urban-complexity

FAIRY TALES ONLY EXIST FOR PEOPLE WHO NEVER SETTLE FOR LESS…..

By | Algemeen | No Comments

Cities must rethink themselves in the context of planetary change. From a planetary perspective, the emergence and rapid expansion of cities across the globe may represent another turning point in the life of our planet. Our knowledge of the complex nature of the urban system is still insufficient and we need a deep understanding of what is going on in our cities. Cities are being transformed so fast and the transformations are but a surface change hiding processes touching virtually everything from (among others) social networks to physical and functional changes which go unnoticed. The sophistication we discern in the city is similar to that in many natural and man-made systems which we might call complex, and any attempt to imagine it would fail if it is not based on an explanation which is valid for all these systems. From here rises the core of research which relies on a thorough investigation of complexity theory in an attempt to understand cities as complex systems.

We tend to view our built and natural environments as opposing forces. This perceived incompatibility has more to do with lack of understanding urban dynamics than universal law. Far from being static, nature is the process of moving from few to many connections. In this successional process, each stage builds upon the previous stage and creates the conditions necessary for the next. In this way, ecological systems diverge, diversify, as new connections grow, the system expands, new possibilities emerge and the systems evolves over time.

NATURAL SYSTEMS, LIVING ORGANISMS

Earth’s atmosphere emerged from the metabolic process of vast numbers of single-celled algae and bacteria living in the seas billions of years ago. These organisms transformed the environment into a place where human life could develop. The evolution of life has completely changed the characteristics of the planet. Can humans now change the course of Earth’s evolution? Can the way we build cities determine the probability of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt change on a planetary scale? What role do cities play in the evolution of Earth?

To function, life on Earth depends on the close cooperation of multiple elements, the properties of complex networks that supply resources, process waste, and regulate the system’s functioning at various scales of biological organization and evolving hierarchical fractal-like branching. Other characteristics of evolvable systems are flexibility (i.e. phenotypic plasticity), and novelty. The internal plasticity and flexibility of living systems, whose functioning is controlled by dynamic relations rather that rigid mechanical structures, gives rise to a number of characteristic properties that can be seen as different aspects of the same dynamic principle-the principle of self-organization. A living organism is a self- organizing system, which means that its order in structure and function is not imposed by the environment but is established by the system itself. Self-organizing systems exhibit a certain degree of autonomy; for example, they tend to establish their size according to internal principles of organization, independent of environmental influences. This does not mean that living systems are isolated from their environment; on the contrary, they interact with it continually, but this interaction does not determine their organization. The two principal dynamic phenomena of self-organization are 1) self- renewal-the ability of living systems continuously to renew and recycle their components while maintaining the integrity of their overall structure-and 2) self- transcendence-the ability to reach out creatively beyond physical and mental boundaries in the processes of learning, development, and evolution. Each level of biological organization from molecules to ecosystems has characteristic behaviors which emerge at that level. These emergent properties, function synergistically at each level of organization to give that level a life of its own which is greater than the sum of its parts. The capacity for innovation is an essential precondition for any system to function. If systems lack the capacity for innovation and novelty, they may become over-connected and dynamically locked, unable to adapt. To be resilient and evolve, they must create new structures and undergo dynamic change. Differentiation, modularity, and cross-scale interactions of organizational structures have been described as key characteristics of systems that are capable of simultaneously adapting and innovating.

HUMAN SYSTEM

What is the state of a social system? What are its stability domains? Social-system state is everything about a society at a particular place and time – culture, knowledge, economy, technology, perceptions, values and social organization. It is constantly fluctuating in some ways, while remaining more or less the same in other ways. Negative feedback loops keep social systems within stability domains imposed by particular cultural, political and economic systems while processes such as cultural evolution gradually change the shape of the domains. Social systems sometimes experience major switches from one stability domain to another. Social systems have complex system cycles in them self that range in scale from a small part of society to entire nations. Just as the scale varies, the time period of a cycle can vary from a few months to years or centuries. Human cultures also evolve. The mutations for cultures are new ideas. New ideas survive if they fit with the rest of the culture and prove useful. Whether or not an idea survives can depend on the situation. A new idea may survive successfully in one particular culture at one particular time and place, but the same idea may fail to survive in a different culture at a different time and place because it does not fit. Human cultural evolution can be much faster than biological evolution because cultural mutations are not random events like biological mutations. Cultural mutations are ideas that people develop to solve problems, so cultural mutations frequently fit the culture well enough, and function well enough, to survive and become part of the culture.

Social systems are autopoietic systems which use communication as their characteristic form of autopoietic generation. Policies can change dramatically during social system cycles. Policies are well developed and often rigid during equilibrium. During dissolution, people question existing policies and reject them as inadequate. New policies, even radically new frameworks, are formulated during reorganization.

The arrival of an intelligent responsive environment ads another factor, 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, just as cars require roads and regulations which gives them effective rights over people in some circumstances. Ambient intelligence systems may also require changes in human behaviour. 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. It is likely that some needs will arise via a combination of human-originated and self-determined needs. It is likely that many human goals will be accomplished via methodologies which were self-determined by autonomous systems

URBAN SYSTEMS ARE HYBRID SYSTEMS

To understand coevolution of human-natural-technological systems will require advancement in the evolution and social theories that explain how complex societies and cooperation have evolved. These coupled human-natural-technological systems are not governed only by either natural selection or human ingenuity alone, but by hybrid processes and mechanisms. It is their hybrid nature that makes them unstable and at the same time able to innovate. This novelty of hybrid systems is key to reorganization and renewal. A high degree of nonequilibrium is absolutely necessary for urban self-organization; living organisms are open systems that continually operate far from equilibrium. Fluctuations play a central role in the dynamics of self-maintenance. The hybrid urban system (like any complex adaptive evolving system) can be described in terms of interdependent variables, each of which can vary over a wide range between an upper and a lower limit. All variables oscillate between these limits, so that the system is in a state of continual fluctuation, even when there is no disturbance. Such a state is known as homeostasis. It is a state of dynamic, transactional balance in which there is great flexibility; in other words, the system has a large number of options for interacting with its environment.

In such a hybrid co-evolving system, is it possible to identify the real processes acting at the local scale interacting with transformations at the global scale? Yes, but it takes some effort… to convince people we can. To change our mind set. To jump.

dystopian

What might remain uniquely human? And does this question even matter?

By | Algemeen | No Comments

We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of the planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  From a geological or paleontological perspective, humanity’s brief sojourn on this planet is as dramatic and significant as the invention of photosynthesis some two billion years ago.  This is because human evolution bypasses genetics and allows for intentional culturally-acquired adaptations and their cultural transmission between generations. As humans are about to embark upon large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves, even as we have already engaged in large-scale environmental engineering, our biocultural evolution becomes literal. This new pattern of evolution now dominates all life on Earth and places the values and intentions of humans as the driving force in the future evolution of the planet.  Due to the global engagement with advanced technology, we are witness to a species-wise blurring of boundaries at the edge of the human. We also find ourselves in a digital age in which human identity is being transformed through networked technological intervention, a large part of our consciousness transferred to ‘smart’ external devices.

Many of the radical transformations in genetics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and related fields will be so disruptive that they can lead to a more frightening, unpredictable and chaotic world than ever before. An dystopian world of an unprecedented proliferation of quasi-human substitutes and surrogates, forming a spectrum of humanoids with fuzzy borders.

Extraordinary opportunities and challenges face humanity– and more broadly life on Earth. With ever more potent capabilities will come ever greater responsibilities. But humans are notoriously bad at making good decisions when faced with plenty. We have yet to understand how to cope. Hercules eventually rescued poor Prometheus from his torture.

In the past four decades, technology has fundamentally altered our lives: from the way we work, to how we communicate, to how we fight wars. These technologies have not been without controversy, and many have sparked intense debates, often polarized or embroiled in scientific ambiguities or dishonest demagoguery. Inevitably, the emerging technologies of the future will redefine our understanding of biology, the material world and will further extend into geopolitics and global balances of power.

Humanity is now at a crossroads that will determine its future path for centuries to come – survival or destruction, prosperity or collapse. A major change is coming, over unknown timescales but across every segment of society, and the people playing a part in that transition have a huge responsibility and opportunity to shape it for the best. Countless decisions must soon be made about how to address and navigate new forms of interaction with the future, in ways that transcend the borders between the physical, virtual, biological and digital. Discourse and decisions addressing:

  • the convergence of the NBIC (nano-, bio-, info-, cogno-) sciences;
  • ethics and aesthetics of human enhancement;
  • future of biological migration and transgressions;
  • emergence of systems and synthetic biology;
  • prospect of emotional and networked intelligence;
  • and ecosystem responsibility.

We’ve reached a point where advances in converging technologies are raising at least or even more ethical questions than practical ones. There aren’t any clear or easy answers to these questions, and it’s going to take a lot more time and thought to create frameworks or guidelines for both the appropriate and inappropriate uses of these potentially life-changing technologies. Undoubtedly the discourse presents entirely new ethical dilemmas, including some we may not yet be ready to negotiate. But it could offer, at least, solutions to inequalities that we find intractable today and remain committed to sustainable development, taking into account issues of inequality, human dignity and inclusiveness.

I remain confident that we are still in time and we can still prepare for the amazing yet uncertain future. What is definitely needed, among others things such as new skills, is initiating public discussions now.

its-a-smart-city-after-all-5

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.

COMPLEX

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.

UNCERTAINTY

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.

COMPLEX ENOUGH AS IT IS ….. NOW ADDING INTELLIGENT TECHNOLOGIES…

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.

SMART

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.

its-a-smart-city-after-all-4

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-is-a-smart-city-after-all-2

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.

CYBER-PHYSICAL SOCIAL SYSTEM

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.

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It’s a smart city after all

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Smart cities: two words which suggest a glittering future of technology and progress, where digital technology will help out with everything from getting bins collected to ensuring your drive through the city is as smooth as possible. Or, alternatively, an Orwellian nightmare where the poor are tossed out of our shiny new cities in favor of the upper classes, while governments use new smart technologies to track our every move.

Ours world is a city-powered planet. Our urban areas grow by 3 million people a week. Metropolitan and urban areas are the engines of the global economy, producing some 70% of its output, with some individual metro regions accounting for as much as a third of their national economies. Most important, they are home to just under 4 billion citizens who live, love, and contribute to their society in innumerable ways. Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact.

Technology has always been a critical force deeply intertwined with the evolution of cities. From the first human settlements millennia ago to  today’s 4th industrial revolution, technological breakthroughs have impacted the buildings we use, the way we get around, and how we live, work, and play in the urban space. Cities are beginning to, and will continue to, integrate technological dynamism into municipal operations, from transportation to infrastructure repair and more. The back ends of these systems are not always apparent to the end user – but as the integration of smart cities technologies becomes more visible in our everyday lives, we could begin to see large scale changes in our cities.

Now, as we are on the cusp of further rapid shifts in cities precipitated by technology, it is worth imagining what the connected smart city of the future will look like – and the associated impact it will have on our everyday lives. Cities can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. Urban places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.

But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. Places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded, where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is limited, where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency.

Technocrats think that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any city (and their neighborhoods) alive. Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of the city– are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within.

Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city. It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia as painted above. Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that previous generations have experienced. Social Capital is in real peril. The labor market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labor market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual laborer. At the bottom end of the labor market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.

Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalized world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.

In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital.  Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions. It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organizations. A more adaptive and informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution. It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.

To this end, we must be deliberate in the development of smart cities and imbue equity as a primary goal so that the city of the future is a city for everyone. How do we ensure that our cities continue to catalyze social mobility, generate new ideas, and provide economic return without becoming brittle, unsustainable, or simply fake? How do we avoid the mistake of early smart city efforts which focused almost solely on optimizing the physical city without much thought at all to the experience of the actual human beings who live there? The exclusion of poorer citizens from the smart cities of the future – has come to the forefront in recent debate.

But no matter when we’re talking about smart cities we often do so in terms of individual systems or projects. Search the web for smart city and you’ll find no lack of top ten lists of projects that promise to improve your metro. But often these projects are so tied to specific new technologies that they will either fail or be obsolesced by the volatility of technological change. Most of all, this city would be a data-gathering machine. Sensors would adhere to every surface, monitoring air quality, foot traffic, crime, water use, and even how many insects were flying around. Algorithms to optimize everything in the city, routing traffic, stationing police officers — or planting trees to draw insects away from schoolyards.

It all sounds lovely in theory, and the idea has now leapfrogged out of the corporate R&D zone, into academic research and enthusiastic pop science books. But cities are ever-changing; the dynamism of the urban environment is a microcosm of the societal interactions that we have built throughout history. The problem is that making a city smart could also crush everything that makes it a city. Cities have a logic all their own, which is based on chaos and diversity. Making them smart and subjecting their citizens to the logic of algorithms, could be more like authoritarianism than freedom.

At the end of the day, technological developments will enhance our urban experience – but they also risk leaving more people behind. Though the idea of a smart city is appealing, it’s crucial to keep the dark side perspective in mind.

 

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SILENT EXTERMINATION

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Finally, after years, it has got the attention. The sixth mass extinction. The loss of biological diversity is one of the most severe human caused global ecological problems. Hundreds of species and myriad populations are being driven to extinction every year. From the perspective of geological time, Earth’s richest biota ever is already well into a sixth mass extinction episode.

Existing ecosystems are the legacy of a biotic turnover initiated by the onset of glacial–interglacial cycles that began, 2.6 million years ago, and evolved primarily in the absence of Homo sapiens. Today, rapidly changing atmospheric conditions and warming above typical interglacial temperatures as CO2 levels continue to rise, habitat fragmentation, pollution, overfishing and overhunting, invasive species and pathogens (like chytrid fungus), and expanding human biomass are all more extreme ecological stressors than most living species have previously experienced. Without concerted mitigation efforts, such stressors will accelerate in the future and thus intensify extinction especially given the feedbacks between individual stressors.

As a species, Homo sapiens has either already arrived or will shortly arrive at a fork in the road, and the route we choose will determine what sort of world our species will occupy. One road leads to a relatively biodiverse future in which a significant majority of today’s non-domestic species persist. The other leads to a future in which the majority of today’s non-domestic species are extinct. Our species has already experienced and, to a considerable extent, contributed to a significant extinction event, so both prehistoric and historic human actions have already shaped global biology. At issue now is the extent and direction of ongoing human effects on global ecology and evolution, including the probability that our species will be a long-term or short-term component of global biological communities.

The claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth mass extinction depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the background rates prevailing between the five previous mass extinctions. A growing body of evidence indicates that current species extinction rates are higher than the pre-human background rate, with hundreds of anthropogenic vertebrate extinctions documented in prehistoric and historic times. Modern extinction rates have increased sharply over the past 200 years (corresponding to the rise of industrial society) and are considerably higher than background rates.

Mass extinctions shape the history of life and can be used to understand the current biodiversity crisis. The five largest mass extinctions of the Phanerozoic had profoundly different effects on the structure and function of ecosystems, although the causes of these differences are currently unclear. There is a clear need to understand the dynamics of future biodiversity loss and ecosystem change. Mass extinction, in the conservative palaeontological sense, is when extinction rates accelerate relative to origination rates such that over 75% of species disappear within a geologically short interval—typically less than 2 million years, in some cases much less. Extinction involves both rate and magnitude, which are distinct but intimately linked metrics. Rate is essentially the number of extinctions divided by the time over which the extinctions occurred. One can also derive from this a proportional rate—the fraction of species that have gone extinct per unit time. Magnitude is the percentage of species that have gone extinct. Because rate and magnitude are so intimately linked, a critical question is whether current rates would produce Big-Five-magnitude mass extinctions in the same amount of geological time that we think most Big Five extinctions spanned. The answer is yes. Current extinction rates for mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles if calculated over the last 500 years (a conservatively slow rate) are faster than or as fast as  all rates that would have produced the Big Five extinctions over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. This emphasizes that current extinction rates are higher than those that caused Big Five extinctions in geological time; they could be severe enough to carry extinction magnitudes to the Big Five benchmark in as little as three centuries. During times of normal background extinction, the taxa that suffer extinction most frequently are characterized by small geographic ranges and low population abundance. However, during times of mass extinction, the rules of extinction selectivity can change markedly, so that widespread, abundant taxa also go extinct. Large-bodied animals and those in certain phylogenetic groups can be particularly hard hit.

Population extinctions today are orders of magnitude more frequent than species extinctions. Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume. The massive loss of populations is already damaging the services ecosystems provide to civilization. When considering this frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, one must never forget that Earth’s capacity to support life, including human life, has been shaped by life itself. When public mention is made of the extinction crisis, it usually focuses on a few animal species (hundreds out of millions) known to have gone extinct, and projecting many more extinctions in the future. But a deeper glance presents a much more realistic picture: they suggest that as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are huge number populations. Furthermore, this analysis is conservative, given the increasing trajectories of the drivers of extinction and their synergistic effects.

Hypotheses to explain the general phenomenon of mass extinctions have emphasized synergies between unusual events. Common features of the (Big Five) early extinctions suggest that key synergies may involve unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affect many different lineages. This does not imply that random accidents like a Cretaceous asteroid impact would not cause devastating extinction on their own, only that extinction magnitude would be lower if synergistic stressors had not already primed the pump of extinction.

More rigorously formulating and testing synergy hypotheses may be especially important in assessing the sixth mass extinction potential, because once again the global stage is set for unusual interactions.

While some cosmic constants re­main, such as the cycles of day and night, the moon’s influence on the tides, the date of the solstices, and the length of time the Earth takes to go around the sun, many other patterns and rhythms of earth’s phenol­ogy are undergoing major change. Synchronicity and timing are all important; and when species tied to locked in global rhythms and patterns fails to coin­cide (trophic mismatches) death and extinction follow.

Even taking into account the difficulties of comparing the fossil and modern records, and applying conservative comparative methods that favor minimizing the differences between fossil and modern extinction metrics, there are clear indications that losing species now in the critically endangered category would propel the world to a state of mass extinction that has previously been seen only five times in about 540 million years. Additional losses of species in the endangered and vulnerable categories could accomplish the sixth mass extinction in just a few centuries. Although we cannot say precisely how many species there are, or exactly how many have gone extinct in any time interval, we can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way.  It may be of particular concern that this extinction trajectory would play out under conditions that resemble the ‘perfect storm’ that coincided with past mass extinctions: multiple, atypical high-intensity ecological stressors, including rapid, unusual climate change and highly elevated atmospheric CO2.

Even as it has not happened yet – we are on the edge of an extinction and little disagreement that humans are driving an unprecedented ecological crisis. We are effectively undoing the beauty and the variety and the richness of the world which has taken tens of millions of years to reach. The huge difference between where we are now, and where we could easily be within a few generations, reveals the urgency of relieving the pressures that are pushing today’s species towards extinction.

From an ecological or evolutionary perspective, few events are good or bad in absolute terms: they simply favor different organisms. In some respects, the human future will be very different from the human past. For now, the full ecological and evolutionary consequences of these extinctions remain unknown, although the greater the magnitude of extinctions, the higher the likelihood that they will negatively impact human life.

Gone are the relative stability and predictability of the past twelve thousand years, as the established patterns and regularity of Holocene phenology begin to fall into chaos.

We are deciding…which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.

No other creature has ever managed this, and it will unfortunately be our most enduring legacy.

(Elizabeth Kolbert 2014)

 

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I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you. My oceans. My soil. My flowing streams. My forests. They all can take you, or leave you.

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For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period. The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. We are also the only species to have a geological age named after us. (Of course, we are the only species with enough consciousness to actually name geological ages in the first place.) Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. No matter the discussion on a formalized Anthropocene -the idea/concept did not arise from geology, there is simply not enough physical evidence for it as strata-. The fact that we know that we are effecting the Earth System is clear and the Anthropocene is based more on the future than on the past, more a part of human history than the immensely long history of the Earth is fine by me.

Humans are part of ‘the system’.

We are not the only species to have shaped the Earth’s environment. The only reason humanity could even arise is because microscopic single-celled proto-photosynthesizers used sunlight to split water and liberate oxygen, providing air for us animals to breathe. But we are the only species to knowingly alter the state of the entire globe, by continuously burning the corpses of earlier photosynthesizers.

The Earth System refers to the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet. The Earth System, is beyond the notion that the geophysical processes encompassing the Earth’s two great fluids—the ocean and the atmosphere—generate the planetary life-support system on their own. Biological/ecological processes are an integral part of the functioning of the Earth System and not merely the recipient of changes in the coupled ocean-atmosphere part of the system. A second critical feature is that forcings and feedbacks within the Earth System are as important as external drivers of change, such as the flux of energy from the sun. Finally, the Earth System includes humans, our societies, and our activities; thus, humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself.

Underlying global change are human-driven alterations of  the biological fabric of the Earth, the stocks and flows of major elements in the planetary machinery such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and silicon; and the energy balance at the Earth’s surface.

Global change in this perspective means both the biophysical and the socioeconomic changes that are altering the structure and the functioning of the Earth System. Global change includes alterations in a wide range of global-scale phenomena: land use and land cover, urbanisation, globalisation, coastal ecosystems, atmospheric composition, riverine flow, nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, physical climate, marine food chains, biological diversity, population, economy, resource use, energy, transport, communication, and so on. Interactions and linkages between the various changes listed above are also part of global change and are just as important as the individual changes themselves. Many components of global change do not occur in linear fashion but rather show strong non linearities.

The phenomenon of global change represents a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

The Anthropocene biosphere is characterized by four unique physical components: (1) a global signal of marine and terrestrial neobiota that in many cases have displaced indigenous forms, that have often taken advantage of the modified anthromes of humans, and that have reset the structure of many terrestrial ecosystems and that are profoundly modifying the marine realm; (2) a single species, Homo sapiens, dominating the net primary production and energy flow; (3) the human directed evolution of plants and animals; and (4) the increasing interaction of the biosphere with an ever more rapidly evolving technosphere.

The good and the bad: a scary mass extinction of species (its confirmed that the sixth great extinction had already begun) and alarming signs of climate change, a general call to abandon false hope in the toxic, cannibalistic and self-destructive system of carbon-based capitalism, but also a number of promising revolutions in sustainability, manufacturing, biomimicry and nanotechnology. But humanity presently lacks the political institutions to act collectively on a global scale,  hope arises that new politics will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperariseative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

We need to realize that the Anthropocene is changing the co-evolutionary pattern between humans and the environment- from an emphasis on local interaction to a coevolution of humanity and the planet as a whole. Such trends and patterns are the results of underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and require a shift away from deterministic single trajectory of future thinking towards exploring multiple trajectories and futures. Understanding trends and impacts, underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and in particular the interactions, trade-offs and synergies across temporal and spatial scales, is required. In terms of transition and transformation towards desirable and novel futures, a better understanding of multi- and cross-scale inter- actions is critical in bringing about systemic, structural change. While recognizing that there are diverse and competing views of the potential for humanity to engage consciously with purposeful systemic change as well as preferences on the degree and direction of purposeful intervention, renewed attention to the science of social change is required. The future of Anthropocene will be the outcome of today’s collective choices, and science has a strong role to play in guiding such choices. To fulfill this task, science needs to have closer and different relations with practice, where science is co-designed and co-produced with societal stakeholders, and where science not only informs practice but also learns from practice. It is time for the sustainability debate to focus more on new opportunities offered by plausible and novel futures, including societies’ abilities to deal with risk and emergencies, rather than on how to share burdens to ensure the continuity of the present.

The realization of the Anthropocene provides an opportunity not only to reconsider the power and consequences of human actions, but also how to channel the transformative and creative potentials of human society towards desirable and novel futures in the Anthropocene.

‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interconnections and their cultural drivers. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system.

The Anthropocene concept has far-reaching ethical implications. It challenges us to accept an expanded understanding of collective responsibility that reaches beyond conventional human scales measured in multiples of human lifetimes, to consider the consequences of our collective actions on planetary and geological (or deep time) scales.

Today we stand poised on the cusp of a historical transition, most likely extending over multiple generations, in which human societies must find ways to adjust to radically different environmental conditions and accomplish far-reaching social, economic, political and cultural changes.

The globally dominant industrial growth economies operate as if reality is about organizing inert matter in efficient ways to satisfy human needs and wants and generate surplus value. This cultural ‘operating system’ couples our everyday taken-for-granted assumptions about the world to an ideology of dead matter, human utility and perpetual growth. The fundamental challenge of the Anthropocene is to restore a commitment to the vitality of life in all its forms on this planet as the basis of our institutions and professions. This is the cultural renaissance the Anthropocene calls forth.

Human beings are part of nature. Nature is not dependent on human beings to exist.

Human beings, on the other hand, are totally dependent on nature to exist.

The growing number of people on the planet and how we live here is going to determine the future of nature. And the future of us.

Nature will go on, no matter what. It will evolve.

The question is, will it be with us or without us?

There are plenty of troubling things about the Anthropocene. But to my mind, one of its most troubling dimensions is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.

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Architecture in the spirit of times

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The human being is a complex organism with a discriminating consciousness capable of abstract thought, language, and a high degree of technical manipulation of our physical surroundings. These abilities, along with limitless ambition and imagination, have led to a condition of alienation from our instincts and environment. Our science, technologies, political systems, belief systems, and patterns of consumption have all evolved to reinforce a duality between self and object, figure and ground, man and nature.

More than 2000 years ago, the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, was the author of De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, a treatise written in Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. This work is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. Vitruvius is famous for asserting in this book that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas—that is, it must be strong or durable, useful, and beautiful.

Nature themes can be found in the earliest human structures: Stylized animals characteristic of the Neolithic Gobekli Tepe ; the Egyptian sphinx, or the acanthus leaves adorning Greek temples and their Vitruvian origin story; from the primitive hut to the delicate, leafy filigrees of Rococo design. Representations of animals and plants have long been used for decorative and symbolic ornamentation. Beyond representation, cultures around the world have long brought nature into homes and public spaces. Classic examples include the garden courtyards of the Alhambra in Spain, porcelain fish bowls in ancient China, the aviary in Teotihuacan (ancient Mexico City), or the elusive hanging gardens of Babylon.

Western attitudes toward nature were shifting in the mid-19th century; natural landscapes became valid art subjects, as seen in the Hudson River School and the Barbizon School in France. Inspiration from nature was in full view in the Art Nouveau designs of the late 19th Century. Exuberant plant tendrils lacing through buildings in Belgium, the lush flowers that are Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, and the explicitly biomorphic forms of Antonio Gaudi’s buildings all remain strong examples. In Chicago, Louis Sullivan created elaborate ornamentation with leaves and cornices that represent tree branches.

The values that have been embodied in mainstream western architecture since the Renaissance are principally expressive of Humanist beliefs regarding the relationship of the human being to the universe. Modernism, which celebrated rationality and the machine, was a clear attempt to expunge completely all reference to transpersonal forces that did not fit neatly into the humanist worldview. Post-modernism, was an attempt to reintroduce the elements of decoration and symbolic reference into the architectural vocabulary, in recognition of the necessity of a fuller human psychological engagement with our built environment.

This human psychological engagement has the potential to yield important insights into the factors informing our affect and behavior with regard to both the natural and the man-made spheres. Taken together affect and behavior are sometimes insufficiently articulated or only partially acknowledged. Architecture is and always has, as pointed out above, given expression to our relationship with the world around us, emotions and perceptions of life. The psychological dynamics of this expression deserve our respectful attention. The consistency of natural themes in historic structures and places suggests that natural inspired design is not a new phenomenon; rather, as a field of applied science, it is the codification of history, human intuition and neural sciences demonstrates that connections with nature are vital to maintaining a healthful and vibrant existence as an urban species. The last decade has seen a steady growth in work around and the intersections of neuroscience and architecture, both in research and in practice; even green building standards have begun to incorporate biophilia, predominantly for its contribution to indoor environmental quality and connection to place. For the purpose of understanding the context of Biophilic Design, nature is defined as living organisms and non-living components of an ecosystem – inclusive of everything from the sun and moon and seasonal arroyos, to managed forests and urban raingardens,

So, architecture is more than aesthetics. In architecture, new awareness of the complexity of cognitive and emotional processes involved in the daily experience of designed environments has rapidly grown. Design studies and life sciences have been continuously inspiring each other, but only recently have they started to truly share interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological perspectives. The contribution of life- and neuroscientists is actively influencing the architectural debate. According to this perspective, distinct elements of form and space in architectural perception may be processed and represented in highly specialized brain regions in a sensory modality-independent manner.

For our built environment to express and reflect the psychological zeitgeist those who shape this environment must be in tune with the spirit of the times. But we live at the end of a period of nationalism, secularism, and materialism that appears to be dissolving in a cycle of conflicts and ideological backlashes of an increasingly destructive nature. Dominant belief systems are either in decline or rigidifying, transforming into fundamentalist dogma or two-dimensional caricatures. Violence is omnipresent in mass media. Culture, the context for development of identity and community around articulated values in art, architecture and religion, is rapidly becoming an obsolete notion. Nature is imperiled. We live, it seems, in a period of transition.

 

The spirit of the times is principally found in a renewed appreciation for the dynamic interplay of energy in living systems, and of our place in these systems. The informing content of ecopsychology is biophilia, the love of life in all of its manifestations, a key instinctual force that is finding physical expression from green roofs and healing gardens to regenerative and nature inspired design. Although ecology and nature inspired design have introduced the study of our place in the world, the dynamic identity of organism and environment, and psychology has drawn back the veil on the workings of our inner mental processes, we have yet to begin a systematic investigation of our psychological relationship to the world. Ecopsychology provides a means of inquiry into the interplay of spirit and meaning in our connection to our world, a dynamic that requires our immediate and undivided attention.

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We don’t know when to stop

By | Algemeen | No Comments

Civilization has come a long way, and our understanding of the world and the advancements we have achieved deserve admiration. After nearly four billion years of Darwinian evolution, we have created a separate and independent evolutionary logic. Whereas what lived and died used to depend only on natural selection and random mutation, now at least half of what lives and dies is due to human selection.

One of the benefits of our evolution is intelligence. In its varied forms powers every opportunity we pursue and every problem we seek to solve. Intelligence is what allows us to create forms of governance, cure disease, create art and music, discover, dream and love. Intelligence is also what decides that these things, rather than other things, are worth doing, by translating discoveries into meanings, experiences into values and values into decisions. And at the same time, the world remains in great peril and abysmal disparity. The potential for conflict between (or within) some societies seems omnipresent, or at the brink of eruption. Seemingly we have to step up our own evolution a bit more.

A seemingly simple change 2.5 million years ago — using stone tools to butcher animals — led early hominids down the path to becoming modern humans. From that modest starting point, throughout human history, we created tools that increased our individual and collective intelligence and became extensions of our natural selves. Both our shift to agrarian lifestyles and the Industrial Revolution were marked by major shifts in diet, exposure to infectious disease, and risks of chronic disease.

Culture (agriculture, medicine, technology) now changes much faster than genes and traits can evolve. Have we therefore entered an era in which we are going to be permanently mismatched to a rapidly changing science and technology for as long as we can foresee? Naively, yes one would expect the rate of advance of machine intelligence to outstrip that of biological intelligence. Tinkering with AI and smart machines seems easier than modifying a living species, one generation at a time. But advances in genomics—both in our ability to relate complex traits to the underlying genetic codes, and the ability to make direct edits to genomes—will allow rapid advances in biologically-based cognition.

We are poised for an explosive, generative epoch of massively increased human capability through an explosion of possibilities represented by the simple equation: HI (human intelligence) + AI (artificial intelligence). When HI combines with AI, we will have the most significant advancement to our capabilities of thought, creativity and intelligence that we will have ever had in history.

The biggest bottleneck in opening up this powerful new future is that we humans are currently highly limited in how we can participate in these possibilities. Our connection with our new creations of intelligence is limited by screens, keyboards, gestural interfaces and voice commands — constrained input/output modalities. We have very little access to our own brains, limiting our ability to co-evolve with silicon-based machines in powerful ways. The frontier machine intelligence architecture of the moment uses deep neural nets: multilayered networks of simulated neurons inspired by their biological counterparts. Silicon brains of this kind, running on huge clusters of GPUs (graphical processor units made cheap by research and development and economies of scale in the video game industry), have recently surpassed human performance on a number of narrowly defined tasks, such as image or character recognition. We are learning how to tune deep neural nets using large samples of training data, but the resulting structures are mysterious to us.

Neuroprosthetics. In recent years, research labs around the world have made enormous strides in understanding how the brain works, how to connect it to outside sources and how we might tap more deeply into its potential. The most immediate need for these devices is apparent in the growing number of people living longer lives while suffering from neurodegenerative disorders. These devices — by directly extending HI, including our memory and other cognitive capabilities — could lead to unprecedented longevity of the mind and body.

There is more.

HI -enhancement-. Another rapidly evolving and advancing intelligence besides that of AI and smart machines: our own brain. Unraveling the genetic architecture of complex traits such as human cognitive ability. Recent advances allow highly targeted editing of genomes, and will eventually find their uses in human reproduction. The potential for improved human intelligence is enormous. Cognitive ability is influenced by thousands of genetic loci, each of small effect. If all were simultaneously improved, we can’t imagine what capabilities this level of intelligence represents, but we can be sure it is far beyond our own. Cognitive engineering, via direct edits to embryonic human DNA, will eventually produce individuals who are well beyond all historical figures in cognitive ability. Now our newfound powers take the randomness out of genetics and ensure directed evolution. To modify our own gene code such that we are fundamentally redesigning our species and a vast number of other species. We are redesigning life itself. Will we have better minds, be nicer, lovable, emphatic or just more effective and efficient?

These two threads—HI- enhancement- and AI—will inevitably intersect. Just as AI will be much smarter in 2050, we can expect that the humans who design, build, and program them will also be smarter. Perhaps we will experience a positive feedback loop: better human minds invent better machine learning methods, which in turn accelerate our ability to improve human DNA and create even better minds. Also, once machines reach human levels of our enhanced intelligence, our ability to tinker starts to be limited by ethical considerations. Rebooting an operating system is one thing, but what about a sentient being with memories and a sense of free will?

Does society need time to research, understand, and discuss the consequences, both intended and unintended.

The potential benefits of HI- enhancement- and AI are undeniable. What becomes the new norm as we try to improve ourselves? Who sets the bar, and what does enhancement mean? You might enhance people to make them smarter, but does smarter equal better or happier? Should we be enhancing morality? And what does that mean? But we are the species that never knows when to stop.