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The Synergy-City

planning for a high density, super-symbiotic society

John Wood

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Despite a growing concern about climate change, losses in bio-diversity, etc., the developing world continues to build cities inspired by the same profligate lifestyle that was a main cause of the problem. A solution however, seems to be beyond the scope of individual citizens, designers or planners. Even politicians appear unwilling or unable to confront the issues in a serious way. One reason for this is that the discourse of ‘sustainability’ is sometimes confused, self-contradictory, and unappealing to voters and consumers. The article explores this problem, suggesting that a more effective discourse would probably need to inspire us into leading a more ‘natural’ lifestyle that is, therefore, more synergistic on every level. It argues that the natural world is a self-organising, inclusive and holistic system that reduces its own entropy by embracing and optimising difference. In emulating such a system the article advocates a planning discourse that encourages greater reciprocal opportunity and perceived mutual advantage for all ‘eco-aware’ citizens. This would mean that, instead of discussing reduced consumption, we try to envision synergistic urban living styles that are desirable, attainable, maintainable, and reproducible (Wood, 2004). In addressing these issues the article refers to a current research project that is exploring the need for more inclusive synergies within meta-design. This pilot project found that it would be hard to develop ‘eco-cities’ without generating a strong consensus that includes the business community, consumers, politicians, educators, bankers, and developers. It asks whether planners might have to become more visible, entrepreneurial, trans-disciplinary. This would probably lead to closer collaboration between a wider range of enlightened professionals at a much higher level.


The article suggests that Lovelock’s vision of ‘Gaia’ (Lovelock, 1979) and Buckminster Fuller’s notion of a ‘synergy of synergies’ (Fuller, 1975) can be used to inspire a ‘meta-planning’ discourse that identifies a ‘win-win-win-win’ outcome (Wood, 2005:2). It refers to urban city planning in the context of ongoing research. In seeking a way to make environmentally positive design more effective, this EPSRC / AHRC funded project invites a more entrepreneurial, holistic, multi-layered, multi-disciplinary, and inclusive approach. In effect, it calls for a new form of ‘meta-design’ that can bring many levels of synergy to the modern life-style. Here, in contrast with ‘design’, ‘meta-design’ refers to a planning process that is less predictive, and more a process of ‘seeding’ consensual change (Ascott, 1994, in Giaccardi, 2005). The article also asks whether such an approach might be preferable to the discourse of ‘sustainability’. I am not a planner, but the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that urban planning is involved with the ‘construction, growth, and development of a town or other urban area’. However, this does not say much about the actual methodology of urban planning. Nor does it discuss its real scale, scope, nature, or ultimate purpose. How might we use this incomplete definition to reframe the task in a way that will acknowledge its complexity and adaptability at an appropriate level of variety?

Facing the seriousness of our predicament

Perhaps because of the daunting complexity of most professional fields, many specialists are trained to see whole systems in terms of simpler well-established processes and procedures. We may, for example, juggle discrete numerical indicators such as population numbers or land areas. This enables us, for example, to agree that, since the Rio Summit of 1992, the natural world now supports more people than ever before. We consume more resources and power, and produce more waste. There is less biodiversity, less forest area, less available fresh water, less soil, and less stratospheric ozone layer. We also know that rising prosperity is worsening the problem. To all intents and purposes we have reached the Hubbert Peak for oil reserves and we foresee a shortfall in alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of energy consumption. Unfortunately, none of these individual facts or statistics will show us how to plan for, or to build cities to end the misery of poverty whilst reducing our burden on the ecosystem. Ideally, a holistic and synergistic framework of thought is needed. However, the language we use to appeal for a more ecological style of living tends to make it sounds negative or unrealistic when we use the conventional vernacular of a ‘growth economy’ to say it. (c.f. Hawken, P., Lovins, A., and Lovins, H.L., 1999). I suggest, therefore, that we must learn to imagine alternative futures in a more long-term and detailed way. This is because relations between the above factors are highly complex and non-linear. In making this possible it may therefore be necessary for planners to assume a far more active, entrepreneurial, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative role (c.f. Wood, J., & Nieuwenhuijze, O., 2006).

We need multi-dimensional, joined-up thinking

Just as human health is equivalent to a state of equilibrium among many complex factors, so a healthy city reconciles and balances many factors such as those at the semantic, metabolic, political, physical, aesthetic, and spiritual levels. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Arguably, a well-planned city is an integrated system that enhances local climatic conditions and encourages its inhabitants to nurture better ones. If so, citizens would become increasingly attuned to their locality, rewarded with high quality food, good social enfranchisement, health and recreation. Arguably, if a city functions as a living organism, the planner’s mission is to facilitate its health and survival without compromising the needs of other regions. The designers and planners who create our eco-cities of the future will therefore need to be able to work with more coherent, complex and multi-layered systems. These systems must support a diversity of aesthetic, religious, social and cultural values and beliefs. These must, in turn, be compatible with a range of ecologically benign energy resources, food production methods, and patterns of work. The design of an appropriate mode, or style of urban living may be the most important task facing us at present. Perhaps a more comprehensive approach to this problem would help us all to forestall climate change, armed struggle, pandemic disease and pestilence, short of draconian legislation. Part of this process will entail the promotion of planned and designed environments that invite their occupants to cultivate higher levels of social, political, ideological, and biological diversity.

We need alternatives to the growth economy

Because all of these issues are compresent, co-creative and co-dependent, a ‘joined-up’ approach is vital. For example, attempts to eradicate poverty simply by writing off international debts could be counterproductive unless we can also avert serious land-loss and/or meteorological disaster. These issues pose a particular challenge for urban planners in the developing world, where high levels of congestion and urban poverty (around 50%) go hand-in-hand. On the other hand, planning for high-density living is also an opportunity for making energy savings by ‘synergising’ our lifestyles. In making the necessary changes we will need to be even-handed and ingenious, therefore it is vital to gain the support of politicians. This may be difficult, as comprehensive ‘ecological’ visions are exceedingly hard to find. Moreover, we live with a political system that is dangerously ambivalent. Whilst many can see the dangers of an economic system that is predicated on growth, virtually all established politicians strive hard to maintain, or even to increase it. In the next few years it is therefore possible that public anger over rising oil prices could dominate the discussion before we can expect a more rational, constructive, and inventive response to environmental crisis. Some might suggest that we prioritise the plight of the poorest nations. After all, disease, malnutrition, and meagre infrastructures present the most pressing task. On the other hand, if the developing countries are not seen to modify their own appetites, the developing nations will only have bad examples to follow.

Consumer resistance to the ecological agenda

One of the major challenges lies in mobilising a network of appropriate agencies within a short time. The developed world has enjoyed an unprecedented level of prosperity that was made possible by automation and a growth-oriented economic system. Unfortunately, this apparent stability is only sustained by economic growth, and growth has only been sustained by cheap fossil fuels. By normalising this approach, corporations, mainstream economists, and politicians have sustained the illusion that economic growth, consumption, and profit are as important as Nature itself. Unfortunately, without the growth economy we would have an entirely different world order that, for political reasons, may seem ideologically alien. This breeds confusion and alienation. Where Brundtland (1987) sought to unify industry and society under a clear and simple quest for ‘sustainable development’, today we have more than 70 different definitions for ‘sustainability’ (Holmberg & Sandbrook, 1992; Pearce et al., 1989, cited in Davey, C. L., Wootton, A., Boyko, C. T., and Cooper, R., 2005). As some of these terms are confused, misleading, or even self-contradictory, it is unlikely that we will see a strong enough resurgence of interest around ‘sustainability’ to transform behaviour and expectation. Perhaps it is for this reason that politicians are able to sidestep the most blatant environmental issues.

A stridently consumer-centred approach to well-being

In the 21st century, increasing levels of consumption are made possible by a widening radius of access to the major currencies. This is no longer just a geo-spatial issue. In the last decade or so, instant, online shopping has been marketed to portray a lifestyle free from cares and costs. Unfortunately, the eCommerce and ‘instant credit’ revolution is removing the boundaries that hitherto kept transactions within the locality. In a stridently individualistic, anthropocentric, consumer-centred ideology, digital currency systems were capitalism’s way to break down the final frontiers of place and time. Ultimately, eCommerce promises the customer anything, anytime, anywhere. We have developed debt-oriented banking systems to bring about an uninterrupted flow of transactions that exceed genuine user demand, or availability of resources. Thanks to a hidden army of engineers, trendsetters, market researchers, fashion models, and advertising designers the richest nations live on credit. Digital banking makes it just as easy to order a ‘free delivery’ American pizza as it does to get a Thai curry. ‘One-click’ shopping enables you to choose between a long weekend at a ‘Slow City’ in Italy, or a birthday excursion to Disney World. Whether you buy a gas-guzzling Hummer SUV, or the ‘greener’ Toyota Prius, the transaction process is just as easy. This is what Bill Gates proudly dubbed ‘capitalism without friction’ (1999). Unfortunately, the economic dynamics this represents has made it impossible for even the smartest, most ecologically aware design companies, architectural practices, or planning offices to find a way to ‘green’ the planet.

The consumer must ‘choose’ without ‘dreaming’

Despite a slow but steady growth in the public awareness of environmentalism, over the last three or four decades the severity of our ecological plight has yet to force a necessary level of change in public service, business, and everyday life. This is because, within the logic of consumption, the ‘consumer is King’. At present, consumption appears to offer individual rights without obvious responsibility. All of us, even as infants, sense that it is our moral duty to acquaint ourselves with the world of brands, prices, styles, value-for-money, celebrity endorsement, and how and where to enjoy spending our money. It is what has fuelled the slowly emerging apathy and eventual resistance to eco-design. This is de-moralising for designers who strive to improve the energy efficiency of a building or vehicle. Often, the energy or other savings in one product are more than cancelled out by the pressure on all of us to consume more, and to travel further, and more frequently, as a matter of routine. Within a culture of rising expectation and ‘demand’, how will we change our lifestyle habits or our expectations? Ironically, technological innovation and economic growth has failed to increase our happiness. In many major cities it is only a minority who can define themselves as the creators of whole products or services that are needed and admired by others. Where jobs become too systematic, repetitive, marginal, or over-specialised to bring pride and satisfaction, self-esteem is eroded. An important factor in developing ecological cities will be the ability to establish the optimum conditions for personal growth and development, neighbourliness and a respect for difference. Rights should balance responsibilities.

We all need to envision new ways to live

Not surprisingly, consumer-centred, representative democracy has conspicuously failed to wean us away from a way of life that threatens us with extinction. It is because the system of production has become such a powerful and convenient substitute for political consensus that the main moral imperative of the late twentieth consumer is to work, spend and receive. In this sense, the act of choice is what defines one’s generic role as a citizen-consumer. I have argued that, our (economic) responsibility as consumers and voters is, mainly, to ‘choose’. We have become so accustomed to the highly adaptive, consumer-oriented nature of the market that we have forgotten how to dream. (Wood, 2000). Similarly, electors are not expected to imagine how they, or we, would really like to live. Arguably, the ability to envision new possibilities will be the next necessary step in redressing this situation. Society needs to share a willingness to ‘dream’ if it is able to find more ecological ways of living. In this context, the idea of 'dreaming' merely refers to the process of daring to imagine situations that currently seem implausible or impossible. However, this strongly anti-sceptical approach may seem superficial or strange because we live in a post-Cartesian, post-Galilean and post-Baconian era in which solipsistic arguments support crass styles of pragmatism. An example of this has been the misguided pursuit of GDP as a good way to create well-being. This will no longer work to our collective advantage. We need to devise a new discourse of ‘balance’, rather than ‘control’.

Mapping our ecological footprint is a start

To my knowledge, there are few tools that allow us to monitor whole conditions of balance at an ecological level. One exception is the notion of an ‘Ecological Footprint’ (Wackernagel and Rees, 1994). This is a wonderfully simple way to estimate the stable environmental 'land cost' of sustaining a citizen, or community. It is based on the ratio between the useable land areas available, globally, and the size of the total population on Earth. The Earth currently has just 1.8 global hectares (4.45 acres) of productive land available per person. However, by 2001, we were using 2.2 global hectares (5.44 acres) per person to sustain current lifestyles, i.e. 130% of what we needed in 1961. Up to a certain size of footprint the global population will sustain itself without harming the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the world is already living at what is called the ‘overshoot’ zone, in which we are using up resources that will compromise our ability to survive in the future. We now, therefore, risk depleting and damaging the ecosystem, perhaps irreparably. While the ecological footprints of the rich nations have increased by over three times their size since 1900, in the same period, population growth has effectively reduced our ecological resources/person by a similar amount. In 1995 my own city, London, was been estimated to have an ecological footprint of 125 times its own size. In 2000 a larger survey showed that this has increased to 293 times its size – roughly twice the size of the whole of the UK.

The American Dream

Although the arithmetic of a current ‘ecological footprint’ may be simple, the anticipatory forces that govern it are more complex. The USA presently needs an ecological footprint of around 4.7 times its own land area to survive at its current living style. Yet, whilst there are other, smaller countries that live well beyond this rate, the USA is a special case, because the ‘American dream’ is constantly being reinforced and exported around the world. It is a ‘meme’ that is carried via political rhetoric, products, and other entertainment and life-style’ products, goods, services, and ephemera. All over the world people see and hear distinctively American images that are associated with conspicuous consumption and profligate waste. They seem to prove that it is glamorous and possible, if not desirable, to live in this way. They may be artefactual rather than real, but they are influential and indelible. Although this is only one example it illustrates that the task is complex because it comprises a mixture of social, economic, cultural, ideological, religious, and philosophical components that work together in subtle ways. Ideally, in order to balance their effects, city planners and designers will have to accommodate an equivalent richness of understanding within a broad raft of strategies and methodologies.

The hyperreality of fiction

Over the next decade or two, as oil prices soar, societal transformation will prove increasingly costly and painful (Douthwaite, 2003). Human beings do not like step change. In a so-called ‘free society’ we prefer to evolve our social habitat by copying and interpreting what we see and admire. Obviously, this is a way to pass on both ‘bad’, and ‘good’ habits. The spirit of New York is memetic because it has inspired the setting for a century of film genres depicting greed, crime, vice, passion and prohibition. The charm of its setting is therefore sustained by images of pleasure and danger, within which capacious wealth lives cheek-by-jowl with destitution and hardship. These, and many other myths and half-truths are embellished in a million lurid novels, plays, and films in which we can feel the searing heat belching up from gratings in the sidewalk, or experience the sheer noise and weight of the cars, trucks, yellow cabs and police cars that hurtle relentlessly through its wide streets, on a ‘24-7’ basis. Even if we know that this image is exaggerated by a torrent of TV crime thrillers we will find it hard to ignore. This ‘hyper real’ aspect of the city remains more ‘real’ than the post-9-11 New York of civil courtesy, and a growing awareness of environmental issues. However, the stereotypical image is hard to erase, and we are still likely to emulate its spirit because we seem to find it fascinating and attractive. But perhaps we would find it even more attractive if it does not offer the best template for ecological well-being.

The ecological irony of food production and the city

New York is special because of its status, but it is not unique. Cities may always have been places where opportunity and reward attract injustice and discrimination. In the famous urban myth of the same name, Dick Whittington is surprised to learn that the London of which he dreamed was a fantasy. However, as we know, this frightening realisation was insufficient to persuade him to return to the countryside. His story endures because human beings enjoy narratives in which the pilgrim survives enormous dangers in order to find fame and fortune. The moral of his tale is that cities survive by attracting workers who are opportunistic and ambitious. This is why the myth is self-perpetuating. In modern cities such as New York and London we may find variations in which, although the quest for wealth or fame may be archetypical, most of today’s most comfortable survivors will use their skills of organisation, literacy, and numeracy to get by. It is the bureaucratic cunning of the money market, mass production, and legal services that have defined the somewhat parasitic principle sustaining our familiar cities. In ecological terms this is painfully ironic, given that, throughout history the most arable regions are often the initial attractor for the paving over of soil in order to erect buildings for banks, insurance, and tax collection. For thousands of years, humans have expanded and built upon places that once were ideal for food production. By reclaiming much of the arable land from beneath the pavements and tarmac of existing cities this process could be reversed.

The importance of city farms

Today, twenty cities now have a population of more than 10 million and more than half the people on the planet are city dwellers. Urban planning has therefore become one of the most crucial challenges. In poor urban communities people spend an average of 30 percent more on food than in rural areas, but they consume fewer calories. This is not just because of low incomes and high fuel cost. In many of these areas between 10 and 30 percent of food produce is lost or spoiled because of the need to send it over long distances, especially as the roads and vehicles are usually poorly maintained. One way to address this issue would be to grow more food in the cities themselves. This happens already to quite a large extent. At present 200 million urban farmers supply food to about 700 million city dwellers – one-quarter of the world’s urban population. However, urban farming can create particular issues of health, especially where contamination problems and overcrowding can cause the loss or spoilage of food. Without the right kind of insightful innovations in planning and design, the failure to sustain the natural reserves that ensure safe, local, and affordable food could precipitate disaster. New methods of food production and other services may therefore need to be developed quickly and imaginatively if we are to reduce the energy overheads and ecological problems associated with remote, intensive, monocultural methods of farming. But even if we could find the appropriate approach, how would we implement it?

Ecologies of scale

Ross Ashby is famous within cybernetics circles for his 'law of requisite variety' (Ashby, 1956). His maxim states that 'only internal variety can successfully control its own variety' (my interpretation). This implies that externally imposed 'improvements' may fail to achieve a designer's purpose if s/he is not part of, or sufficiently in touch with the internal complexities of the system itself. Here, by ‘requisite features’ we mean the minimum number of elements that are essential to the system’s survival. It is important to ensure that a good balance of interests is represented. Hence it is prudent to include aspects of the social, ethical, economic, natural, aesthetics, etc. It is difficult to think beyond linear concepts in which we can apply a simple ratio, or a small number of key parameters. An example of linear thinking is the notion of ‘economies of scale’. This has proved helpful in securing ‘fuel savings’ or, for example, reducing the ‘power-weight ratio’ of an engine. Instead, we should look for ‘ecologies of scale’ in which all the relevant co-dependencies within the ‘whole’ system can be re-balanced to ensure a more effective equilibrium that can be shared with its environment (c.f. Lovelock, 1979). Synergies may be more, or less welcome, depending on how we interpret their effect on our survival. One type of unwelcome synergy is called a 'vicious circle'. This is a bad, fairly closed system that perpetuates itself by positive feedback. However, it can be mapped and re-balanced to find unforeseen opportunities. Another approach is to enshrine imaginative forecasts in a coherent, plausible, and attractive enough way to bring about their popularity and success.

Borrowing from clinical practice

Several of our design synergy research team are experts in systemic medicine. One of them, Dr. Vadim Kvitash, has developed a holistic, non-linear mapping system that is particularly appropriate to our task. One aspect of Dr. Kvitash’s work he has called ‘Relonics’ (c.f. Kvitash, V. & Gorbis, B., 2005) maps relations using simple ‘node and line’ (Eulerian) topologies. Dr. Kvitash’s system seeks to investigate the interdependent relations that, together, regulate the organism’s condition of balance or equilibrium. It can be used to map the relations between chemical constituents of the blood. An important feature of this work is that it utilises laboratory data that is readily available but that would be indiscernible using orthodox techniques. In another application, by mapping the symptoms and relations between symptoms he can forecast whether or not a patient will die within 3 years of a heart attack. This diagnosis method has proved to be 95% accurate. (Kvitash, 2005) It works by mapping the salient components as nodes on a circle. Each node is linked to all the others in order to acknowledge all of the obvious ‘channels’ that may be monitored and adjusted to create a state of dynamic equilibrium. We believe that this technique could eventually be adapted for other complex monitoring, management, and design tasks such as urban planning. It could, perhaps, help teams of entrepreneurial planners and designers to identify hitherto unnoticed opportunities, and to re-balance them with other discrete elements, within the context of the whole system.

CONTINUE with Part 2

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