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Synergy-City PART 2

planning for a high density, super-symbiotic society

by John Wood

return to Part 1

Some practical issues in achieving synergy

One of our participants in the ds21 project is the architect, Bill Dunster, who is renowned for launching a pioneering apartment building called ‘BedZed’ (Beddington Zero Energy) in Surrey, UK during 2003. Arguably, this type of initiative had been feasible at any time during the last few decades. Despite its high standards, this project used only technologies and methods that had been readily available for many years. Also, virtually all materials had been sourced from within a 35 mile radius. This kind of housing is in great demand, but Bill had found it extremely difficult to overcome all of the negative forces that tend to inhibit similar schemes from succeeding. Despite attracting widespread publicity, there have been surprisingly few projects that have emulated the enormous success and popularity of BedZed?. The reasons for this are complex. Arguably, they can be mapped as a cluster of agencies, many of which are mutually reinforcing. This partly because many players believe that they make decisions should be contingent on the views they attribute to others within the cluster. As such, we have a ‘vicious circle’. However, once built, BedZed? demonstrated achievability. Our hope is that, by mapping and intervening at critical points, we would more readily be able to turn similar projects into a ‘virtuous circle’. Using some techniques of Vadim Kvitash it is possible to make a map of relations that help to identify auspicious or inauspicious factors and to see how they influence the whole picture. A simple model, for example, is likely to include banks, developers, planning authorities, potential customers, etc.

Figure 1. The 28 possible relationships in an 8-player system

Figure 1 shows all of the above 8 players (the dots on the diagram) linked together (by lines) in a maximum set of 28 links. If we are to represent all of the possible relations within the system, it would be wise to explore each link in turn, using a positively creative, opportunistic, and open-minded approach. This may mean that the 28 links can also be represented as 56 relational viewpoints. By using this map opportunistically and creatively it is possible to design points of critical intervention, and to devise new solutions to this kind of complex problem.

Complexity calls for meta-design

At a more down to earth level, this kind of meta-designing might be rather like gardening in large teams, in which good plans and designs must be expected to produce the unexpected. Meta-designers may therefore need to see their task as a long term and continuous process of consensual cultivation, nurturing, and incremental learning and adaptation to a self-inclusive Nature. Arguably, a holistic approach should be able to map, not only a full range of significant 'players', but also the relations among them. This will be required to work with the sufficient number of levels in order to deliver what would be an immensely complex, self-healing organism in which benign synergies can emerge from other synergies, and which, in effect operates as synergies-within-synergies. ‘Synergy’ is a possible outcome of effective Meta-design. The idea has become familiar to many in management but its definition is not very clear. Normally, it is seen as a situation in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, or more colloquially, 2+2>4. This arithmetical shorthand is misleading, however, and we may imagine how complex and emergent the ‘system’ becomes when it consists of human beings. Buckminster Fuller described it as “the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behaviour of their parts taken separately" (Fuller, 1975).

Metadesign can enhance synergy

If it proves possible to apply Dr. Kvitash’s methods to urban planning, how might we identify useful parameters that would make eco-communities more adaptive, fine-grained, self-regulatory, and therefore less entropic? One solution might be to promote beneficial synergies. It is likely, therefore, that to achieve this we need to avoid single value performance indicators. Synergy is a term that can be used to describe the extraordinarily high level of organic co-existence, heterogeneity, stability (and thermo-dynamic efficiency) that is found in living creatures. It refers to the accord that exists, not only between individual parts of the whole, but also between those individual parts and their separate relations to the whole. One of the difficulties of defining ‘synergy’ is that – in its common usage - several very different levels of complexity and behaviour are included within the same category. Synergy therefore comes in many 'flavours', whether beneficial, or not. The chemist Michael Polanyi (1969) offers some useful insight into the internal hierarchy and behaviour of synergy. He speaks of a 'hierarchy of levels' that operate in within more or less inclusive boundaries. Each level works under principles that are irreducible to the principles that operate at the levels below. In other words, hierarchical systems may demonstrate a number of different, 'level-specific' characteristics. Importantly, the presence of synergy enables organisms to become adaptively self-aware. Hence, some physical examples are likely to be at the bottom, with higher scales running through chemical, biological, ecological, social, and spiritual elements nearer the top. It can even be applied to a new mode of temporality (Wood, 2003).


In order to reflect the many complex levels of advantage, I propose the following orders of synergy:

First Order Synergy

Synergies within an environment that, by comparison with ecological systems, are informationally inert, and in which the key parties or elements benefit from the shared situation, whilst contributing to shareable benefits unknowingly.

Second Order Synergy

Synergies within an environment that, in comparison with ecological systems, are informationally alive, and in which the key parties or elements benefit from, and intelligently contribute to, the shareable benefits of the situation.

Third Order Synergy

Synergies whose distinctive features are sustained by information-sharing capabilities that can modify or inform the self-identity of some of the participants; and in which the key parties or elements benefit from, and knowingly contribute to, the shareable benefits of the situation.

Fourth Order Synergy

Synergies whose distinctive features are sustained by information-sharing capabilities that can modify or inform the self-identity of both individual and collective features of the participants; and in which the key parties or elements benefit from, and knowingly contribute to, a wider shareable context.

Paired collaborators

Scientific research (Game Theory, Altruism Theory, etc., has tended to adopt a western, individual-centred perspective when looking at the behaviour of species, groups, competitors, etc. Here, I have revised the commonly used table of configurations to reflect a transition, not only from individual to mutual, but also from mutual (i.e. both individuals in the pair) to an enhancement of benefit beyond the pair.

1) Mutually damaging

(— / —) disadvantaging each another in pursuing exclusive advantage

2) Parasitic

(— / +) high dependency on the fitness of one, rather than on both partners

3) Symbiotic

(+ / +) mutually supportive collaboration

4) Super-symbiotic

>(+ / +) symbiosis that also enhances context, or that acts ‘for’ additional beneficiaries

‘Sustainability’ offers a ‘lose-win’ situation

In seeking a high order of synergy, the idea of 'symbiosis' (i.e. 'win-win') is useful because it is a familiar and appealing idea. A 'win-win' situation can be thought of as two players in a symbiotic (i.e. synergistic) relationship. Although this may sound attractive, it is difficult to get citizens readily to change their behaviour unless they can see clear advantages that accord with their own world-view. This was why Adam Smith’s original ethical argument in favour of ‘self-help’ (Smith, 1776) was appealing. In suggesting that self-centred diligence would lead to a shared benefit for the community, it offered citizens a ‘win-win’ (i.e. doubly attractive) situation. Unfortunately, this has evolved into a contagious ethics of consumption in which individual self-gratification is expected to energise the economy, and, thus, to reward everyone. As we have seen, this has proved to be environmentally disastrous. Even worse, where Smith claimed a ‘win-win’ opportunity, the logic of ‘sustainability’ appears to offer a ‘lose-win’ scenario in which citizens must curb their desires in deference to future generations of consumers. Faced with this kind of choice humans frequently disregard the negative consequences of their immediate actions by seeing it as a choice between a strong, immediate, personal gain versus a small (i.e. when distributed) collective, long-term loss (Hardin, 1972).

‘Synergy and the ‘win-win-win-win’ city

What happens when we bring in additional players to enhance the synergy of an existing relationship? Surprisingly, our research has shown that the possible advantage increases dramatically. With four players (i.e. 'Win-Win-Win-Win') is six times more advantageous than two players (i.e. 'Win-Win'). A four-fold model is optimal because it combines a graspable (tetrahedral) topology that reveals optimum advantage to all four players. Symbiosis can be seen as a context represented as many co-dependent relations. If we could encourage enough people to visualise the advantage of a fourth order synergy from any, or all perspectives – i.e. economic, personal, social, ecological, etc., we might invoke spontaneous pockets of synergy. The political of consensus is changing rapidly, with web-based ‘pledge’ schemes such as Pledgebank ( or the BBC’s Action Network ( These systems encourage personal initiatives that can generate contagious forms of optimism and positive action around the identification of opportunity and shared benefit. Some work has been done in developing the four-dimensional ethical framework for designers (Wood, 2005:1). Whilst this has been used in an education context, it now needs to be put into field trials. We also need to develop a business model that acknowledge and cultivates (ecological) variety on many levels. From where might we seek inspiration?

Towards a ‘synergy’ city

Drucker (1978) described a people called the Igorot, who lived in the mountainous regions of the Philippines. Over several centuries, and using only simple tools they maintained a complex and sophisticated irrigation system. The particular cyanobacteria in their ponds had nitrogen-fixing properties that were symbiotically adapted to the rice. This enabled their whole food system to be highly productive. Indeed, one hectare of land enabled them to grow almost enough food to maintain a family of five. Their social and cultural order also helped them to co-ordinate and to regulate their way of life. This is a vital point. Not surprisingly, their intensive work habits were highly co-operative. This may therefore sound a rather idealist concept for modern cities but, in theory, cities have more potential for synergy than a non-urban environment. There are no business reasons why laundries, bakeries, and restaurants should not ‘mix and share’ their food cultivation, building, heating systems, brand-identity, hospitality policies and customer relations. Indeed, this is where a design synergy approach must reconcile a great many ‘purposes’ simultaneously. In a synergistic economy visitors to the local might care to enjoy a 'work out' in an electricity-generating gymnasium, afterwards, they could have their clothes laundered while they relax in the solar-heated pool. By aligning enough orders of synergy we may eventually create what Fuller (1975) called a 'synergy of synergies'.


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