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Alex Ely on ants, brains, cities and software

Pamela Buxton

Alex Ely explains what makes The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software his book of the year

I was drawn to Emergence The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by the intriguing title.

It may sound complex but when you read it, it's a thought-provoking and accessible insight into the commonality of seemingly disparate subjects such as ants, slime mould, social media, the history of Florence, Jane Jacobs’ writings on American cities and Friedrich Engels’ writings on Manchester.

The book’s narrative is about emergence theory and decentralisation, which along the way draws amazing links such as those between the spread of slime mould and Jacobs’ theories on how people inhabit their neighbourhoods. In particular, it challenges historical perceptions that a complex organism needs a top-down decision making process and hierarchy, when the evidence is actually that complex social organisations are derived from bottom-up decision-making.

It is an optimistic book, although since it was written in 2001, it does leave some questions hanging about the future of knowledge sharing on the internet. On this, it sets out how the traditional structure of a decision-making editorial board and controlled chain of command was challenged by the advent of devolved television networks. It is also slightly prophetic on the development of algorithmic, targeted news consumption and open source forums such as Wikipedia.

But for me, the main interest is its relevance to city planning. The book starts by looking at how ant colonies have a very complex system to deal with shelter, food, waste disposal and death, and explores how this comes not from any top-down hierarchical decision-making but from basic interactions between local agents. There is a relevance here to what Jane Jacobs talked about in the Death and Life of Great American Cities – how the small interactions on the sidewalks contribute to the development of the larger community.

So what can architects take from all of this? For a start, not having the conceit to think we have all the answers. Engels observed that Manchester was built less according to a plan and more as an accidental urban landscape that responds to patterns of local human decision-making. We can acutely observe such patterns in the areas where we are working and more intuitively follow those trends, rather than taking a top-down approach to masterplanning urban development that imposes a vision. Typically, we’re always designing in an existing place – we need to be able to read the character, history, quality and nature of that place and incorporate that into any new vision. The book also looks at 12th century Florence and how the guild system and location of trades throughout the city has stood the test of time for centuries. Often things don’t fundamentally change – we should understand this and work with whatever is there wherever possible.

We should also seek to design inclusively, bringing in different skills and knowledge from different agents with different perspectives. And we should seek strong engagement with those who will live in our new developments to ensure that we really understand their needs when we design.

This book might not give us all the answers. But it is does reflect on how city planning isn’t that different to how complex structures in nature evolve unwittingly to create a higher order and patterns, from the most basic of beginnings.

Emergence The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, by Steven Johnson, Penguin

Alex Ely is principal at Mæ

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