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I’ve been in Switzerland for a couple of days – at a symposium organised by the Collegium Helveticum ‘Laboratorium für Transdisziplina­rität’ at ETH Zurich.  I rather liked a short discussion after a presentation by Juval Portugali, who was talking about cities through the lens of complexity and self-organisation theories.  It went something like this:

Audience member:  If we conceptualise cities in the ways you have outlined, does it mean we can still talk sensibly about planning for the future?

Juval: in fact, it highlights the fact that cities are hives of endless ongoing planning.  All of us make plans all the time.  Studies show that we are almost never in the ‘here and now’ – our minds are either reflecting on the past or speculating about the future.  To plan is to be human.

 

I like the way this sets up an interesting hall of mirrors.  By extension, from the perspective of the complexity theorist, all attempts at governing might potentially be seen as emergent phenomena like any others.  We can possibly trace the process of the emergence of plans, policies and institutions, but we can never fully predict them, or what their effects will be.  And formal ‘planning’ itself is just a tiny part of the way that a city’s inhabitants attempt to shape the future to their own end – in fact the very notion of ‘urban planning’ would appear as little more than a relatively recent, parochial idea.  However, for the planner (professional or everyday), complexity can only ever be a problem – something that necessarily has to be ignored – and might be seen as essentially a rather unhelpful ‘story’ through which some feel the need to explain the world at the moment.

Zurich, 4 May 2018

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