Organized Complexity

May 11, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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While I’ve focused this week thus far on Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs’ most popular book among planners is, of course, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This is because the latter book contains all the of the happy things that modern urban advocates like to point to — sidewalks, parks, housing diversity, etc… — with only a smattering of the challenging intellectual discourse that I love so much about Jane Jacobs. Today we’re going to focus on that smattering.

Turn to Chapter 22: The kind of problem a city is. It starts:

Thinking has its strategies and tactics too, much as other forms of action have.

Pause and consider that statement for a moment. We often think of thinking as the opposite of doing. For most people, the refined way of taking an action involves thinking first, a series of steps that takes a long time to fully mature. For Jacobs — and others such as Nassim Taleb and Jared Diamond who approach things in a similar way — the act of thinking is what has value. It is taking that action — to stop and really think — that is a painful exercise.

For years I’ve had people tell me: Chuck, I get what you’re saying but you need to tell people what to do. You need to give them some action, like three or four steps they can take. As frustrating as that was for me, I did change — for a time — the earlier version of the Curbside Chat to do just that. It was ridiculous and I’ve since dropped it. At Strong Towns, we’re not trying to tell you what to do; we don’t know what you should do. Rather, we’re trying to help you think about what you should do.

That is much harder. That is much more painful. It’s one of the reasons I deeply admire people like Toby Dougherty, Monte Anderson, Kristin Green and Kevin Shepherd. I admire all who had the courage to challenge their own core assumptions and then, despite the pain and discomfort, devote years of their lives to thinking through the fog to find a course of action. These people are my heroes. 

Simplicity, Disorganized Complexity and Organized Complexity

As is Jane Jacobs. In Chapter 22 of Death and Life — a chapter I suspect many people skip — she actually explains how to think. This is the equivalent of a golf lesson from Tiger Woods and it’s treated as an afterthought. Go read it.

She quotes Dr. Warren Weaver in a 1958 annual report of the Rockefeller Foundation as identifying three stages of development in scientific thought.

(1) ability to deal with problems of simplicity; (2) ability to deal with problems of disorganized complexity; and (3) the ability to deal with problems of organized complexity.

Problems of simplicity are ones in which two things are related to each other. Volume and air pressure, for example. The characteristics of one can be induced by knowing the characteristics of the other and then imputing through their discovered relationship. Humans made an astounding amount of progress in just this first stage.

Disorganized complexity deals with large systems that have many variables, each of which are able to be analyzed but which, when taken together, are best subjected to statistical analysis. Actuarial statistics are a good example of this. We know that any one person can have a long or short life span. However, with a group of four people, it would be pretty hard to predict what the average life span would be. Given 10,000 people, we could make that prediction fairly accurately.

In an age of massive computing power, some problems that were previously only understood through disorganized complexity are now becoming ones we can mathematically churn through and make simple.

The third kind — organized complexity — is essentially what Nassim Taleb has called Fourth Quadrant or Extremeistan. This is where complexity science dwells along with Taleb’s Black Swans. Many variables operating together–as with disorganized complexity–with the key difference being that the variables receive feedback and adapt over time. Here is how Jacobs describes it:

All of these [referring to a long list] are certainly complex problems. But they are not problems of disorganized complexity, to which statistical methods hold the key. They are problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole. 

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Here’s how Taleb describes the four quadrants:

First Quadrant: Simple binary decisions, in Mediocristan: Statistics does wonders. These situations are, unfortunately, more common in academia, laboratories, and games than real life—what I call the "ludic fallacy". In other words, these are the situations in casinos, games, dice, and we tend to study them because we are successful in modeling them.

Second Quadrant: Simple decisions, in Extremistan: some well known problem studied in the literature. Except of course that there are not many simple decisions in Extremistan.

Third Quadrant: Complex decisions in Mediocristan: Statistical methods work surprisingly well.

Fourth Quadrant: Complex decisions in Extremistan: Welcome to the Black Swan domain. Here is where your limits are. Do not base your decisions on statistically based claims. 

What does this have to do with cities? Jacobs puts forth that cities are essentially problems in organized complexity. As she writes:

Cities present situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways. Cities, again like the life sciences, do not exhibit one problem in organized complexity, which if understood explains all. They can be analyzed into many such problems or segments which, as in the case of the life sciences, are also related with one another. The variables are many, but they are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole.

Jacobs laments the state of thought regarding cities as being far behind that of the life sciences, the latter of which had recognized and embraced the notion of organized complexity. Jacobs points out that, "the theorists of conventional modern city planning have consistently mistaken cities as problems of simplicity and of disorganized complexity, and have tried to analyze and treat them thus." How little has changed since 1961.

You can tell how frustrated this made her. She protests the "great disrespect for cities" planners of this sort have. I agree. Those of you that have been with us a while know that I’m a fairly mild mannered Minnesotan until someone shows up pretending to know THE answer. I would love to be a conventional planner — I spent so much time, effort and resources trying — but I simply lack the faith.

Chuck, what are the five things a city should do to be a Strong Town? Chuck, what do we do about traffic congestion? Chuck, are you for or against historic preservation tax credits? Chuck, what is the precise density I should be looking for to make the math work? 

When you ask me these questions — and you claim to have read Jane Jacobs — I want to slap you, and she wants to yell at you from the beyond: START THINKING! These variables are interrelated into an organic whole. One effects the other effects the other effects the other in ways you neither know nor can predict. Stop pretending that you can!

Fortunately, Jane Jacobs can help with this too. Towards the very end of the book, she provides "the most important habits of thought," which are the following:

  1. To think about processes;
  2. To work inductively, reasoning from particulars to the general, rather than the reverse; 
  3. To seek for "unaverage" clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more "average" quantities are operating.

How do things work? How do those things come together to produce an interrelated whole? What do the exceptions to the normal tell us about the direction of those organic feedback loops?

Jane Jacobs traveled more intellectual distance in a book than most of us do in a lifetime. If you really want to heed her advice, start thinking. And then keep thinking until it hurts.

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He is the Founder and President of Strong Towns. Marohn has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Marohn is the author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — as well as A World Class Transportation System. He hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and is a primary writer for Strong Towns’ web content. He has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America.

Tags: building resilient cities, Jane Jacobs, systems thinking