I spoke last week at Webcom, a Montreal-based conference about “smart cities” – meaning, those that are connected, informed and creative thanks to digital technology.  The message I shared was that cities are “smartest” when they operate in alignment with Nature’s core operating pattern, and that creating the conditions for life to thrive needs to become the explicit objective of our technology initiatives. Here’s what I said in my five-minute talk.

To me, a smart city is most of all a living, thriving city.  Nature has the ultimate intelligence.  So the more we can align our cities with how Nature operates, the smarter our cities will be – the more resilient, and adaptive and creative they’ll be.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been researching living systems and applying what I learned to organizations and communities through my consulting.

So today, I want to share the four basic characteristics of thriving living systems as a simple but useful framework to understand how all the different approaches to Smart Cities fit together and to help identify what else may be needed.

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The first characteristic is that there are individual parts – cells in your body, bees in a hive, all the different species that make up a forest and people in a city – people and trees and squirrels and bugs.

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The more diverse those parts can be, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system will be.

In a city, this means first of all that we need biodiversity.  It also means we need to invite lots of different contributions from our citizens. 

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So the first question we need to ask is: how can digital technologies support and invite diverse perspectives and contributions?

And we have lots of examples already:

• I’m guessing most of us in this room have a personal blog we use to express ourselves.
• We can customize our news feeds and our learning.
• We can participate in public decisions through petitions and public consultations.

And there’s much more, and more that’s possible.

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The second characteristic is that those parts come together in dynamic, responsive relationship with each other and with their surrounding context.

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The more open and free-flowing those relationships can be, the more resilient and adaptive and creative the living system will be.

So we want to build a vibrant network of connections if we want a smart, thriving city.

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The next question we have to ask, then, is how can technology support connection, conversation and relationship?  And even more: how can it support feedback, learning and responsiveness?

This is where the work of smart cities seems most concentrated. 

 

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The third characteristic is that those parts come together in relationship to form an emergent whole, a new higher level of life.  So that’s your body, or the hive, or the whole forest, or a city.

And this emergent level of life has new capabilities that can’t be found at the level of the parts.  For example, there isn’t one person who runs the economy or who choreographs the tam tams [a popular outdoor drumming gathering on summer Sundays] or who sets the flavour and culture of Montreal.  These are emergent capabilities.

And that’s the magic of living systems, right?  When new things become possible together.

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The more convergence there is at the level of the whole – in other words, the more you remain recognizably you even as your cells are continuously replaced… the more Montreal remains consistent and intact even as people come and go, even as mayors come and go – the more convergence there is, the more resilient and adaptive and creative the living system will be.

In a community or a city, what creates that convergent, consistent wholeness most powerfully is shared identity, so that all those divergent contributions are brought together in service of a single vision.

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So our next question is: what kind of community do we want to build together?  And then we can ask: how can technology help us pursue that shared vision and that common identity?

Now, at this point, we could be also talking about my car.  My car is made up of many different parts. They are in relationship with each other, with the road and with me.  And they come together to form an emergent whole that is called a car, with the new capability of moving me around town.

But my car is not resilient or adaptive or creative.  For that, we need…

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Life.  We need whatever spark it is that animates us and therefore our cities and that enables adaptability and creativity,  and resilience – and also self-organization, self-regulation and self-healing.

When we recognize the life in our cities, we see that our role is less to control or manage a city and more to serve as gardeners, creating the conditions for life to manage itself.

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And we see that the most important question of all is: what would it look like if life were thriving at every level – and thenwhat role can technology play in serving that vision? 

 

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In any project, we need to answer all of these questions if we want to invite Nature’s full intelligence in.  And most of all, we need to remember that it’s not about the technology; it’s about creating the conditions for life to thrive. 

 

 

 

 

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