Ants and cities

How interesting. Phil Windley and I’ve been reading the same book: “Emergence: The Connected Loves of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software” by Steven Johnson. As Phil says, it’s about “how acting on a local scale, on local information produces useful, global patterns”. 

According to Johnson, emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of of relatively simple elements self-organises to form more interlligent, more adaptive higher-level behaviour. Ant hills are one example: no one directs the actions of the ants, they have simple rules for responding to local stimuli and yet, produce highly complex and efficient behavior (such as creating graveyards for dead ants or finding and harvesting food sources in a rather systematic manner), yet, “there are no Five-Year Plans in the any kingdom”.

Johnson’s book is a fascinating tour de force – drawing on a variety of domains, from evolutionary theory, urban studies, neuroscience, cybernetics, to comptuer games and literature. Johnson’s book is almost as good a read as Richard Sennett’s The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities from 1990 (my favorite all-time book, which my PhD was heavily influenced by).

Phil chose this quote from Johnson’s book:

There are manifest purposes to a city—reasons for being that its citizens are usually aware of: they come for the protection of the walled city, or the open trade of the marketplace.  But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices.  Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone ever dreamed of digital computers.  Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots.  Cobblers gather near other cobblers, and button makers near other button makers.  Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination, ensuring that good ideas don’t die out in rural isolation.  The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements located on the Sumerian coast and in the Indus Valley, which date back to 3500 B.C.  By some accounts, grain cultivation, the plow, the potter’s wheel, the sailboat, the draw loom, copper metallurgy, abstract mathematics, exact astronomical observations, the calendar—all of these inventions appeared within centuries of the original urban populations.  Its possible, even likely, that more isolated groups or individuals had stumbled upon some of those technologies at an earlier date, but they didn’t become part of the collective intelligence of civilization until there were cities to store and transmit them.

There are many other good thoughts in the book, so go order it!

In the deliberations about our national IT architecture (see yesterday‘s post), I have set up “eGovernment as urban planning” as one theme for discussion. One of the proposals we make in our green paper about eGov architecture is that we ought to see government at large as a city, i.e., what Johnson and others would call a superorganism, that is in need of some “architecting” and “urban planning”.

What are the essential patterns of an architecture fit for eGovernment? Thoughts? Please join our deliberations about architecture!

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  • Steven Johnson
    October 7, 2002 5:21 am

    Hi John, tried to send this to you via your email address on the site, but it got bounced back. I just noticed your nice write-up about my book on your blog (which I found courtesy of the Weblog BookWatch.) Really glad to hear you’re enjoying it — and particularly flattered by the comparison to the Sennett, which was a big influence on *my* graduate work (in literature). I actually taught a few chapters from it in a class on emergent communities that I taught last semester, so it’s nice to see someone else making the connection…

    Thanks again for the kind words,


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