Without self-reflection 20 years of experience are just 1 year repeated 20 times - Jeffrey Pfeffer

Taleb & Naval address the importance of small stressors. How in order to improve, one needs some low level stressor at each iteration. While practice is extremely important, pushing yourself a tiny bit further each time - adding an extra stressor - accelerates magnitude-shifting improvement through the power of compound interest. Repetition in complex system can therefore guide growth by implementing feedback at each iteration.

Feedback loops are crucial managing components of complex adaptive systems. They are functional elements in all decentralized systems that enable self-regulation through consistency & growth: negative feedback loops preserve the status quo, while positive feedback loops accelerate change.


Positive vs. Negative Feedback illustrated by AmoebaSisters

A negative feedback loop is often described through thermostats: to keep the temperature constant an AC-unit senses the difference between the current and desired air temperature, and tries to bridge the gap: if it’s too cold, it blows warm air, if it’s too hot it blows cold air. At each iteration the loop keeps itself in check and attempts to achieve the desired equilibrium by acting against other independent influencing factors like cold air blowing through an open window. In a similar, simplified fashion Google Maps navigates traffic by incorporating feedback from the experience of each driver in it’s routing algorithm: it would be counterproductive to route drivers through a clogged highway - therefore, at each iteration, the algorithm checks the best options, and redirects the driver to the route that provides the lowest time-to-destination. In doing so it counteracts traffic.

On the other hand positive feedback loops expedite the adoption of (usually) beneficial elements. They are autocatalytic processes that exponentially speed up the rate of acceleration and adoption - just like innovation after the industrial revolution sped up the development of further technologies. While positive feedback loops are crucial in accelerating beneficial behavior, they can also precipitate catastrophe. In FlashboysMichael Lewis describes how an improper trading algorithm can spark a flash crash - a stock sell-off that feeds on itself. This panic-inducing positive feedback loop is thoroughly described in the 2010 flash-crash SEC and CFTC report.

Examples of autocatalytic processes from Scale by Geoffrey West

Autocatalytic processes can be curbed by implementing circuit breakers. These elements of feedback loops interrupt the loop if they sense some predictable undesired behavior. They can prevent the negative consequences that accelerated and sometimes uncontrolled growth has on some systems. Circuit breakers are the reason why most cells resist developing cancer.

Another important element of feedback loops are response thresholds: the amount of stimuli that provoke a response or activate a loop. The variance of thresholds can impart program-like behavior to systems, allowing them to self-regulate through autonomous subroutinesResponse thresholds are some of the most visible elements of urban feedback loops. Smart traffic lights for example regulate their behavior by looking at the different traffic thresholds throughout the city and responding accordingly. Infrastructure expansion responding to the volume of traffic, real-estate development responding to population growth, or small-business location responding to increased foot-traffic are other urban examples of response thresholds activating a loop.

Cities are not being planned or designed with these principles in mind. From this perspective the plan per se, the physical document, the deliverable, is the response to a decade long feedback loop. This means that iterations at improving the city only repeat when a new plan is designed and approved: at best, every decade. Architects and planners should instead incorporate feedback loops, circuit breakers and response thresholds as living elements of an urban plan. A dynamic document should embrace super-local feedback and respond appropriately, iterating at every minuscule attempt at physically changing the urban fabric.

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One Book

Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky\ Architecture Without Architects is a short, fantastic gallery of examples of how communities built and planned before architecture became a formal profession. The book is organized around concepts of the vernacular, illustrated through buildings, monuments, settlements or towns. Rudofsky mentions how most of architectural history taught in academia focuses on the West, while some of the best examples of fit-for-purpose vernacular architecture remain unknown to most professionals. It’s one of these books that you keep on your desk, and leaf through once a week: it never fails to help you make a novel connection.

I should have loved biology by James Somers\ On the amazing processes happening in living systems.

Virtual HQs race to win over a remote-work-fatigued market by Natasha Mascarenhas\ The virtual race to replace the physical office.

The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race by Damian Garde & Jonathan Saltzman\ How individual perseverance can - sometimes - change the world.

Five Tweets

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