Line drawing of a lungfish. Palaeontologists think that the swim bladder found in fish evolved from the lungs of lungfish. It provided a new niche for worms and bacteria that could evolve to live there. A new function came to exist in the biosphere that altered its future evolution. Source iStock.

+ Life presents new opportunities to us that we can’t pre-state or predict. How can city planners cope?

In this post I’m going to present a new framework for evolvable cities drawn from my work in theoretical biology. I’ll argue that we can’t apply a physics worldview to the biosphere, to culture, to the economy or to cities. Instead, we must embrace the magic and enchantment of unforeseeable opportunity. But before I do, let me first take you back to Sir Isaac Newton. 

If you asked Newton how to predict the movement of the balls on a billiard table, he’d tell you to take all of the balls and measure their positions, momentum and diameters at the present moment. Then he’d tell you to measure the boundary conditions of the table edges. And finally he’d tell you to use these differential equations and boundary conditions and integrate his equations to get the deterministic trajectories of the balls. 

In physics, you can always pre-state the phase state of the system – the set of all the possibilities. In the example above, the phase space is the billiard table. But something stunning is happening in the biosphere, in the economy, in cultures and in cities: the phase space is changing in ways that we can’t pre-state. 

Let me illustrate what I mean with an economic example. When Alan Turing invented the Turing Machine, he couldn’t have predicted the eventual invention of Facebook or its role in the Arab Spring. The evolution of computer technology has continually created new niches or opportunities that couldn’t have been pre-stated – everything from personal computers, to the World Wide Web. 

The same is true in the biosphere: evolution is continually creating new niches for organisms. Darwinian pre-adaptation means that an unused causal property of an organism that has no selective value in the current environment might come to be of selective value in a different environment. 

For example, palaeontologists think that the swim bladder found in fish evolved from the lungs of lungfish. It provided a new niche for worms and bacteria that could evolve to live there. A new function came to exist in the biosphere that altered its future evolution. 

There’s no way to predict this course of evolution: we cannot pre-state all possible selective environments, or which features might turn out to be pre-adaptations. This means that when a pre-adaptation like a swim bladder comes along, it changes the phase space of evolution. We cannot write down equations of motion for the evolving biosphere, economy, cultures or cities because we don’t know now what the variables or boundary conditions will be. 

The conclusion is that there are no entailing laws of motion for the evolution of the biosphere. And with no selection at all, the biosphere is creating its own future possibilities of becoming. Isn’t that stunning? It’s magic. 

The key is enablement: the swim bladder doesn’t cause the worm to live in it, but it enables the worm to do so. This is a totally new way of thinking. In addition to the causal webs we’re used to thinking about, there are webs of opportunities and enablements where opportunities can be seized. 

In the economy and culture and in the city, life that depends on enablers, new opportunities are created without intent. We’re living with the possibility of re-enchantment in which we are making worlds that we cannot pre-state, but rather that we flow into and become – even though we can’t know what they’ll be. 

This means that in evolving cities with evolving cultures, we have to adopt what we might call wise enablement through a marriage of local and regional organisation that know what the specific opportunities are in local areas. They can then seize those opportunities in ways that can’t be foretold. 

Crucially, I think that city making is not a planning process; it’s a becoming process. Because we can only partially see the results of what we do, we live in the face of mystery. There’s magic and there’s enchantment. And that leaves us with deep questions as human beings because we’ve been taught that we can know, master and optimise. We have to think in new ways about how to do that wisely. 

Writer Jane Jacobs came to the conclusion that economic activity in a city is correlated with economic growth in a city. The more different things you make, the more different ways you can combine them to make new things – including Darwinian pre-adaptations. I believe there’s a powerful correlation between the economic and cultural diversity of a city and new opportunities, and hence new ways of being human. 

Emersonian perfectionism says that to be happy you should spend your life building the skills you’re born with – a well-considered life. But I think there’s something more exciting. Life presents new opportunities to us that we can’t pre-state. So I think it’s about living a well-discovered life, discovering and taking new opportunities as they arise.