“When planning and design become the sole domain of experts – the street level intelligent informal creativity gets lost. What we get instead is an architecture of compliance where people are relegated at best to caretakers.”
Massive Small Collective is anchored in a growing body of critical complexity thinking that challenges the way we understand, interact with and try to change dynamic systems. Drawing on theorists such as Edgar Morin and Paul Cilliers, we work to apply this thinking to the challenges of urban development.
Complicated objects can be broken apart to be understood. Examples like cars and computers are intricate and need specialist expertise to build and operate; but with the right facts and resources, their behaviour can be controlled and predicted.
Complex systems, on the other hand, cannot be fully comprehended by decomposing them into their composite parts (our usual mode of analysis). They also cannot be understood by ignoring internal diversity to command and control current and future behaviour. People, families, communities and cities are complex.
In complex systems, relationships matter. Breaking a family into its individual members will tell you something about how they function together, but it will not tell you everything. Observing these parts interacting in time reveals critical insights. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, observing family will not tell us everything about the secret lives of its members. The parts are also more than the whole.
Complexity is the emergent result of many elements interacting in rich and nonlinear patterns. These patterns unfold in time, open to information and resources, and adapting to change. Interactions are informed not only by the the-the character of individuals but also their history and their environment.
Working with complex systems requires responsive, adaptive strategies that harness the dynamic organisation of hierarchy and structure that is both top-down and bottom-up.
Complexity and urban planning
‘Massive Small’ is the outcome of thinking of many progressive urban theorists and practitioners over many generations. The complexity theory that informs it has ancient roots.
Formidable thinkers such as Cilliers and Morin, as well as urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, John Habraken and Buckminster Fuller, who also thought in these terms.
Kelvin Campbell drew on this growing body of knowledge, as well as years of experience has an urban planner. He coined the term ‘Massive Small’ for those strategies for intelligent urban development that work with the city as a complex system. Massive Small responds to the frustration of failed grand plans and vast rollouts, and builds on the success of distributed ‘small’ projects that model new solutions to old problems. These are small initiatives with massive impact.
Campbell’s work is just one example of complexity in practice within the broad umbrella of sustainable development.
The city as a system
Paul Cilliers develops a list of ten characteristics of complex systems in his seminal work, Complexity and Postmodernism (1998):
- There are many elements.
- The elements interact in dynamic ways.
- This interaction is rich.
- Moreover, nonlinear.
- Interactions are concentrated over short ranges (they are local).
- They have loops that feed back into the organisation.
- Complex systems are open: they interact with their environment.
- Complex systems operate far from equilibrium (to be static is to die).
- History of the organisation matters. The present is informed (but not wholly determined by) past organisation.
- No single element knows the whole system or controls its behaviour.
Looking at Cilliers’ list, it is easy to see that a city fits far more comfortably into this description than a mechanistic model.
Working in the city as a complex system, our initiatives must be able to learn and change. They must be agile. They must be responsive to unpredictable shocks and new information.
When we think about the social, environmental or economic sustainability of cities, we must think in terms of complexity.
This is how we think about urban resilience. It is responsiveness to change, and reorganisation to increase wellbeing. Complex systems thrive where positive relationships are allowed to be reinforced, and negative patterns are open to transformation.
Cities must work with the best knowledge of our time. Moreover, remain open to adapting to the needs and lessons of the future.
“Rationalism, that bright dream of figuring out everything in advance and setting it forth precisely in a centralised regulatory system, had made us blind. Obsessed with certainty, we see almost nothing.”
The Death of Common Sense
The Massive Small Collective is based on an organisational theory known as ‘Chaordic’ design.
Chaordic is based on the combination or ‘chaos’ and ‘order’, hence the name. This means it intentionally uses a minimal amount of structure to allow as much self-organisation as possible on its network.
This theory has proven time and again its’ incredible efficacy. The modern day edifice ‘visa’ was built upon this method, and by providing a few simple common rules for credit card companies to adopt, it was able to transform the landscape of transactions.
This principle is core to ‘Massive Small’. As an organisation, it is designed to work as much with
The ‘order’ comes from the setting of few, simple ‘Boundary conditions’. These clearly define what Massive Small is. They also ensure that it remains focused on its purpose and creates the fundamental change we need without going awry or being co-opted by another ideology or purpose for its ends.
Simultaneously, by remaining few and simple, they allow the creative initiative of the various chapters to remain free. The presiding rule is if you have an idea, and it has not been specifically prescribed against, then go for it.