Wonders of the ‘urban connectome’

Michael Mehaffy at Public Square: “Urbanists have long been drawing lessons from other disciplines, including sociology, environmental psychology and ecology. Now there are intriguing new lessons being offered by a perhaps surprising field: brain science. But to explore the story of those lessons, we’ll have to start first with genetics.

Few developments in the sciences have had the impact of the revolutionary discoveries in genetics, and in particular, what is called the “genome”—the totality of the complex pattern of genetic information that produces the proteins and other structures of life. By getting a clearer picture of the workings of this evolving, generative structure, we gain dramatic new insights on disease processes, on cellular mechanisms, and on the ultimate wonders of life itself. In a similar way, geneticists now speak of the “proteome”—the no less complex structure of proteins and their workings that generate tissues, organs, signaling molecules, and other element of complex living processes.

An important characteristic of both the genome and the proteome is that they work as totalities, with any one part potentially interacting with any other. In that sense, they are immense interactive networks, with the pattern of connections shaping the interactions, and in turn being shaped by them through a process of self-organization. Proteins produce other proteins; genes switch on other genes. In this way, the structure of our bodies evolves and adapts to new conditions—new infections, new stresses, new environments. Our bodies “learn.”

It turns out that something very similar goes on in the brain. We are born with a vastly complex pattern of connections between our neurons, and these go on to change after birth as we experience new environments and learn new skills and concepts. Once again, the totality of the pattern is what matters, and the ways that different parts of the brain get connected (or disconnected) to form new patterns, new ideas and pictures of the world.  

Following the naming precedent in genetics, this complex neural structure is now being called the “connectome” (because it’s a structure that’s similar to a “genome”). The race is on to map this structure and its most important features. (Much of this work is being advanced by the NIH’s Human Connectome Project.)

What do these insights have to do with cities? As Steven Johnson noted in his book Emergence, there is more in common between the two structures than might appear. There is good reason to think that, as with brains, a lot of what happens in cities has more to do with the overall pattern of connections, and less to do with particular elements….(More)”.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out over half a century ago, the city is a kind of “intricate ballet” of people interacting, going about their plans, and shaping the life of the city, from the smallest scales to the largest. This intricate pattern is complex, but it’s far from random. As Jacobs argued, it exhibits a high degree of order — what she called “organized complexity.”