The narrative of these short notes drives towards a more elegant understanding of the messy nature of everyday life. Whether it’s about how we plan our cities, how we design our neighborhoods, or how we move around town - there are few black and white solutions. Truth is usually a moving target, somewhere in the greyscale gradient. Crucially the options are not simply black, white, and grey but rather black, white, and an infinite sea of greys in which you can easily lose yourself. That’s where the importance of boundaries becomes evident. In most complex systems boundaries are counter-intuitively the key to preserving diversity and guaranteeing resiliency.

We subconsciously interpret boundaries as borders and typically associate them with distinct political connotations. Boundaries however are a critical factor of almost all natural systems. Our atmosphere, the cell, evolutionary islands, nations, and neighborhoods are only possible as a consequence of semi-permeable boundaries. Boundaries define and distinguish: they allow diversity to evolve.

Madagascar, Socotra, or the Galapagos are evident proof of the power of boundaries to generate diversity. Dawkins remarks in The Ancestor’s Tale that by wiping out Madagascar “you would destroy only about a thousandth of the world’s total land area, but fully four percent of all species of animals and plants.” These evolutive islands spark accelerated adaptation because they are not being constantly normalized by the dominant genotypes. Genes should flow, but not too much: reproductive isolation breeds diversity. Evolution has generated countless strategies that preserve boundaries: from asynchronous mating seasons to sterile offspring. This constant divergence from equilibrium keeps the system aware and adaptable to inevitable change.

In social sciences, this is an extremely delicate matter. While no one has ever argued for the right of specific proteins to indiscriminately cross a cell-membrane, national borders dominate political discussion. Moreover, religion, language, and customs are the cultural equivalents to evolutionary boundaries. They inhibit the spread of monoculturalism and prohibit epidemic errors. A simple example stems from linguistics and political geography when comparing European countries to China. The old continent had a history of smaller city-states warring and innovating against one another, while China a millennial unified and hegemonic dynasty. Because of its direct top-down decision-making, innovation was often halted by decree in China; while the series of self-similar city-states constantly adapted while striving for survival. Geopolitically well-defined boundaries generate innovation and resilience during wartime while providing stability during peacetime. Robert Frost’s verse “good fences make good neighbors” seems to hold beyond poetry.

So what does this have to do with cities and their neighborhoods? What makes cities attractive is their optionality: diversity afforded by scale. Homogeneous suburbs & repetitive neighborhoods are not what we associate with vibrancy. Homogeneity kills character. Alexander talked about the harmony of strongly articulated but permeable subcultures: “though subcultures must be sharp and distinct and separate, they must not be closed; they must be readily accessible to one another so that a person can move easily from one to another, and can settle in the one which, suits him best.” Glaeser proposes that individual neighborhoods craft their own set of rules from building styles to functional uses. Alexander goes even further, sustaining that each city should mark every important cultural boundary with physical gateways. This never fails to remind me of the parting words when leaving Copenhagen’s Christiania: “You are now entering the EU.”

One important thing is left unresolved: how can local decision-making deal with the tragedy of the commons; especially when the current state of the system is an important part of its future. We’re not starting from a blank slate, and even if we were random chance would quickly pack the system against itself. Of course, time will constantly fix imbalances, but what about the generations of individuals stuck in limbo: those who are born, live, and die while the system is correcting itself?

Any ideas? Hit reply or let me know through twitter!

One Book

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane\ This is an astounding exploration of the evolution of the modern cell. The book is all about boundaries: the boundary between the earth’s mantle and the oceans; boundaries of temperature and chemical composition giving rise to organic compounds and most importantly, the membranes of cells - and how they drive the unbelievable micro-machines that enable life.

Algorithm-Driven Design by Yury Vetrov\ A fantastic compendium of algorithms being designers.

How the world’s biggest slum stopped the virus by Altstedter & Pandia\ On process and error tolerance in approaching large problems.

The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite by Renee DiResta\ How massively generated disinformation can throw reality out of balance.

Five Tweets

This was the fourth issue of Think Think Think - a periodic newsletter by Joni Baboci on cities, science and complexity. If you liked it why not subscribe?