Article Review by Christy Bryar
Biocity: Emergent Sustainability
Adrian McGregor, Topos European Landscape Magazine, vol 77, 2010
Biocity introduces the use of Emergence science as an alternative way of looking at how cities are formed. By understanding emergent patterns in particular cities, we can better understand the impact of our actions and therefore make decisions for a sustainable future.
Emergence, or the study of complexity explores how complex systems and patterns self organise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions via basic feedback loops from the application of simple rules. This self-organisation is non-linear or non hierarchical, in that the patterns are formed for the survival of the whole, not for the individual. To illustrate this, the article presents the example of termite and ant colonies. Entire ant colonies are born from one queen ant and therefore have identical genetic code. Each ant has a task to perform within the colony, such as foraging, tunnel building, defence etcetera, determined by specific genes being switched on, including the queen whose task is to reproduce. The ant needs each task performed to survive, but cannot perform them all individually. There is no hierarchy, they simply carry out their tasks collectively and selflessly for the survival of the colony. The work of the ants enables them to build their incredibly tall mounds, which are oriented to minimise heat gain and use thermoregulation to circulate air through the tunnels in order to grow fungal gardens. The network of mounds and tunnels are a complex emergent system derived from swarm intelligence acting within simple rules1.
The concept of emergence has been around in philosophy and psychology for centuries however it is only recently that the scientific community has begun to unravel this theory2. McGregor’s article presents a correlation between what is being learned in scientific study of complexity alongside the formation of cities and begins to question how many cities managed to create a coherent form without the hand of a urban or city designer involved.
McGregor suggests that emergence provides an alternative way of looking at how a city conceptually develops, that is a decentralised bottom up approach to urban design rather than top down leadership led approach. He states that city form is determined by complex interactions of a range of systems driven by the micro decisions of its people and that it is through these decisions that the diverse and dynamic aspects of cities emerge rather than being borne out of a prescribed set of conditions.
In the wake of failed attempts from our governments to reach meaningful action after the Copenhagen Climate Summit, McGregor urges us to not wait for top-down guidance but to create new systems ourselves. Biocity Studio attempts to simplify the mechanics of urban complexity to empower people to make a change by arming them with collective information.
The biocity tool spans across scales from a local level to global comparisons. It allows users to easily identify which cities are performing best in a range of categories. For architects and urban designers this information could be used to look for precedent in high performance cities to visualise new approaches that may influence another aspect of the city.
To apply emergence theory to cities McGregor has established the Biocity model, a theoretical urban model that uses algorithms and statistics to help visualise the generative complexity of cities so that urban planning decisions can be tested to gauge what emergent patterns might arise out of them. It is envisaged that this tool could be used to help find sustainable outcomes from minor decisions and shift critical debate in city planning away from fossil fuel led decisions making.
To facilitate this, McGregor has established biocitystudio.com, a wiki to collect as much statistical data to form a better understanding of cities development and to use this information to determine cities overall health3. Each city is rated on a performative scale over twelve major systems: Biodiversity, Built form, Culture, Economy, Energy, Food, Waste, Governance, Pollution/Chemicals, Health, Transport and Water.
Through the performance assessment, cities with the best health and most highest resource efficiencies will be identified. Visualisation of the complexities that allow a city to have good health could improve planning decisions. The data and performative ratings of cities are available as open source information on the website so that it can also used as a means of lobbying governments or creating change.
The day to day micro decision making of people in conjunction with the physical environment of a place creates a city. It is the differentials in environment and decisions that cities different from one another.
Therefore the power of micro decisions can collectively give rise to individual systems, such as that of economy in recent time. The dominance of one system is at the detriment to the others. Biocity studio aims to provide a tool to visualise how to achieve the balance.
The challenge for Biocity Studio is to get enough data for the model to produce accurate information. It requires the input of data from the public and governments. Biocity Studio is an Australian research group based in Sydney and therefore the model currently has more information input for this city resulting in Australian and Sydney biased outcomes. That said, the interface and usability of the application and it being open on the internet should see a significant rise in input over the coming years.
1. McGregor, A., Biocity Emergent Sustainability, 2010, Topos European Landscape Magazine, vol 70, p.73
2. Emergence has been around since the days of Aristoltle, with the term Emergence first being used to describe it by physiologist G.H. Lewes in Problems of Life and Mind in 1875. Wikipedia, October 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence
3. McGregor, A., Biocity Studio, 2011, viewed August 2011, http://biocitystudio.com/
1. Red termite mound at Purnululu National Park. Source: Crisp, M., 2099, Australian National University, Department of Biology, viewed October 2011, http://www.anu.edu.au/BoZo/Crisp/Photos/WA-NT%202009/Pages/72.html
2. McGregor’s interconnected twelve major systems of rating the performance of cities. Source: http://biocitystudio.com/. Diagram source by Christy Bryar.
3. Aerial photograph of Manchester UK, a city whose emergence took place with out governance or planning tracing back to a beginning in 76AD. Source: Google Maps, August 2011.