editing the urban encyclopedia

Sin título-1Of the critical proponents of emergent intelligence outlined by Thompson in ‘Emergence: the connected lives if ants, brains, cities and software’, the notion of useful ignorance is the most puzzling. It poses that an ignorance of the global order is critical for maintaining an efficient interaction and exchange of information between subordinate parts of the system. For example, a single neuron’s awareness of the behavior of the brain removes it from the scale at which it can develop local knowledge through interaction with its peers, and the system experiences an overall decrease in operating potential. This can be analogously compared to urban life, where street level interactions yield the highest productivity in terms of exchanging information with new parties and expanding the overall knowledge of the system itself.

Though the existence of swarm intelligence and the emergence of complex intelligent systems is supported through research at many scales, certain questions arise when thinking about implementation at the scale of our cities. Does a knowledge of the existence of emergence as a social phenomenon play into our societal structure? If so, who are the actors in implementing this knowledge? How is it implemented? How do we overcome the paradox of implementing strategies which will strengthen the phenomenologics of swarm intelligence within our societal structure while curbing the development of a top-down state where knowledge of the systems overall operations are reserved only for those who are in the know?

There is a veritable line in the sand between the opposing approaches of top-down organization and bottom-up hive intelligence, but either strategy in isolation does not produce tangible results. Effectively, the bottom is too dumb to produce due to the simplicity of its operations relative to scale of the system. The bottom essentially is composed of components which perform, in the Darwinian sense, simple yes/no computations to accumulate local knowledge that is fed into the database of the system. The system, on the other hand, is far too complex for the derivation of universally applicable rules, and its collective conscience too impatient to wait for the bottom to self-organize. Thus, we see an shift in scale not only in terms of the breadth of the collective knowledge, but also in the understanding of time. The growth of the system results in deeper and deeper clustering of information and the intensive organization of form, differing fundamentally to the invention and application of derived form. We can then begin to redefine the notion of formal design or organization to coincide not with the behavior of the system, but to the behavior of the agent of the system and its local interactions.

The methodology of behavioral design is discussed by Kokkugia in ‘Behavioral Matter’, as it relates to swarm urbanism and the shift from the notion of a ‘master plan’ to that of a ‘master-algorithm’ at the urban scale. Through this re-appropriation, we can see the beginnings of a response to the posited question of implementation, and that the fundamental hierarchies of urbanism such as scalar time and intensity of agents acting in the system are platforms for the development of this logic. For the Melbourne Docklands, Kokkugia proposed urban structures by firstly using the self-organizing design agents of the system to reform the matter in the creation of circulatory and infrastructural networks, and by secondly programming urban elements and topologies with embedded behavioral traits. In this experiment, all elements in the system are conceived as agents which conceptualize and form complex environments through behavioral operations.

The embedding of behavioral design methodologies within urbanism offers a step forward in bridging the gap between top-down intervention and the slow-burning power  of the hive mind. It also manifests the ‘editor’ within the agents themselves, based on an extrapolation of their behavior rather than an derivation from the overall composition of the system. As Kevin Kelly identifies in ‘The Bottom is Not Enough’, editors are a means by which to maximize the efficiency of the collective through moderate top-down intervention, while not hindering its operations. Although he is talking about the world of digital publication, the same basic principles apply at the urban scale as they do to omnipresent information systems such as Wikipedia. Though they operate in principal through bottom-up formation, the need for expertise on a particular subject requires a the existence of an ‘expert’ which can provide a clustered wealth of knowledge. Clustering which occurs in Wikipedia can then be identified as an agent-based algorithm which is embedded from the top-down into the system itself, taking cues from the behavior of the source rather than the overall behavior.

Thompson himself identifies that most websites possess more collective wisdom than any given city, but lack the ability to effectively cluster and process the received information in the same way. As the breadth of digital knowledge continues to widen, the process of editing through embedded behavioral algorithms becomes for complex (Kelly imagines in one day to include controlled edits, peer review, verification and authentication certificates to name a few). If the Wikipedia of 2056 will better represent the idea of a complete encyclopedia due to the ever-increasing complexity of its ‘designed’ editing process, perhaps the same level of complexity embedded into our urban environments can similarly streamline our world.


Kokkugia. “Behavioral Matter”. Swarm Intelligence: Architecture of Multi-Agent Systems. Ed. Neil Leach and Roland Snooks.

Kelly, Kevin. “The Bottom is Not Enough”. Swarm Intelligence: Architecture of Multi-Agent Systems. Ed. Neil Leach and Roland Snooks.

Thompson, Steven. Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software. New York: Scribner; 1 edition (Sept. 10 2002)

Thompson, Steven. Only Connect. thegaurdian. 15 October 2001. Accessed 20 November 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/15/society

This entry was posted in Digital Logics - Critical Readings, Robert Douglas McKaye and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.