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 civilization.
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 recognize 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 organized 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 organized 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!)
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. Traditional Islamic urbanism, by Mustapha Ben Hamouche.