Monthly Archives: augustus 2017

It’s a smart city after all (4)

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The city is humanity’s greatest invention. An artificial ecosystem that enables millions of people to live in close proximity and to collaborate in the creation of new forms of value. While cities were invented many millennia ago, their economic importance has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution until they now account for the major fraction of the global economy. All human life is there and so the study of cities crosses boundaries among economics, finance, engineering, ecology, sociology, anthropology, and, well, almost all forms of knowledge. Yet, while we have great knowledge in each of these domains individually, we have little knowledge of how they come together in the overall system of systems that is a city. How does a city work?

At present, our urban theories provide a mixture of those that deal with the short term and the long term, with cities in equilibrium as well as out-of-equilibrium. There is, however, no sense in which there is an integrated scientific perspective making sense of how cities work. Central to this is the notion that cities are all about flows – about interactions and relationships – which underpin the patterns that we observe. There is now a clear imperative that suggests that as we observe and probe the city, and changing it, the models and analytics that we are using are changing the very systems that we are seeking to understand and manipulate. In the smart city, everything is contingent and changeable.

Applying this imperative to city development/management requires important recognition that a city is not a complicated system, but a complex one. The majority of the systems present in the world are nonlinear in nature. Nonlinear science has origins in ecology, mathematics, general systems theory, cybernetics, fractal geometry and meteorology. Nonlinear means that due to feedback or multiplicative effects between the components, the whole becomes something greater than the mere sum of its individual parts. Network centric cities borrowed concepts from nonlinear theory to describe a system prone to exponential changes. It describes certain nonlinear dynamical systems as having a sensitivity to changes in initial conditions. Cities are myriad of interactions among its inhabitants, its infrastructures and affordances, its natural environment, and its public, private, and civic organizations.


A complex system can be roughly understood as network of nodes, where the nodes themselves are interconnected to various degrees through single or multiple channels. This means that whatever happens in one node is transmitted through the network and is likely to impact other nodes to various degrees. The behavior of the system as a whole thus depends on the nodes, as well as the nature of the inter-linkages between them. The complexity of the system is influenced by a number of factors. These include the number of nodes, the number of inter-linkages, the nature of inter-linkages and the speed at which a stimulus or shock propagates to other nodes. Cities exhibit emergent characteristics that arise out of the interaction between its constituent parts.

Cities are highly complex, in fact they are complex and sociotechnical in nature. This means that, similarly to material and organic complex systems, cities exhibit the properties of natural complex systems and that many of the mathematical models developed to study natural complex systems also apply to cities. So what makes the city such a highly complex system? Cities differ from natural complex systems and suggest that, as a result, we have to include the cognitive, moral, emotional capabilities of urban agents in theorizing and simulating the dynamics of cities. In lieu of the more widespread complex adaptive system based on the influence of human interactions in cities, we can call urban systems complex evolving systems. Complex evolving systems work together to create new order and coherence, to sustain structure and to ensure its survival, particularly when its environment or social ecosystem is changing fast.

Cities exhibit a high number of complex evolving systems characteristics and are dual complex systems in four respects:

  • Cities are composed of material components and human components. As a set of material components alone, the city is an artifact and as such a simple system; as a set of human components – the urban agents – the city is a complex evolving system. It is the urban agents that by means of their interaction – among themselves, with the city’s material components and with the environment – transform the artifact city into the complex artificial evolving system city.
  • As a complex artificial evolving system the city emerges out of the interactional activities of its agents, but once it emerges, it affects the behavior of its agents and so on in circular causality. The city in this respect is a complex artificial environment. Furthermore, because of its size, the city is a large-scale collective and complex artifact that on the one hand interacts with its environment, while on the other it is an environment for the people that live and act in cities.
  • Artifacts are not just the outcome of human interaction; rather they are also the media of interaction. The process involves, on the one hand, internal representations in the form of ideas, intentions, memories thoughts that originate and reside in the mind/brain of urban agents, while on the other, external representations, that is to say interferences such as economics, politics, technology, biophysical boundaries etc reside in the world.
  • The city is a dual complex system also in the sense that the city as a whole is a complex system and each of its agents is also a complex system. The implication is that we have to include the cognitive capability of the urban agents in the dynamics of cities.

Among these are conceptual paradoxes. Many of these paradoxes take the form of the coexistence of properties that, in simpler contexts, appear to be incompatible. The essential role of understanding paradox in complex systems is to broaden our ability to conceive of the diversity of possibilities for our understanding of cities.


As mentioned emergent properties are a product of the interaction between the components within a system and typically cannot be deduced by reference to the properties of the parts. Thus, emergence typically produces novel phenomena that we could not have predicted until we ran the system and all the parts have interacted. We can fully analyze and understand how an individual change behaves, or what effects appear in isolation. But because cities are complex evolving systems where the behavior of the whole system is an emergent product of the interaction between its parts, we do not know what emergent behavior will arise from having many different algorithms interacting or different nodes coevolving within the whole system. The net result is an emergent phenomenon and we cannot deduce it from analyzing the parts in isolation.

Emergence leads to one of the key concepts within complexity theory, that of uncertainty. The fact that the future emerges is a key source of the fundamental uncertainty within complex systems. In this world of complexity, the future is not just unknown. It may well be in fact unknowable, and this fundamental uncertainty changes our whole approach to the future.


The arrival of an intelligent responsive urban environment, especially one containing autonomously mobile agents, requires changes which must affect people. This will inevitably bring the needs of the digital agent into conflict with the needs of the individual or society. Ambient intelligence systems may also require changes in human behaviour, raising the possibility that our environment will train us to suit its needs. Hence control of the digital actants within the smart city’s actor-network can be expected to grant influence and power over the human actants.

Given the expected complexity and scale of a city’s ambient intelligence, there are likely to be many contexts in which we cannot distinguish between human-originated and self-determined needs of digital actants. This integrated domain is a socio-technical system in which humans and digital devices co-mingle in a manner such that it becomes impossible (or even meaningless) to identify the origins of patterns within the system as being either human or digital. This integrated domain is autopoietic.


A smart city is a form of human society co-existing with an ambient digital environment, such that human perceptions, actions and intersubjectivity are unavoidably mediated and influenced by this ambient digital environment: the non-human domain of an autopoietic system of digital devices and networks based on the communicative triad  (three-stage process consisting of input, processing and output-. However, neither collective possesses strict boundaries against the other, but rather the two intermingle (hybrid systems which combine human and digital devices).

The close integration in the human society of a huge number range of devices, systems and deep integration of various ontological levels, from the individual nano-sensor to the global cloud, makes any model of the city more complex and inevitably incomplete.

The challenges in the development of smart cities are enormous. To deal with the smart city context, we need to handle this complexity. Much of the smart city rhetoric is phrased in terms of achieving a better quality of life for citizens, but the debate is strangely silent about questions of segregation, inequality and poverty, and tends to focus more on accessibility and economic opportunity. This is further magnified by the lack of discussion on the expectations and the human lived experience and effects of the deep fusion of digital cognitive processes with human deliberations.

Smart cities must prepare for change that will be revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, as they put in place next-generation systems that work in entirely new ways. In this urbanizing world, smart cities are gaining greater control over their development; those that become the most successful are those that have instrumented and interconnected core systems. The next wave of innovations will be from humans’ ability to connect to machines and the data that comes from these connections.

It’s a smart city after all (3)

By | Algemeen | No Comments

Modern humans are a sociocultural species living in a sociocultural world on a used planet.

We live in exciting times. We now exist in an era when humans (anthropos) have fundamentally changed the geology of the earth and are present in almost all ecosystems. We have developed an energy consuming techno-social system that is comprised of humans, technological artifacts, and technological systems, together with the links, protocols and information that bind all these parts together: the sprawling combination of humanity and its technology. Technological advances have made data collection easier and cheaper than we could ever have imagined just 10 years ago. We can now synthesize and analyze large data sets containing genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, and multivariate phenotypes. In our thousands of years of harnessing technology – including the first technologies like stone tools, wheels and crops – the technology itself has basically begun to act practically independently, creating a new sphere (i.e., like the biosphere or atmosphere or lithosphere), but like nothing the planet has ever seen before. Simultaneously scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

We are pushing life on our shared planet toward overshooting biophysical boundaries, mass extinction and society’s need for the results of integrated research has never been greater. Solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems— food and drinking water for a global population, coping with climate change, preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, curing and preventing genetically based diseases—will rely heavily on our scientific and technological advantages across disciplines.

Without intending to, human societies evolved the capacity to force Earth into the Anthropocene. Fundamental changes on a planetary system scale have already begun. The very considerable uncertainty is how long these will last – whether they will simply be a brief, unique excursion in Earth history, or whether they will persist and evolve into a new, geologically long-lasting, planetary state.

Human actions increasingly directing evolution.

The Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s life, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.

The principal cause of the Anthropocene is social, rooted in the exceptional capacities of Earth’s first ultrasocial species: modern humans. The key is not the rise of technology alone, but rather humanity’s incredibly rich social life. Our socialness is the major driving force behind the changes on the planet we are witnessing today.

Human societies have transformed Earth because their social capacities to construct the human ecological niche have scaled up and intensified through long-term processes of evolution by natural selection. The human ecological niche is thus largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across and by individuals, social groups and societies based on socially learned behaviors. Long-term changes in the structure and functioning of human societies and their transformation of environments is the product of evolution acting on these processes of sociocultural niche construction. Human societies have evolved a tremendous diversity of complex cultural forms, all with profoundly different effects on their environments. This rapid diversification is partly explained by the observation that cultural traits can evolve far more rapidly than genetic traits.

Behaviorally modern human societies have always engineered ecosystems to sustain themselves. Human societies are not sustained by the balance of nature but by a sociocultural niche constructed through cooperative ecosystem engineering and the social exchange of food and other needs and wants (hunger is not -just- caused by environmental limits to food production but (also/mainly) by social limits to food distribution).

The challenges of sustaining nonhuman species and habitats in an anthropogenic biosphere have never been greater as the scale, extent, and intensity by industrial societies is already without precedent and continues to accelerate. Perhaps the greatest challenge for conserving nonhuman species and habitats is that human harm to these is generally not intentional, but rather results as the unintended consequences of intentional human-benefitting sociocultural niche construction. Including ecosystem engineering for agriculture and resource extraction (habitat loss and degradation, pollution), industrial production and infrastructure (pollution, hydrologic change), social exchange (facilitated biotic exchange, wildlife trade), and energy substitution (pollution, climate change, ocean acidification).

Yet the increasing global scale, interconnection, and capacity for engineering of human societies may yet prove to be powerful forces driving major societal shifts in both valuing and conserving nonhuman nature. The societal benefits of sustaining nonhuman species and habitats have likely never been clearer, as the ecological linkages among human health, social systems, and engineered environments are increasingly understood both theoretically and with the aim of advancing intentional management by societies.

Just as today’s globalizing and urbanizing societies are growing more concerned with the need to conserve nonhuman nature, they are becoming more and more capable technologically, culturally, and socially of accomplishing this.

The fluxes of nature are fast becoming cultures of nature. To investigate, understand, and address the ultimate causes of anthropogenic ecological change, not just the consequences, human sociocultural processes must become as much a part of ecological theory and practice as biological and geophysical processes are now.

As cities continue to grow, and cities control previously elusive aspects of human evolution we have to define the urban complex network of physical and social interactions. To understand our cities is to understand us. Understand how complex networks give rise to creativity, how urban metropolis are dramatically affecting a cultural connection reaching back nearly 400 years. This research and debate challenges us to rethink the human’s place and status in a more than human world. A (post)human world does not imply abandoning anthropology’s principle subject, but rather resituating the human in a logic of relations. Eco-logically, this requires recognizing a shared world in which humans and non-humans, machines, objects and information are mutually constituting and dynamically inter-acting within systems of great complexity. (Post)human and systems thinking thus advances towards a non-dualistic understanding of multiplicity and radical interdependency. This is not to say that all things are equal, but rather that entities should be differentiated within a unity. If we take the logic of relations seriously, our understanding shifts from a world of separate entities to one of interdependent processes.

This ontological relativism implies that it is not enough to rethink the positional relationships between traditional categories like nature and culture, subject and object, human and animal or human and technology. The reason for this is that reductive dualisms are already set up by singular concepts. Facing up to the ecological crisis and its underlying anthropocentrism, an anthro-de-re-centred orientation calls for resituating the anthropos in a relational nexus. In a shared world, the human is co-constituted not only by its own humanimality, but also by ‘human-and-non-human’ and the socio-material dynamics of physicalities and culturalities.

Being-in-the-world means that we cannot be taken separately from the dynamic environments  we inhabit and are enveloped by. I -still- believe in people and a long-term future on earth. We are not intrinsically nature’s enemy instead, we are the medium through which life becomes aware and transforms into something new, in a conscious way.

It’s a smart city after all (2) -WARNING: long read!-

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The Smart City-model is taken more or less as a given good for creating sustainable cities. This view is deeply rooted in seductive visions of the future, where the digital revolution stands as the primary force for change. Smart grids and meters, automated transport systems, communication networks, and data collection and analysis of data are all part of the smart city vision. While the seamless integration of digital technologies for the management of city functions promises greater cost-effectiveness and efficiencies, there are significant questions and philosophical issues that must be addressed as greater reliance on technologies for the running of cities is pursued. Employing a sort of a cyborg worldview—meaning a living system of intertwined human and machine parts—the Smart City system is seen as contributing to urban sustainability with the basic assumption that the Internet of Things serves social and public ends. These ends include economic benefits, improving efficiency and quality of life for people by optimizing control of infrastructures. In this view, urban residents are at the center of a city’s sustainability transformation, while at the same time serving as data sources, providing urban planners (central controllers of the cyborg) various sources of information about human behavior that may or may not be exploited. While various efficiency measures often are beneficial for society, at least in the short term, the discussions of resilience of such a cyborg is mostly entirely avoided.

So, increased novel technologies are changing the nature of cities, more information dense and more globalized than ever. These changes are not incremental and linear, but transformative with the emergence of a new intricate system behavior and new forms of systemic complexity. The nature of these changes pose fundamentally new challenges to governance as they require policy-makers to respond to system properties characterized by not only complex causality, but also extreme connectivity (i.e. global), ultra-speed (i.e. micro-seconds) and hyperfunctionality. Governance can fail at the system level if a subsystem performs its function to such an extreme; this could jeopardize the efficiency of the system as a whole.

Using an urban ecology lens, we provide some reflections that need to forgo any wider-scale implementation of the Smart City-model with the goal to enhance urban sustainability and develop  fundamental principles and rules of urban life that could have their most valuable applications: transforming cities into life-regenerative ecosystems, and reconnecting those ecosystems to the broader natural ones. Principles and rules based on the fact that nature is the process of going from simple to complex – from fragile to antifragile. Nature is a network of expanding adjacent possibles. Nature is the connections.

Life builds from the bottom up. Layer by layer, ecosystems have evolved from bare rock, concentrating and transforming locally available, easily accessible, abundant resources into dynamic complex systems that promote and reward interconnection and interdependence. Cities have also evolved in a similar way, the layering here is historic and often based on ways of economic and industrial change. The challenge then is to think of a city as a constantly evolving co-managed rainforest, savannah or reef, intrinsically intertwined with the ecosystem in which it resides.

A city is a COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM – SYSTEM(S) whose behavior is in constant flux, prone to quite intricate emergent patterns including unavoidable uncertainties, cascading failures, and surprise. Continuous innovation and evolution are key aspects of urban systems as hardware, software and human innovation drive the system towards higher (perceived at least) efficiency, connectivity and speed over time. The speed of innovation and associated technologies however, has created new forms of system properties that until now remain to be explored: connectivity, speed and hyperfunctionality.

Urban sustainability is marked by a FRAGILE BALANCE between biotic living organisms and the non-living a-biotic factors of their environment, governed by a dynamic equilibrium. The urban ecosystem relies on the reciprocal relations between living elements and the infrastructure that conditions their quality of life. These systems can be found in a variety of scales and in many aspects of our lives, but a violation of their delicate balance will almost certainly instigate a process of compensation in order to regain stability. Moving beyond the traditional binary separating the natural from the artificial, towards a more porous integration of the biotic and a-biotic can imbue our cities with greater resilience and sustainability.

CITIES ARE UNIQUE among all landscape types because they are where the human-inhabited, built, and ecosystem services provisioning spaces overlap and interact. Urban systems of course contain the particular physical environment within which and with which the organisms interact. Sunlight for photosynthesis, the cues of daylength and the seasonal swings of temperature, the exaggerated heat budgets, the stresses of low humidity, the soils, rubble, and fill as substrates, the rush of wind through the streets or the stagnation of air in deep street canyons, and the alteration of topography, with its importation of stone and the alkaline ingredients of concrete, are among the many aspects of urban physical environments.

All of these interacting components define the basic idea of the urban ecosystem. All of these components reflect the desires, plans, mistakes, accidents, and unintentional effects of decisions made by individual people, households, and institutions. Clearly the physical environments of cities are constructed by or profoundly modified by people. Equally clearly, the biological complex of cities where humans are the predominant actor, has social features as well as compositional and spatial biodiversity.

This complexity and dynamism fits easily within the basic definition of the ecosystem, and invites the burgeoning of specific models that contribute to surprise, delight, and utility in the urban sciences and design professions. Understanding how such urban ecosystems functions, how they change, and what limits their performance can add to an understanding of ecosystem change and governance in an ever more human-dominated world.

Our cities are currently not as well adapted or resilient as the ecosystems they’ve disrupted and are nested within. Ecosystems are not closed, self-regulating entities that mature to reach equilibrium, instead ecosystems have multiple equilibria and are open, dynamic, highly unpredictable and subject to frequent disturbance. Ecosystems come with temporal dynamics, change, cyclicity and evolution.

While life abounds in cities, diversity is limited and dominated by one species. Cities are the culmination of our species’ survival strategies, helping us mitigate the extremes of environment, shaping our culture, and extending our range on the planet. Compared to systems not dominated by humans, urban ecosystems are highly disturbed environments, very heterogeneous in both space and time: complex mosaics of biological and physical patches in a matrix of infrastructure, human organizations, and social institutions.

Humans and their communities add a new level of complexity. Humans design and build cities on the basis of their preferences and values. By building structure and infrastructure in cities to support their needs, humans redistribute organisms and the fluxes of energy and materials leading to a distinct, biotic diversity and energy and material cycles.

The ecosystem concept in ecology does not fully reflect our current understanding of dynamic human-dominated ecological systems that may operate far from equilibrium. Crucially, ecosystems can change state in response to a spectrum of variable conditions; they have evolved over millions of years through changes in biotic-abiotic interactions. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans have increasingly dominated such interactions, creating novel ecosystem functions never observed before. Yet in ecology, humans are the only species considered to be external to ecosystems. Furthermore, emphasis on the self-regulating nature of ecosystems has limited the view of disturbance that we now know is critical to understanding stability and ecosystem function.

CITIES ARE HYBRID ECOSYSTEMS: the product of co-evolving human and natural systems. Urban ecosystems emerge from complex interactions and feedbacks between the human, natural and technological system components of urban ecosystems. From an ecological viewpoint, they differ markedly from historical ecological systems. But urban ecosystems also differ significantly from historical human settlements: they are novel habitats and contain both natural and human historical features.

As hybrid ecosystems, cities operate at the border of a phase transition between alternative behavioral states governed by either historical or novel feedback mechanisms. As ecosystems are increasingly dominated by human action, they move toward a new set of feedback mechanisms. Their state is unstable.

Therefore it is vital to recognize that urban hybrid ecosystems are highly complex and a product of ongoing emergence, suggesting the need for co-evolutionary approaches to managing the city as a social-ecological system and the integration of ecosystem approaches into spatial planning frameworks. The agents that interact in the complex adaptive systems of the cities are social and biophysical by nature. What differentiates social-ecological systems from non-human complex adaptive systems is that the former deals with humans who apprehend their world through abstract thought. This symbolic construction is based on the ability to use language and symbols, to communicate across space and time. It has to do with the capacity of human beings to learn from the past, imagine the future, and finally materialize these thoughts in new types of entities that only exist in the noosphere (institutions, political and economic structures, as well as values, norms and beliefs).

We need a PARADIGM SHIFT in system design to accommodate the complexities in these highly interdependent and adaptive hybrid urban ecosystems. Myths and uncorroborated assumptions about how nature works, have led to failures in designing and managing urban environments. The assumptions that the elements of a system can be controlled and their boundaries can be defined have dominated system design and engineering for a long time influencing both the field and the practice. We have assumed for a long time that ecosystems are stable and that their processes and dynamics are relatively well understood and predictable, thus one can find an optimal solution among a set of possible alternatives—but that is clearly not the reality in urban ecosystems.

To design complex hybrid systems in which the components are highly diverse, interconnected, and interdependent we must embrace uncertainty and redefine principles of design to acknowledge the complexity of hybrid ecosystems. This implies expanding the heterogeneity of forms and functions in urban structures to support both human and ecological functions and supporting modularity of infrastructures to create interdependent decentralized systems. We need to expand our capacity for experimenting and learning. And most of all we need to find new ways to creatively engage the communities in designing the cities of the future.

There is no doubt that humans are clever ecosystem engineers. We have transported, accumulated and consolidated many resources to shape our cities and yet, for all our cleverness, we have forgotten that we are part of nature and subject to the same rules as the rest of life. Rather than creating conditions conducive to all life we have been focused on our own species’ needs and spent excess energy and resources in maintaining stasis (even if we label that as growth). Cities could currently be viewed as being biophobic, or manifestations of our disconnection from nature.


Technology has always been a critical force deeply intertwined with the evolution of cities. From the first human settlements millennia ago to the industrial revolution to today, technological breakthroughs have impacted the buildings we use, the way we get around and how we live, work and play in the urban space.

Smart is not just collecting and disseminating data. A Smart City as a closed loop system is extremely important and even critical. All attempts at defining Smart Cities -as far as I can oversee- share a number of common elements: sensible (sensors sense the environment), connectable (networked devices bring the sensed information to the Web), accessible (information on our environment is published and is accessible by users on the Web), ubiquitous (users can access information at any time and in any place, while moving), sociable (users acquiring information can publish it though their social network), sharable (sharing is not limited to data, but also to physical objects that may be used when they are in free status), and visible/augmented (the physical environment is retrofitted and information is seen not only by individuals through mobile devices, but also in physical places such as street signs). Artificial intelligence is making breathtaking advances. In particular, it is contributing to the automation of data analysis. Artificial intelligence is no longer programmed line by line, but is now capable of learning, thereby continuously developing itself.

The development of smart cities builds upon this strong historical foundation with a digital foundation that allows cities to function more efficiently, be more responsive to community members and ultimately create better, more equitable urban environments where people thrive.

It is essential to understand how people in cities move, how energy is used, how various aspects of infrastructure interact, and much more, allowing to take better data-driven decisions and maximize the efficiency in our cities. But technology alone cannot transform a city or a community; necessary mechanisms must be included to create incentives for using the technology and for accommodating the human and ecological principles in the loop. When it comes to the efficient management of sharable resources, there is a fundamental conflict between the individual and social, ecological optima.

From the point of view of systems and control theory, a smart city is a highly dynamic stochastic hybrid system with a multitude of issues that can only be successfully addressed through a multidisciplinary approach. Understanding and respecting human behavior and ecological principles is a key component of understanding the smart city as a Cyber-Physical Social System.

The future vitality of our cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital technologies in innovative, strategic ways. Orchestrating the city’s Cyber-Physical Social System is a combination of art and science that blends cultures, objectives and business models into a dynamic, evolving expression of alignment with the goals of city leaders and citizens, to achieve a common vision of sustainable socio-economic-ecological development at a global scale.