws and regulations. Yet they have a chaotic, ‘asystemic’ daily life where numerous rules and norms articulated and institutionally decreed and the practices of real life are so drastically different that only a powerful and small elite have the language skills, often in a literal legal sense, to read the invisible fine print to bridge, navigate and prosper from this dysfunctional landscape. Indians, other Asians and in general people from the Global South will readily recognise and relate to this widely recognised but a painfully under-acknowledged reality.
Let’s illustrate this with an example in Mumbai to give it body and shape. Politically, affordable housing has been on the mandate of several parties in Mumbai for the last 30 years. Institutionally, it has been given shape through the establishment of several organisations like the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) and Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). Legally, there are numerous laws mandating shelter that if extended to the limits of its legal tender and imagination can very well fit the definition of a human right. And, from the point of view of market mechanisms, all real estate companies have signed a ‘good business’ charter to provide a significant portfolio of affordable housing products. All in all, a minutely detailed thought architecture symptomatic of sophisticated systems thinking.
The daily reality, however, is ‘asystemic’ in its extreme manifestation in the same manner that chaos is the bipolar opposite to order. Just to name a few elements, despite a near mandatory regulation to document all publicly available land, there isn’t a single, accessible repository of public, private and corporate land holdings. Despite clear, documented and globally accepted municipal norms to distinguish residential, commercial and mixed-use properties, there isn’t a consistent and credible demarcation. Despite stated intentions to provide affordable and public housing to every single family in Mumbai by all institutional and market stakeholders, no one in authority can say with any certainty whether the percentage of population living in slums is 55 percent or 70 percent. Both figures are used, often interchangeably, to broad-brush housing as a massive monolithic ‘problem’.
Yet, the city is also home to an unusually considerable number of dollar billionaires and their uber-expensive houses, contributes one of the highest amount of income and corporate taxes to the central government coffers and hosts opulence laden fashion events and parties. The point here is not about Mumbai’s urban schizophrenia and its attendant collective neurosis that the city seems to be perpetually caught up in. That point has already been made several times and by several people, in far more creative and gripping ways. The point that is sought to be made here is substantially different. It’s that system thinking works only when its underlying elements are methodologically reconstituted through a trifecta of scientific rationality, predictability and an industrial logic of scale, speed and efficiency. It’s only when these elements are reconstituted thus that they can be used like standardised building blocks in a linear and hierarchical manner for what we often refer to as urban order and control.
Cities and systems thinking: Urban complexities and domain lag
Mumbai, despite the increasing sophistication of its systems thinking, will never get to a point of providing affordable housing for all till it somehow reconstitutes its underlying elements of land records, municipal norms on property use and legal instruments into standardised blocks to be reconnected with each other and to overarching systems thought architecture. Modern human history shows that such a reconstitution, especially in Asian and African countries heavily intersected by a few centuries of exploitative colonial rule, has required a massive, sustained and an almost relentless disruption that cannot possibly be provided within a democratic framework. All contemporary examples of transformation from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul and Shanghai to Bangkok, Djakarta, Phnom Penh and Dubai have been executed under institutional structures where democracy has been a whiff rather than a deep infusion.
Even where such a massive disruption has been architected to standardise all the underlying elements to align with systems thought architecture, and at a rapid pace of a few generations, it has come at a massive human and environmental cost and its associated anxieties. The constant health scare shadowing Singaporeans of the dense fog that can float across from the burning of Malaysian tropical forests for palm oil plantations is a case in point. The more well-known Beijing smog and Shanghai vehicular snags are another.
Some other cities do not have the overarching rubric of a minutely detailed and articulated thought architecture. There aren’t voluminous and painstaking detailed policies and institutional norms. Yet, they have an ordered and ‘systemic’ daily life where the few rules and norms that are decreed are so deeply internalised that all their possible permutations and combinations are part of common sense bringing in a daily sense of predictability, rationality, speed, scale and efficiency.
Such cities are typically from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Cities of Europe have had an inbuilt historical advantage of being epicentres of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, or at least being decisively influenced by it. Apart from the well-known fact that such cities have had at least four centuries to pace themselves to reach to their current point and immense amounts of money derived from their exploitative colonial practices, there is a lesser known fact that even when brought to light is often not given the importance that it deserves.
The impetus to develop these cities in a systemic manner, as a well-oiled and efficient machine, did not come from any collective process or a framework of democracy. In fact, the impetus was completely totalitarian in nature, implemented through royal decrees or single minded capitalist enterprises. For instance, the famous Champ-Elysees in Paris, which is a tourist’s delight today, entailed massive and painful displacement of people who were running farms and kitchen gardens in the area where the boulevard stands today. It’s a displacement that would not be possible within today’s democratic framework.
The cities of North America, Australia and New Zealand have had the colonial advantage or having had settlers, usually white, European and filled with messianic zeal to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world, take over vast tracts of land from native communities and build practically everything from scratch. The few remaining Native Indians in the Americas, Aborigines in Australia and the Maoris in Zealand can testify to the zeal and the way in which the land was taken over and the cities built. Again, this smash and grab – and that’s what it was – is not possible to execute within the boundaries drawn by the principles of democracy, collective will and community participation.
Outgrowing a 19th century mental model: Need for new thought architecture
Despite these historical advantages that have embedded systems thinking as a way of life and of doing things, the cities of Global North are facing problems that are not very different from the Asian and African cities. Let’s illustrate this with an example. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and city of over 4 million people, faces a massive housing shortage, similar in more ways than one to Mumbai with the differences being in degree and scope. The typical systems thinking model of ‘let’s first find land, build a slew of houses there, layer it with all the necessary soft and hard infrastructure, somehow get the finance to fund these dwelling units, get people to live in these new localities and then provide them with transportation to reach their workplaces’ is just not working because the city’s economy is no longer centralised and the typical central business districts are not the primary engines of economic, social and cultural activities.
The global city, whether a Mumbai or a Stockholm, has been disaggregated in a quantum manner, where each element is seemingly dislocated from its original orbit, sliced and diced into nano particles to exist in multiple states simultaneously. Such is the fundamental nature of this disaggregation that it is reconfiguring the character of the old elements by fusing them with new elements, massively disrupting existing hierarchies and structures. This disruption is forming new transregional aggregations with hyperlocal implications that can neither be controlled nor ordered through the traditional normative boundaries of predictability, scientific rationality or the old industrial logic of scale and efficiency.
It’s within this new and emerging urban context that questions of speed, size and scale get intersected by the principles of sustainability, resilience, equity, access and carbon footprints. Such questions need a drastically new and robust thought architecture. One that’s so decidedly counterintuitive so to make sense of this complex set of realities that’s seemingly random, yet chaotically connected. Systems thinking came from classical physics of the Newtonian variety. The underlying thought architecture of complete human control over nature led to the machine age, industrial revolution, factories and ecological degradation. Maybe it made sense for a 19th and 20th century world. But it surely doesn’t make sense for a 21st century world. It’s time to move to quantum physics and evolve a new thought architecture.
Next: Quantum urbanism: Step two, let it roll counterintuitively
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 (CSIP), Ashoka University.
(The column appears in the July 16-31, 2017 issue of Governance Now)