boundaries and complex systems don’t mix well

Boundaries are useful.

I’m talking about boundaries that are drawn in time and space

Boundaries imbued quantifiable limits on human affairs (how much time, which space), giving them clear starts and ends that can be agreed on and trusted. Legal documents like contracts, agreements, and transactions allowed for more complex services to be rendered, subdivided and delegated. Hot take: They have ended disputes more than they have started them.

Many critical coordination problems are solved through such standardization, however, one problem remains.

The world doesn’t work quite like that.

These tools that we’ve developed so far are great for closed, finite contexts. The problem is that these tools do not account for reality that we’re just starting to know, which is complex, open-ended and infinite. Traditional accounting doesn’t capture or address events where inputs can be seemingly disconnected from outputs. The clear-cut accounting methods break down even further when things cannot all be converted to a common denomination:

  • A seasonal swell of spring water that deposits nutrient-rich sediment to lands surrounding the river.
  • The time it takes for a new development to gain residents and workers that are willing to invest time to give it a sense of place
  • The changing weather of a place is affected by so many variables, it remains one of the most difficult things to predict.

What this comes down to is this: One does not simply make a model of a complex world. The complex world is the model.

—A paraphrase of a quote often stated to be by Murray Gell-man

This is how so many urban planning tools fall short. They are simplifications of what otherwise is an immensely complex world that is most successfully navigated/negotiated on the ground, and not in maps.

We are just starting to develop tools like carbon accounting, social enterprises, and fair trade agreements that are all about improving how we account for things in spite of boundaries. These efforts go a step further to try to account for blind spots in traditional accounting.

I hope to see some innovations reach urban planning as well.

Original tweet

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