Why we should enable the autocatalytic city

[Editor's note: This piece was originally featured in "City 2.0: The Habitat of the Future and How to Get There." "The autocatalytic city" has been reprinted with permission from TED Books (TED Books and the Atlantic Cities, 2013). Access more information about the e-book online here.]

Bottom-up growth, driven by citizens, trumps central command.

We are living on an urban planet; our cities are growing at spectacular rates. This growth has created new energy and excitement (cities account for 70 percent of the global economy), and it has highlighted the dysfunctions of cities. Most of our cities, particularly the fastest-growing ones, are messy, confusing places, even for the citizens who call them home. From the massive weeklong traffic jams in Beijing to the crowded favelas of Rio de Janeiro, urban dwellers everywhere can easily rattle off a list of what doesn't work in their communities. The call to action is always the same: "Better planning, better management!"

That call, though, rests on an unquestioned assumption about cities. In this modern age, we think of cities as large institutions or machines. We talk about their failures as failures of management, coordination, governance. We think we could have "better" cities if we could only tune the machine to make it more "efficient." The machine model is implicit in the popular language around "smart cities." The promise is that shiny, smart boxes will figure out how to make our cities tick by smoothing traffic flow, monitoring crime and allocating power through smart grids.

We need to think again. Urban centers are evolving organisms, not engineering problems. Although we are able to control parts of a city -- central business districts, mass-transit systems, water distribution -- we will never hold and understand the whole. Cities are dynamic, complex-adaptive systems composed of millions of relatively free-willed individuals who each day make hundreds of individual decisions that set in motion consequences leading to a million other decisions.

But bottom-up processes -- if we respect and embrace them, rather than try to control them -- create cities that actually work for the people in them.

Picture a city whose streets are narrow and winding. The tangled network branches and turns, some turnoffs leading to even narrower lanes, many leading to dead ends. There are no sidewalks, no front yards and nearly every door is a business -- a store or a workshop. Most likely, there are no maps of this place, and not all of the streets have names. In this part of the city, you do not find a location by asking, "Do you know this house number on this street?" Instead you ask, "Do you know where so-and-so lives?" or "Do you know the shop that sells such-and-such?" And someone will know. There are signs advertising services or jobs, signs upon signs -- for plumbers or painters or music lessons.

Where is this city? If the signs are in Japanese, then you might be in Shimokitazawa or some other district in greater Tokyo. If they are in Hindi, you could be in Dharavi in Mumbai. You could be in the old section of a European capital or in a slum on the edges of a city in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, or in the heart of a metropolis in Latin America.  

This city is ubiquitous and is what Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of the Institute of Urbanology call the default mode of urban development. It is what human settlements that grow up without central planning and control look like: seemingly chaotic, labyrinthine and fractal, but thick with social and business networks. Echanove and Srivastava have put together startling images of street scenes in Dharavi (the largest informal settlement in Mumbai) overlaid onto a street in Tokyo or Torino. The texture of the built environment in these disparate places is similar because the dynamics that drive it are similar. The result seems unruly, but it works. The leather workshop uses buckles made by the smithy next door, which also supplies the bagmaker around the bend. The workshops are also stores, and the laborers and clerks are just a few steps from eateries. Many live in or above the shops where they work. This is the urban economy and the urban supply chain at its finest, most dynamic grain.

Next page: Controlling the autocatalytic city