Emergence and 21st century cities

Manchester 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and software’ by Steven Johnson which was published in 2001 and most of the technology related stuff is obviously outdated, but the whole concept of order or patterns emerging from complexity is fascinating and resonates strongly with the concept of collaboration that we are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.


  1. Good piece Roland. I’ve been meaning to read the Steven Johnson book for ages.
    I think one of the challenges for a place like Manchester is how you generate energy into bottom-up networks, when the very nature of the regeneration has had to be top-down. The Industrial Revolution was essentially market driven; the recent renaissance has been (by necessity) civic-leadership-driven.
    It’s a city moving into an exciting era but what comes with that is a loosening of the strings to allow clusters and connections to flourish. It will be interesting.

  2. The interesting thing with all of these developments will be the differential impact on the city and its residents. Saskia Sassen has already drawn out the issues of temporal and spatial segregation brought about throught the rise of different service and serf classes. The challenge for cities today is about a sustainable future. Whilst they continue to fracture both vertically and horizontally (especially at the lower levels) this will present a challenge to any coherent future development.

  3. Thanks for your comments Lucy,
    I would certainly recommend the book and Chapter 1 in particular looks at the development of Manchester which is very interesting.
    I agree with you that the very nature of the regeneration has been top-down and the recent renaissance has been civic-leadership-driven, but is this necessarily the best approach going forward? It will be interesting to see how the next phase of growth will play out.

  4. Many thanks for your comments Rob. I’m not familiar with Saskia Sassen but looks interesting and I certainly agree with your point about the challenge of a sustainable future.
    Regarding your point about coherent future development of cities, is there a precedent for coherent development of major cities in the past (not including entirely new cities built from scratch)? I think the point Berlin makes is that the coherence emerges bottom up.

  5. Thanks Roland for a very interesting piece. The comments from Lucy and Rob really highlight the inherent difficulties in enabling the whole population of a city to move together towards a knowledge/innovation based economy, without increasing social divide or being over-reliant on civic intervention – a tricky balancing act for any city. Everything keeps coming back to people. In trying to understand how innovation can develop, Manchester likes to add another strand to the triple helix in the form of People – as current and future innovators/entrepreneurs/employees, as communities, as participants in open innovation, and so on. And there’s something to be said for a five-stranded model, the fifth being the not-for-profits/social enterprises etc.
    It will be interesting to play around with the idea that social networks are the new cities – perhaps there are millions of 14-year-olds out there who will react to that by saying “Yes of course they are, was the world ever any different?”. But more seriously it goes straight back to Rob’s thoughts on differential impact – social networks can do a lot of good, but they are populated only by those people on the right side of the digital divide…

  6. Thanks Clare. You are absolutely right of course about the digital divide, and there is a lot of evidence that the web is a huge enabler but only for those individuals and coutries that are connected. I think social networks are quite a long way from being the new cities, but they are starting to change the way people interact and share and disseminate knowledge, so they are having an impact upon places.
    In Emergence, Steve Berlin argues that, at a macro level at least, cities are essentially information sharing and storage systems, which is analogous to virtual communities. But cities most powerful trait is the interaction that occurs between individuals, whether that occurs in the Arndale or on Facebook.

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