From the bottom up

On 29 juni 2015, in economie, innovatie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Emergence’ (2001) of Steven Johnson:


OESO’s Territorial Review of the Netherlands 2014 advocated the making of a holistic strategic urban policy framework for cities by the Dutch government. Such a framework is lacking now. The Ministry of Interior Affairs started an open process this year for developing an ‘urban agenda’, which might become the agenda for a national policy for regional growth, equity and environmental sustainability the way the OESO suggested. Thus the discussion on agglomeration economies in the Netherlands became political. Political means: facts play a minor role, research gets biased, opinions rule, economists take over. From the very beginning there was a tendency to frame the whole discussion in the sense that socalled ‘borrowed size’ solutions between cities would solve all problems of lacking agglomeration economies in “a country in which no single urban area or region dominates over the others.” Economists suggested fast connections between cities would be a way out.

We need more common sense here. A bigger picture. In ‘Emergence’ (2001) the New York based writer Steven Johnston wrote about ‘the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software’. All these organisms, he explained, change and develop from the bottom up. “When enough individual elements interact and organize themselves, the result is collective intelligence – even though no one is in charge.” In chapter 2 he explains how this bottom up process leads to the complex order of big cities. This complexity is the result of many local interactions. Then he criticizes one of his friend’s ode to LA freeway culture. While travelling by car, he writes, the potential for local interaction is so limited by the speed and the distance that no higher-order level can emerge. “City life depends on the odd interaction between strangers that changes one individual’s behaviour: the sudden swerve into the boutique you’ve never noticed before, or the decision to move out of the neighborhood after you pass the hundredth dot-com kid on a cell phone.” For innovation there has to be permanent subtle feedback between agents. Fast transport is no help in that sense. So stop thinking in terms of borrowed size. This will not lead to greater complexity, collective intelligence, innovation. Also read Gerard Marlet’s advice in ‘De aantrekkelijke stad’ (The Attractive City, 2009, p. 384-385): “Urban networks are counterproductive”.

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