I’ve just finished reading ‘Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software’ by Steven Johnson which was published in 2001 and most of the technology related stuff is obviously outdated, but the whole concept of order or patterns emerging from complexity is fascinating and resonates strongly with the concept of collaboration that we are pursuing through NESTA Connect.
There is a chapter on what we can learn from ants – this goes over territory we are have been influenced by and exploring already with swarmteams (see here) but the most interesting section for me was on cities. This takes me back to a statement I heard a while back staying that social networks are the new cities, which we’ll be debating at our Nesta conference and the NLabs conference in the summer.
Berlin argues that cities, like ants, allow the exchange and storage of masses of information through the interaction of it’s inhabitants. The development of cities are analogous to phase transitions in nature where an input of energy leads to a remarkable change in state of matter (e.g. liquid to gas, through heating for example). He describes the analogous injection of energy leading to phase transition in cities, first the heavy wheeled plow, then crop rotation, which both enabled more efficient agriculture and subsequently much larger connurbations.
He then describes in some detail the next major injection of ‘energy’ into cities by the industrial revolution, typified best by Manchester’s the world’s first industrialised city. It’s population exploded 10 fold from just 25,000 in 1773 to over 250,000 in just 75 years, without being formally consitituted as a city. It was finally recognised as a city in 1853 after the massive population explosion had happened. However, whilst this short period was clearly explosive and chaotic, the city grew with a tremendous amount of order or self-organising clusters without top down leadership.
And of course, bringing us up to date, we are now in the next major injection of ‘energy’ into our cities, namely through the web and digital world which he argues is having a similarly huge impact on our cities which we are only just beginning to understand the social, policital and economic ramifications. Industries driven by ideas naturally gravitate towards physical centres of ideas generation (i.e. cities) but now we also exchange a vast amount of information and ideas using technology, leading to virtual and distributed clusters which are changing the way interact and share knowledge.
Greater Manchester has of course undergone an exciting and remarkable transformation in the last couple of decades building upon a range of strong influencing factors from an amazing music scence from the late 1970’s onwards, to the IRA bomb in 1996, to the Commonwealth Games in 2002, to the creation of the largest campus university in the UK formed in 2004, to the relocation of large parts of the BBC to Salford in a couple of years. It will be fascinating to watch this next ‘phase transition’ in Manchester, and all other regions and regions, in response to these new online social networks and we are currently focussing our attention here (more on that soon).
Finally, Tim Berners-Lee, the godfather of the internet, is setting up the Web Science Research Foundation (which we also hope to work with) to research and understand and influence the social, policital and economic ramifications of this new transition. Exciting times.