Steven Johnson and Emergence

“Emergence,” by Steven Johnson

Johnson makes a case for decentralized planning

FIVE principles essential for emergent growth patterns

1  A critical mass great enough for informational exchange

2  Simple language

3  Random encounters

4  Ability to observe patterns

5  Attention to neighbors; accumulation local information generates global wisdom

The Sidewalk

“There is nothing about the physical existence of sidewalks that matters to [Jane] Jacobs. What matters is that they are a primary conduit for the flow of information between city residents.” Of importance is the KIND and FREQUENCY of interactions.

Also important to consider how Johnson defines “information.” Information is defined as that which is capable of altering the behavior of an individual or cell; encountering diversity does nothing for the global system of the city unless it alters your behavior.

Witnessing diversity is not equivalent to experiencing it and having chance, diverse encounters. While the individual may benefit in some way from seeing diversity – i.e., they may feel like a “good liberal” – this is not the type of diversity of experience that benefits cities. Individuals only benefit indirectly from diverse encounters: “sidewalks make better cities, which in turn improve the lives of city dwellers. The value of the exchange between strangers lies in what it does for the super-organism of the city, not in what it does for the strangers themselves.” When witnessing a diverse neighborhood from the highway, for instance, the local interaction is so limited by the speed and distance of the automobile – which is to say, a dramatic difference in scale – that no higher level order can emerge.

Other Thoughts

At the core of Johnson’s argument lies a fundamental paradox: the intelligence of the master planner is of a limited nature, whereas the type of intelligence required to guarantee a successful master plan is nearly infinite in scope. Rather than attempting to delineate a prohibitively complex set of operations in a top-down manner, emergent operations begin with a series of simple, banal rules which aggregate and intersect to create complex organizational structures.

So the question is not “how do we make emergent cities?” (because there is no definitive answer). Rather, how do we begin to think in very different ways?

The question of emergent planning versus master planning is ultimately one of control. What might we be in control of? Who can we control? Who is controlling what? This mode of thinking begins to challenge the conventions that have guided architecture and planning since their inception.


The Golden Rectangle

The Fibonacci Sequence in Nature

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