Christopher Alexander on living structure

“I realize that you probably think I’m nuts,” says architect Christopher Alexander near the end of his famous 1996 OOPSLA talk.

A standing ovation and an audible “wow” indicate that, nuts or not, the audience of was with him.

“What is the connection between: what I am doing in the field of architecture and what you are doing in the field of computing?” Both talk and subsequent paper are organized around this question, regardless of notable differences between the two. The conference was on Object-Oriented Programs, Systems, Languages and Applications; and the 1999 paper was published as “The origins of pattern theory: the future of the theory, and the generation of a living world.” The video was posted in 2013 and only caught my attention recently.

Alexander’s story, essentially: There is something we can objectively call “living structure.” We know it when we are in its presence. “The objects that are the most profound, functionally, are the ones that also promote the greatest feeling in us.” I’ve dedicated myself to the creation of living structure. This creation is intentional, and its creation cannot happen without intention. I’m here to ask for your help.

One of the efforts of the pattern language was not merely to try to identify structural features which would make the environment positive or nurturing — but also to do it in fashion which could be in everybody’s hands, so that the whole thing would effectively then generate itself, going forward.

Design principles that inform systemic change

design principles for systemic change

“Always love declarations of principles,” professed Bruce Sterling in his 2013 SXSW talk. “It’s not that I obey them. I’m just glad to see them.”

If, like Bruce S. (and me), you love design principles, you’re in luck. They seem to be everywhere.

One reason, I think: When dominant institutions are inadequate to contemporary challenges — when things are stuck — design principles can inform practice, focusing attention on how to move forward, albeit without assurances that such incremental movements will add up to desired outcomes.

Some well-known principles are specified by context, like agile software development or adaptive ecosystem management.

I’m thinking here, though, about ones that are framed more broadly — ones that can be read as informing understandings and practices of systemic change.

At top are four sets I’ve found intriguing and insightful, along with one from a project I led at Ecotrust. Here is a larger version of the image.

A little background on each:

Clearly, these principles reflect differing vantage points: Weick is an organizational and management theorist, Kelly and Ito bring tech perspectives, Holmgren and Ecotrust environmental backgrounds. Nonetheless, I find there’s a certain complementarity among them — differing emphases, yet each informing the others.

To be sure, individual principles can be fairly cryptic, so getting a better grasp of them may require following the links, along with further reading.

I’m going to wrap here by re-linking to the worth-re-visiting 2013 talk by Bruce Sterling at SXSW, where Joi Ito’s principles were apparently on display in the Maker Tent.

This piece ~40:00:

Let me point out the difficulty with this approach — although I respect it very much, and I even understand it as a description of my own practice, something I’ve been doing for a long time. What’s the problem? The problem is that it intensifies the churn. It doesn’t cure it or stop it or help it. It’s creating part of the problem. A world in which everybody did that would be a hundred times more disturbed than it is right now.


What now? Donella Meadows on paradigms

Yesterday, I posted on a 1970s talk by Donella Meadows, above is a 1990s one. Speaking at the University of Michigan, Dana offered a tour de force introduction to system dynamics.

At the end, she was asked the classic question, Tolstoy’s question: “What is to be done?” I’m always interested in how people will respond to this challenge — perhaps because it’s a question I often ask myself.

Dana, as in her famous leverage points essay, pointed to the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises. In this case, the system under discussion is the global socioeconomic system, and the dominant paradigm is the ideology of growth.

Q: I’ve come to every one of these lectures, and I always try to deduce: What should I change in my own life, on the basis of this lecture? What should I do differently when I go home tonight or tomorrow morning? What can I do to be more than just a random element in the system?

Dana: What a great question! And what a great way to attend this series! Congratulations. That’s wonderful.

I could tell you a lot of specific things, but I think I will end, and where I did end is: Be an irritant — to the mindset. Question growth. Question the “more.”

It doesn’t matter where you attack the mindset. It’s all around you. It’s in the grocery store. It’s in the schools. It’s in the home. It’s in your family. You are never out of shooting range if you want to shoot down the mindset of more, of growth.

So what I would say is: Just question it. Observe what comes back at you, and question it some more. Just start saying: Really, why do we need more? Really, how much is enough? Really, who needs more, of what?

There are people who need more. There are. It’s not that we should have no growth. It’s that we should stop worshiping growth and start getting smart about how much of it we can have and what it costs us. I’m sure Herman Daly told you: There are forms of growth that make you poorer, not richer. Start distinguishing them.

Just go around and question.

Dana’s talk begins at 6:15 on the first video, above; the piece I’ve transcribed is from the fourth video.

Donella Meadows on teaching and learning

Systems+sustainability pioneer Donella Meadows had an unusual ability to connect with students, audiences, and workshop participants. One senses this connectivity in her audio and video recordings.

Thanks to the work of the Vermont-based Donella Meadows Institute, such legacy recordings and materials are now more accessible. One audio file I found in the Institute archives is from a talk Dana and Dennis Meadows gave at Lindisfarne, a think tank and retreat center established in the early 1970s by William Irwin Thompson. The topic of this talk is their experiences at Dartmouth, where they’d taken faculty positions soon after the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth.

Dana’s assessment was scathing: the institutional structures of higher education were, she insisted, detrimental to actual learning.

I came out of it (i.e., this experience) with very strong idea of what education should be … an idea that: No one can teach anyone anything. One can simply set up circumstances in which a person can teach themselves. Those circumstances need to be somehow related to their real-world and current concerns. And the current concerns of 18-22 year-olds are something different than that of the average 45 year-old philosophy professor or whatever. And that one has to take these things into account in the classroom.

Listen to the audio here.

Resilience assessment as capacity building

resilience principlesThe practice of resilience assessment requires some key conceptual framings.

One, as in the Nature of Cities roundtable that I discussed last time, is around the questions of whether and how to measure the resilience of people-in-place.

Another is around the standpoint of the assessor to the assessment.

In other words, should the assessor’s emphasis be on evaluating efforts, independently and objectively? Or should it rather be on supporting such efforts, collaboratively, based on a transdisciplinary approach?

Basically, is the goal of resilience assessment to evaluate resilience or to build resilience? And, if both, are there trade-offs in attempting to adopt the two standpoints?

In a recent Ecology & Society paper, (“Resilience assessment: a useful approach to navigate urban sustainability challenges”), My Sellberg and coauthors took a collaborative approach:

We evaluated the ability of the Resilience Assessment Workbook to help urban areas incorporate resilience thinking into their planning practice by exploring how a resilience assessment process complemented existing planning in the local government of Eskilstuna, Sweden. …

The participants of Eskilstuna’s resilience assessment identified three main ways that the assessment contributed to existing municipal planning and management:

  1. It provided a dynamic systems perspective;
  2. It enabled a discussion about global and uncertain threats;
  3. It helped implement and advance their sustainable development work.

All the identified themes of contributions of the resilience assessment, which these three categories build upon, are presented with examples in Appendix 5 (pdf).

Essentially, the focus of resilience assessment in this paper is on capacity building among assessment participants or stakeholders.

Resilience as capacity building was also the framing that my Ecotrust colleagues and I used in the 2012 publication, Resilience & Transformation: A Regional Approach. At top is the framework we developed (larger image).

See also: Michael Quinn Patton on comparing logic model and developmental evaluation.

The term resilience has specific meanings in engineering, psychology, and ecology. What might it mean for people-in-place to be resilient? A region, say, as my Ecotrust colleagues and I examined a few years ago, or a city or a neighborhood.

These days, there is a lot of discussion about resilient cities, and last month, the excellent Nature of Cities blog hosted a roundtable on the question: “How do you measure resilience in cities?

Twenty-one respondents from around the world weighed in with their thoughts and experiences.

Participatory practices caught my eye. Richard Friend and Pakamas Thinphanga in Bangkok described their use of shared learning dialogue and of a UNISDR Local Government Self-Assessment Tool. William Dunbar in Tokyo described community-based use of an International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative (and partners) indicators toolkit.

With regard to measurement, there was a fair amount of skepticism as well, notably from ecologist Lance Gunderson, co-editor of the book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems.

When faced with a new type of collective problem, we try to gather information in order to develop an understanding that helps direct how we act or intervene. In this case, trying to understand and direct trajectories of cities or urban centers over time, the concept of resilience has become part of the discourse. In efforts such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, or NOAA’s Coastal Resilience program, resilience is the central organizing theme. Implicit in these programs is the use of resilience as a normative term (as in a city or coast should be resilient). Yet there are a number of resilient facets of cities, such as slums, impoverished economic zones, or air-pollution zones that are very resilient. Such areas can be quite resilient, yet are not desirable.

Attempting to measure or index resilience (and there are lots of folks that say they can measure resilience) creates a spurious certitude that is likely to drive maladaptive actions and constrain creative and productive actions that may help change unwanted trajectories.

Here’s a concise video introduction to topics at the intersection of psychology and nature, from Thomas Doherty.

Ten-or-so years ago, Thomas led a monthly Portland discussion group called Green Minds, which became a locus for thoughtful conversation among a cross-section of the city’s nonprofit workers, social entrepreneurs, and so on. He was founding editor of the journal Ecopsychology, and a glance at that link or at the schedule for the Oregon Ecopsychology Symposium, starting tomorrow at Lewis & Clark College, offers a sense of where the field is at today.

Bibliographic annotations to the video are in this document. Someone give this guy a TEDx stage!

Stuart Kauffman on is/ought, knowing/acting

One cannot, David Hume wrote, logically deduce ought from is.

Take this Humean example: The “is” that humans are changing the Earth’s climate cannot necessitate the “ought” of how to act.

Simple (and devastating) as that? Consider this designerly reframing. Instead of the is/ought dichotomy, start with the knowing/acting duality.

Here’s my version.

We each experience the world outside, and from such experiences, we each develop ways of knowing. Socially learned and competent ways of knowing are called science. While some specialize in science, each of us must develop the rudiments of a scientific stance — ways of understanding the world outside — in order to get by.

We each act in the world, and some activities are purposefully designed. By design, I mean the development of inquiries and activities through which we seek to examine and shape the individual, social (institutional, cultural, material), and ecological affordances and constraints that shape, in turn, our lives and activities. While some specialize in design, each of us must develop the rudiments of a designerly stance — ways of engaging with the world outside — in order to get by.

Given this reframing, here’s a question: in service to acting, as informed by knowing, whence the oughts (emotional sensing and logical-ethical reasoning)? In other words, what roles do sensing and reasoning, emotional-logical-ethical, play?

I write this after reading Stuart Kauffman, who has often returned to this topic, in the context of evolutionary biology.

For Kauffman, oughts are not ancillary; they are fundamental.

Here is his most recent piece (as far as I’m aware) on is/ought and knowing/acting, from “Evolution beyond Newton, Darwin, and entailing law: the origin of complexity in the evolving biosphere,” a chapter in the 2013 edited volume, Complexity and the Arrow of Time:

In my third book, Investigations [Kauffman, 2000], my own attempt to define agency stated that a molecular autonomous agent was a self-reproducing system that is able to do at least one thermodynamic work cycle. With Philip Clayton, we broadened this definition to involve the inclusion of the self-reproducing system in some boundary, say a liposome, and the capacity to make at least one discrimination, food or not food, and to “act” upon that discrimination [Kauffman & Clayton 2006]. Bacteria clearly do this, and, without invoking consciousness, are therefore agents. Agency is real in the universe.

A rudimentary beginning of “emotion” emerges here [Piel, 2012]. The bacterium must sense its world and act to avoid toxins and to obtain food. The evaluation of “good” versus “bad”, arguably the “first sense”, enters here. Agency and the existence of the cell precedes this “semiotic” evaluation logically, for if there were no existence in the non-ergodic universe of the Kantian whole, agency and evaluation of food versus poison would not be selected, and so they would not exist in the universe. Thus, I would argue that life is not sufficiently based on semiosis, for, as noted, if there were not a prior Kantian whole existing in the non-ergodic universe above the level of atoms, semiosis would not have evolved. I note also that Hume’s famous: “one cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”, the famous naturalistic fallacy, rests on a critical fallacy that Hume, like Descartes, thought of a mind “knowing” its world. Hume did not think of an agent “acting” in its world. Given “action” and “doing”, doing “it” well or poorly enters inevitably, and with it, “ought”. With ought, the need for evaluation, the rudiments of emotion without positing consciousness, enter.

On René Thom, attractors, and metaphors

“If one doesn’t have a concept of an object, one can’t recognize it,” insisted mathematician René Thom in To Predict is not to Explain, a set of interviews published in 1991 in French and 2010 in English.

Thom is generally credited with the terms attractor and basin of attraction, concepts that are fundamental to chaos, complexity, and resilience theory, and as I noted last time, are now used to map galactic superclusters.

Although Thom is little discussed these days, he was once widely celebrated. He received the 1958 Fields Medal and inspired both a 1976 film by Jean-Luc Godard and 1983 paintings by Salvador Dali, who portrayed Thom’s ideas about discontinuity, often called catastrophe theory, in his final works.

What happened to Thom and catastrophe theory? I’ve collected a few notes.

“[C]atastrophe theory was propelled on a wave of hype and enthusiasm during the mid-1970s only to die out in bitter controversies by the end off the decade,” wrote David Aubin in a chapter on Thom in 2004’s Growing Explanations: Historical Perspectives on Recent Science.

“[C]atastrophe theory did not live up to its promise of useful predictions,” asserted George Johnson in Thom’s 2002 NYT obituary.

Against such charges, Thom’s response was succinctly captured in the title, To Predict is not to Explain. As quoted in Aubin: “The ultimate aim of science is not to amass undifferentiated empirical data but to organise this data in a more or less formalised structure, which subsumes and explains it.”

As for his legacy, Thom wryly observed (in Predict ≠ Explain): “As a sociological phenomenon, the theory has foundered. Yet it’s a rather subtle sort of shipwreck, because all of the ideas which I’ve introduced have been incorporated into the language of common scientific discourse.”

Discontinuity depicted: (left) redrawn from Marten Scheffer's Critical Transitions in Nature and Society; (right) Salvador Dali's 1983 The Swallow's Tail (image from Wikipedia, © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres).

The visual language of discontinuity is represented (1) on the left, in a figure I’ve redrawn from Marten Scheffer’s 2009 Critical Transitions in Nature and Society (p.267), describing “a disturbance pushing the system across the border of a basin of attraction,” and (2) on the right, in Dali’s The Swallow’s Tail, depicting what Thom called the swallowtail and cusp (low-resolution, fair-use image from Wikipedia, © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres).

Thom on metaphor (Predict ≠ Explain):

My critics said: ‘What you’re giving us is only a metaphor.’ How was I to interpret this, as a reproach or as a compliment? For my own part, I saw it as a compliment. To have created a metaphor in an area where previously there was nothing, that’s already progress! …

Analogies and metaphors, contrary to the popular opinion that considers them flexible or just approximations, impress me as exemplifying strict relations, ones which can, in many cases, be given exact mathematical expression.


To Predict is not to Explain, interviews by Emile Noël, translated by Roy Lisker, edited by S. Peter Tsatsanis, is currently available as a pdf at Roy Lisker’s website.

Regarding the origin of term attractor, Tsatsanis noted:

It is clear from his [Thom’s] 1990 unpublished article, ‘On attractors’, that the word ‘attractor’ was used by him in 1966. Thom says that Steven Smale [Stephen Smale] might have used it before then although Smale says it was Thom that coined the neologism ‘attractor’. The notion of a ‘strange attractor’ came later when chaotic systems were being studied.

For more on Dali’s The Swallow’s Tail, see the Gala–Salvador Dali Foundation, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and an appreciation by Stephen Parker.

A remarkable pair of videos, posted a couple months ago, describe research by R. Brent Tully and colleagues to map out our region of the universe and its change over time.

“Now we know, on the edge of a supercluster called Laniakea, in a galaxy called the Milky Way, around a star we call the Sun, there is a small blue planet, our home.”

That’s from the voice-over to the more filmic of the video pair, which has garnered 2.5 million views to date. The second, more technical video is above, and the associated paper was published in Nature. Brad Plumer reported the story on Vox.

In addition to the cosmic scales and graphic simulations, one aspect of the research and videos that caught my attention was their use of concepts familiar from the modeling of complex systems: attractors and basins of attraction.

“We call the watershed feeding our basin of attraction the Laniakea Supercluster.” In other words, within the basin of attraction that is used to describe Laniakea, galaxies flow toward a “Great Attractor” at its dense center, while in the neighboring supercluster of Perseus-Pisces, galaxies flow toward its attractor.

The use of attractor concepts in describing superclusters is another example of the trend toward systemicity across numerous fields of contemporary science.

Indeed, per a 2013 article on complex systems in The Encyclopedia of Earth: “As Science has begun to ask where the enduring features of nature come from and how they work, the answer seems to be ‘complex systems’. Every kind of thing and event seems to require them.”