Embracing natural, organic complexity to create thriving, healthy cities in a post-digital world
The world is beautiful and complex. The world is beautiful because it is complex. From the delicate intricacies of a flower’s pattern to the geometric assembly of a mountain range, the natural environment wields incredible levels of creativity, blending shapes, colours, and structures that, exactly because of their effortless complexity, never fail to impress and astound. We humans have, as a species, evolved in this natural world and now our minds and bodies instinctively seek stimuli that compare to Mother Nature’s creations. We need to be engaged by the environment to thrive — and, perhaps on some level, to feel at home.
Studies have found that people who live in barren urban environments are more likely to suffer from stress, depression, and anxiety than people with a view and access to green space (Kuo, Sullivan, et.al.). Similarly, it has been demonstrated that even a short walk along a street lined by monotonous, inactive buildings is enough to trigger a physiological response of boredom, releasing hormones that are harmful to both our physical and mental health (Ellard).
Then what about more complex, stimulating urban places? Surely, if the brain needs stimulation, a vibrant metropolis is just the ticket. But, no. Here, research shows that it takes more than mere complexity to create a restorative environment. Where navigating between trees and jumping across streams tends to keep our attention engaged in positive, healthful ways, darting between cars and skipping over rubbish in a cluttered street is more likely to leave our minds depleted and numb (Kaplan).
There is, therefore, a difference to be recognised between natural complexity that enlivens us, and chaotic, artificial complexity that takes our energy away. So far, we have not really managed this difference very well.
Instead, with the onset of urbanisation, we have created millions of places that are so far removed from the world in which we were ourselves designed to live that we now struggle to stay healthy and happy in them (Montgomery et.al.). We have traded off natural, ecological complexity in order to build advanced urban clusters and systems, driven by industrial and technological progress. Rather than embracing the complex, we have consistently sought to organise and optimise with an eye to the efficient. The most extreme example may be the creation of a single currency system by which to value all aspects of life and place. Other examples include the building of skyscrapers devoted to a single type of use (usually desk-based work), entire regions devoted to a single type of industry (such as food production), and millions of kilometres of movement corridors devoted to a single type of vehicle (cars).
Of course, we have also reaped many benefits from this development, and we have, overall, gained far more than we have lost. By building cities, we have built modern society and unlocked a wealth of knowledge, creativity, and capital. At a grand scale, we have increased our life expectancy, general health, education levels, and living standards (Rosling). But we still haven’t managed complexity — not like nature — and it’s costing us a great deal.
As a consequence, we live between two distinctly different environments: the built and the natural. In cities, we are productive at the cost of health, in nature we are restored at the cost of efficiency. But what if we could learn to design places that combine the best of both worlds, creating complexity that is just as efficient as it is exciting and restorative? And I’m not just talking about planting more trees and increasing biodiversity — though that would be a way to start. I’m suggesting embedding complexity across all dimensions, reforming how we build, use, and value space to unlock a more agile and resilient future altogether.
To achieve this vision, we may need some help. As humans, there are limits to the amount of information we can compute, and we are nowhere near as capable as the ecologies we rely on. We may be incredibly imaginative, but we are limited by the systems we can (and have) built for ourselves, limited by models created around matters as simple as finance, operations, and maintenance. It’s just easier to pay in the same currency, to have all the food production in one place, to operate a building with a singular use. Easier, yes, in the short term. Then comes climate change, rising inequality, lifestyle diseases, and economic recessions a-knocking. It’s time to realise that there is no such thing as a simple, efficient city (sorry, smart cities anno 2010). But there are complex, living, thriving environments, and those are the kinds of places we should strive to create.
The thread to help us weave complexity back into our lives and into the urban fabric is digital technology. Not as a product, but as a layer of enablement — a ubiquitous neuro-system and environment in its own right, albeit non-physical. For while our human brains may struggle to understand, construct, and manage the diverse components of a healthy and prosperous place, computers may prove adequately capable. Especially when they become so advanced as to learn for themselves and operate autonomously. Perhaps our role is less to control the system, and more to design its outcomes. In the (paraphrased) words of Cedric Price, technology is a tool, but what is the question?
In the past, we have asked how to build taller, cheaper, and faster. Now we have skyscrapers with massive energy bills, housing that’s barely fit to live in, and districts with no sense of identity. We asked, technology delivered.
How about asking instead, how to make places where people can work, live, and enjoy life without impacting on the environment? Why not ask what makes a place resilient and capable of sustaining life in all its forms? Where are the places that will feed us, shelter us, and help us thrive today and long into the future?
An outcome-led approach naturally has to put the health and well-being of people and planet at the centre of the system. And when we do this, we realise the importance of creating environments that embrace diversity, co-existence, and never-ending change — because these are the traits wielded by the most complex and nourishing system of all: Mother Nature. Now we must make our cities equally generative, and that’s where the digital environment has a part to play.
We need technology to help operate buildings with different activities throughout the day and week, and run streets that work for many kinds of movement, and distribute energy where people live and work, from the water, wind, and sun that surrounds them. We need technology to design structures that are as stimulating in appearance, effective in use, and adaptable to change as real organic lifeforms. We need technology to prioritise, nourish, and protect flora and fauna in every corner of the built environment, from the bottom of urban waterways to the rooftops of our workplaces.
We need a digital environment to unlock the built environment, to make space for diversity and organic growth, to make any place (built and natural) as restorative and productive as the other. This is the post-digital, neo-natural city; and it’s beautiful and resilient exactly because it is complex.