34. What would Warren Weaver say now?

Warren Weaver was a remarkable man. He was a distinguished mathematician and statistician. He made important early contributions on the possibility of the machine translation of languages. He was a fine writer who recognised the importance of Shannon’s work on communications and the measurement of information and he worked with Shannon to co-author ‘The mathematical theory of communication’. But perhaps above all, he was a highly significant science administrator. For almost 30 years, from 1932, he worked in senior positions for the Rockefeller Foundation, latterly as Vice-president. I guess he had quite a lot of money to spend. From his earliest days with the Foundation, he evolved a strategy which was potentially a game-changer, or at the very least, seriously prescient: he switched his funding priorities from the physical sciences to the biological. In 1948, he published a famous paper in The American Scientist that justified this – maybe with an element of post hoc rationalisation – on the basis of three types of problem (or three types of system – according to taste): simple, of disorganised complexity and of organised complexity. Simple systems have a relatively small number of entities; complex systems have a very large number. The entities in the systems of disorganised complexity interact only weakly; those of organised complexity have entities that interact strongly. In the broadest terms – my language not his – Newton had solved the problems of simple systems and Boltzmann those of disorganised complexity. The biggest research challenges, he argued, were those of systems of organised complexity and more of these were to be found in the biological sciences than the physical. How right he was and it has only been after some decades that ‘complexity science’ has come of age – and become fashionable. (I was happy to re-badge myself as a complexity scientist which may have helped me to secure a rather large research grant.)

There is famous management scientist, no longer alive, called Peter Drucker. Such was his fame that a book was published confronting various business challenges with the title: ‘What would Peter Drucker say now?’. Since to my knowledge, no one has updated Warren Weaver’s analysis, I am tempted to pose the question ‘What would Warren Weaver say now?’. I have used his analysis for some years to argue for more research on urban dynamics – recognising cities as systems of organised complexity. But let’s explore the harder question: given that we understand urban organised complexity – though we haven’t progressed a huge distance with the research challenge – if Warren Weaver was alive now and could invest in research on cities, could we imagine what he might say to us. What could the next game changer be? I will argue it for ‘cities’ but I suspect, mutatis mutandis, the argument could be developed for other fields. Let’s start by exploring where we stand against the original Weaver argument.

We can probably say a lot about the ‘simple’ dimension. Computer visualisation for example can generate detailed maps on demand which can provide excellent overviews of urban challenges. We have done pretty well on the systems of disorganised complexity in areas like transport, retail and beyond. This has been done in an explicit Boltzmann-like way with entropy maximising models but also with various alternatives – from random utility models via microsimulation to agent-based modelling (ABM). We have made a start on understanding the slow dynamics with a variety of differential and difference equations, some with roots in the Lotka-Volterra models, some connected to Turing’s model of morphogenesis. What kinds of marks would Weaver give us? Pretty good on the first two: making good use of dramatically increased computing power and associated software development. I think on the disorganised complexity systems, when he saw that we have competing models for representing the same system, he would tell us to get that sorted out: either decide which is best and/or work out the extent to which they are equivalent or not at some underlying level. He might add one big caveat: we have not applied this science systematically and we have missed opportunities to use it to help tackle major urban challenges. On urban dynamics and organised complexity, we would probably get marks for making a goodish start but with a recommendation to invest a lot more.

So we still have a lot to do – but where do we look for the game changers? Serious application of the science – equilibrium and dynamics – to the major urban challenges could be a game changer. A full development of the dynamics would open up the possibility of ‘genetic planning’ by analogy with ‘genetic medicine’. But for the really new, I think we have to look to rapidly evolving technology. I would single out two examples, and there may be many more. The first is in one sense already old hat: big data. However, I want to argue that if it can be combined with hi-speed analytics, this could be a game changer. The second is something which is entirely new to me and may not be well known in the urban sciences: block chains. A block is some kind of set of accounts at a node. A block chain is made up of linked nodes – a network. There is much more to it and it is being presented as a disruptive technology that will transform the financial world (with many job losses?). If you google it, you will find out that it is almost wholly illustrated by the bitcoin system. A challenge is to work out how it could transform urban analytics and planning.

I have left serious loose ends which I won’t be able to tie up but which I will begin to elaborate the challenges with four further blog posts in coming weeks: (1) Competing models; (2) Big data and hi-speed analytics; (3) Block chains in urban analysis; (4) Applying the science to urban challenges.

Alan Wilson

March 2016

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