32: DNA

The idea of ‘DNA’ has become a commonplace metaphor. The real DNA is the genetic code that underpins the development of organisms. I find the idea useful in thinking about the development of – the evolution of – cities. This development depends very obviously on ‘what is there already’ – in technical terms, we can think of that as the ‘initial conditions’ for the next stage. We can then make an important distinction between what can change quickly – the pattern of a journey to work for instance – and what changes only slowly – the pattern of buildings or a road network. It is the slowly changing stuff that represents urban DNA. Again, in technical terms, it is the difference between the fast dynamics and the slow dynamics. The distinction is between the underlying structure and the activities that can be carried out on that structure.

It also connects to the complexity science picture of urban evolution and particularly the idea of path dependence. How a system evolves depends on the initial conditions. Path dependence is a series of initial conditions. We can then add that if there are nonlinear relations involved – scale economies for example – then the theory shows us the likelihood of phase changes – abrupt changes in structure. The evolution of supermarkets is one example of this; gentrification is another.

This offers another insight: future development is constrained by the initial conditions. We can therefore ask the question: what futures are possible – given plans and investment – from a given starting point? This is particularly important if we want to steer the system of interest towards a desirable outcome, or away from an undesirable one – also, a tricky one this, taking account of possible phase changes. This then raises the possibility that we can change the DNA: we can invest in such a way as to generate new development paths. This would be the planning equivalent of genetic medicine – ‘genetic planning’. There is a related and important discovery from examining retail dynamics from this perspective. Suppose there is a planned investment in a new retail centre at a particular location. This constitutes an addition to the DNA. The dynamics then shows that this investment has to exceed a certain critical size for it to succeed. If this calculation could be done for real-life examples (as distinct from proof-of-concept research explorations) then this would be incredibly valuable in planning contexts. Intuition suggests that a real life example might be the initial investment in Canary Wharf in London: that proved big enough in the end to pull with it a tremendous amount of further investment. The same thing may be happening with the Cross Rail investment in London – around stations such as Farringdon.

The ‘structure vs activities’ distinction may be important in other contexts as well. It has always seemed to me in a management context that it is worth distinguishing between ‘maintenance’ and ‘development’, and keeping these separate – that is, between keeping the organisation running as it is, and planning the investment that will shape its future.

The DNA idea can be part of our intuitive intellectual toolkit, and can then function more formally and technically in dynamic modelling. The core insight is worth having!!

Alan Wilson

December 2015

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