Science For Designers: The Meaning Of Complexity

Today’s designers seem to love using new ideas coming from science. They embrace them as analogies, metaphors, and in a few cases, tools to generate startling new designs. (Computer algorithms and spline shapes are a good recent example of the latter.) But metaphors about the complexity of the city and its adaptive structures are not the same thing as the actual complexity of the city. The trouble is, this confusion can produce disastrous results. It can even contribute to the slow collapse of an entire civilisation.

Traditional city fabric evolved over generations as an extension of our own biology, thus representing an application of a kind of “collective intelligence” due to the system, not of any individual. Images: Mustapha Ben Hamouche
Traditional city fabric evolved over generations as an extension of our own biology, thus representing an application of a kind of “collective intelligence” due to the system, not of any individual.
Images: Mustapha Ben Hamouche

We might think that the difference between metaphor and reality is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, such confusion pervades the design world today, and spreads from there into the general culture. It plays a key role in the delusional expectation that metaphors will create reality. Psychiatrists speak of this as an actual disorder known as “magical thinking”: if our symbols are good enough, then reality will follow.

In the hands of designers, this is very dangerous stuff. We see it at work in the failed iconic buildings that were sure to create economic development, or urban vitality, or greater quality of life purely because of a futuristic image. We see it also in the many “tokenistic” sustainability features (wind turbines, etc.) of other iconic new buildings whose actual performance in post-evaluation studies is woefully poor.

From the perspective of design methodology, this phenomenon is an interesting and important design problem in its own right. We recognise it as a fundamental weakness of human thought, and need to adjust our design methodologies accordingly. In this process, the methodologies and insights of a humane science, applied by literate designers, can be invaluable. Distinguishing physical from metaphorical complexity clarifies a presently confused and unsustainable situation, and can help us out of it (the ultimate aim of any science, and any philosophy). The topics of urbanism, architecture, product design, environmental design, sustainability, and complexity in science are all tightly interrelated. Humans “design” with much the same aim toward which nature “designs” — both aim to increase the complexity of a system so that it works “better”. “Better” in this sense means more stable, more diverse, and more capable of maintaining an organised state — like the health of an organism. We learn from the structures and processes by which nature designs, so that we can also create and sustain these more organised states.

Some scientists shy away from the notion that nature “aims” for anything. But this begs the question: are we not part of nature, and do we not “aim” for something in our own designs, and in the other parts of our life (e.g. seeking our own health and wellbeing)? Then we must accept “aim” as a characteristic of at least some part of nature. Otherwise, we severely hobble the usefulness of the scientific tradition as a relevant tool for designers. (Indeed, we would set ourselves on a very dangerous philosophical path: in effect, rendering the very idea of intelligence — human or otherwise — as meaningless!)

Let’s start instead from the premise that we are here, and need to make sense of our own situation and determine our aims. Then we can begin to ask, given this intentionality, what is the most intelligent approach we can take? How can we learn from the intelligence — the “intentionality” in that sense — of natural systems? This is now an urgent question because much of human production — especially since modern industrialisation enabled us to do things with really big footprints — is intentional in the wrong sense. Instead of building up complex systems that work better within the natural systems that support them, they acquire a fragile, non-resilient complexity that works against nature.

In this way, human systems of life, movement, production, and economies depend on ever more energy consumption just to keep running at the same pace, setting us up for an inevitable catastrophic scenario. At the same time, the design of our environment seems to be driven not so much by any intelligent intentionality as by images that are stubbornly, even religiously, adhered to, even as mounting evidence shows that those typologies are inappropriate for complex adaptive systems. How can we fix this extremely precarious situation? What’s required is a paradigm shift in the way we perceive and act upon the systems that make our world function. Those systems are complex and adaptive — that is, their elements are mutually co-adapting and co-evolving, thereby forming an exceedingly complex pattern.

Even so, such a pattern can be understood scientifically, and exploited by designers, following a new understanding of the phenomenon of complexity. This effort is part of the burgeoning, but historically recent, discipline of “complexity science” — the set of astonishing findings into topics like fractals, strange attractors, emergence, and algorithmic patterns. What these fields of investigation all have in common is the curious property of systems when a lot of elements are interacting. Complex systems take on entirely new characteristics that are very different from those with only a few elements — and usually impossible to predict. They have properties that are remarkably similar to living systems (which is no coincidence).

For environmental designers and planners, knowing this phenomenon of “emergence” is the key to getting things right. Cities, for example, are certainly complex adaptive systems, and so are most other kinds of human environments. If we are trying to solve the problems of cities, then we need to know the kind of problem we are dealing with. If we treat this as a search for simplicity, or perhaps, an artistic challenge of visual design, when it is really a problem of organised complexity obeying its own rules of evolutionary intelligence, then we are likely to make a mess of things. And yet, that is exactly what architects and planners have done in the past several decades. Complexity science was at its dawn when, in the middle 20th Century, the adaptive living fabric of our cities was gutted and replaced by a much more elementary, mechanical model of design.

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The result is a simplistic machine, intentionally far from natural complexity. This drastically reductive process was draped with more complex poetic analogies, which convinced society to implement crude models that substituted for a richly complex reality. Since then, the scientific discipline has advanced farther than anyone hoped, and has begun to tease out formerly inscrutable secrets of nature — the marvels of evolution, the behaviour of Earth systems, even the workings of genetic processes. For geographers and planners, the phenomena of cities became more comprehensible too.

Self-generated city — disrespected by those designers who wish to impose their own will on cities, and by governments who want total control — yet representing a natural phenomenon as basic as life itself. Dharavi, India. Image: YGLvoices
Self-generated city — disrespected by those designers who wish to impose their own will on cities, and by governments who want total control — yet representing a natural phenomenon as basic as life itself. Dharavi, India.
Image: YGLvoices

Many designers are still unaware of these developments. For them, design is essentially about conveying expressive meaning, symbolism, and metaphor. Others pretend to keep up with the times but don’t bother with generating adaptive structural complexity — they continue to use fashionable metaphors to build non-adaptive, dysfunctional architectural and urban forms. This is a distorted artistic heritage of design, not at all about understanding systems and their emergent properties, which has come to a frontal collision with its scientific heritage. Artists at some point became specialised cogs in the same commodified industrial machine. Their job was now to sprinkle “meaning” (metaphor, analogy, expressive character) onto top-down industrial structures, and give them an acceptable, or better yet marketably desirable, aesthetic character.

Things really took off when this project came to be associated with the allure of fine art. You may want to protest here, and ask: isn’t it our job to symbolise the scientific spirit of our age, and the new cosmological view of nature? Yes, but not as a mere sugar coating, a razzle-dazzle product “theming” — the meaning should be embodied in the objectives we achieve with our designs, and the way they accommodate and improve human life. The best architecture does not confuse these two aspects of life and art in a mutually destructive manner, but uses them to serve one another.

When we paste a metaphoric “theme” over the design, after a few years, it begins to look ridiculous. That’s because the thing on the outside has no inherent relation to the thing on the inside — it’s little more than a veneer. And it works rather poorly. So the once-futuristic cases for old personal computers, the expression of another age’s romance with technology, now look absurd. The futuristic skins of famous art museums and concert halls are already stale and dated, so that now the only remaining customers for such a style are third-world countries playing catch up with Western architectural fashions.

If, instead, we let the expression of the object grow from its complex relationship to its environment, and to the job it has to do for human beings, something remarkable happens: it takes on a kind of “classic” quality. The design seems almost to have “grown” that way, or to be inevitable — and then we say: “it’s a classic”. It is timeless. It will be valued by future generations just as we value (or ought to value) the greatest design achievements of previous generations.

Alas, most design firms today don’t work towards this goal at all. Instead, they seek to attract attention through novelty and “theming”. They may give lip service to the approaches we discuss here, but without understanding the deeper methodological change those require. Though they are experts at glossy marketing in competing for major new projects and the practice of smooth talking to impress clients, they continue to do business as usual. A good designer is responsible for both implementation and adaptation. Do not confuse “intentionality” in a system changing itself so as to adapt — a sign of intelligence — with the intentions of a designer who ignores adaptation.

The latter is a sign of unintelligent action. We see this over and over in products based strictly upon visual images. Dysfunctional satellite cities and suburbs were built in this manner. Design “intentionality” increases complexity so as to make the system work in the best way possible, not only for its explicit function, but especially as it is embedded both within its context and its environment. The job weaves together many things — like a city does — thus the design has to embrace and encourage connectivity within diversity. The chore of design, in such a complex environment, is not to impose an overly simple order from above, but to help to orchestrate the diversity, using its own latent dynamics, into a more spontaneous kind of patterned order. When it succeeds, we recognise it as a beloved city that nourishes us in more ways than one. A model of organised complexity proposed by one of us in 1997 (and reprinted as Chapter 5 of our book A Theory of Architecture) finds a striking parallel in the “Integrated Information Model for Consciousness” later developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. Its essence is that complex systems evolve an integrated connectivity among their components so their information output is high, yet coherent. This coherence is often mistaken for simplicity, and this is the source of much of the confusion we address in this essay.

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Human life on earth is creating signs of informational intelligence: an earth that is conscious because it is intimately interconnected. We can save civilization from self-destruction by understanding the underlying mechanisms. Egypt at night. Image: NASA
Human life on earth is creating signs of informational intelligence: an earth that is conscious because it is intimately interconnected. We can save civilization from self-destruction by understanding the underlying mechanisms. Egypt at night.
Image: NASA

Note that “complexity” is very different from “complicatedness”. Some postmodernist urbanists seem eager to conflate these two very different ideas. You don’t get a system when you pile up disjointed fragments, because there is no integration. Instead, a complex system arises through a process working to organise different and often conflicting elements in some way, in spite of their differences. Intentionality in building complexity sheds all “complicatedness” that is irrelevant and unconnected, just like in natural systems. It does not “streamline” processes to a single aim, but simply evolves the system to include those multiple connected cycles, however large or small, that interact in some essential way.

That process is often a subtle dynamic, such as a set of apparently simple adaptive rules that each element follows. Why do people walking through a park all move along one line and not others? Why does one store get lots of pedestrian customers and another, just as good, fail? We can discover and document the socio-geometric patterns that people are following, as they make the simple human calculations that we all do: head in the direction of your destination, avoid obstructions, stop only if you see something interesting, and so on.

If we understand these patterns, we can place our pavement more effectively, or place our store in a more successful location. Other patterns of complex organisation can be documented and put to work for us in our designs. The human inhabitants of even the most diverse city are, and remain, part of a complex emergent whole. Their complex behaviours and interactions must not be reduced for the city to work like some crude yet giant machine, for that would (and does) severely damage living systems. So, too, the elements of an ecosystem have a history, as do other natural systems. This is the nature of complexity — it has an inherent wholeness or whole-systems quality to it.

The elements we are considering possess what the physicist David Bohm called an “implicate order” — they have a much deeper relationship within a whole system that predates our observation. We face a perceptual problem, however. The reason most people think of complexity as being more like “complicatedness” — a messy collection of unrelated parts — is that we are very good at seeing particular fragments of the world. This view has its evolutionary benefits — we can see just a snapshot of what happens at a certain point and at a particular time, and omit all the interactions that brought those parts together in the first place. While this ability gave early humans an advantage in quick decision-making, it handicaps us when confronting the complex systems that we are now capable of building. We tend to forget that this way of looking at the world and its complex interactions is merely an abstraction, helpful for some purposes, but not for design. This is because in design, we are working with complex, implicate-ordered systems. Earth and life systems manifest design intentionality (in the sense of organising their complexity) and intrinsic intelligence. When we treat these systems as problems of simplicity, we fail to understand the actual complex systems that we are creating, disturbing, and often destroying — a neighbourhood, a city, an ecology, a human economy, or a living planet. And so, today, we find ourselves in a great deal of trouble.


Authored By Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in ItalyMexico, and The Netherlands.



Check out the authors’ book, Design For A Living Planet, here.


This article originally appeared in Metropolis.



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