Meshing hierarchies and self-organizing
Photo Credit: Stanford Medecine

This image is from a 2010 article on 3D imagery showing the brain’s circuitry in the highest resolution yet (follow this link to Stanford Medicine’s YouTube video.  Essentially they have taken 700 nanometer slices of a mouse’s cortex and mapped the connections.  Even with the new imagery, the result is a level of complexity seen in the brain that is hard to comprehend. Our cities, as our creations, are as complex.  There is much that we can’t see, and lots of what we can see is hard to comprehend.

Here’s what Stanford professor Stephen Smith has to say about this, according to writer Rebecca Boyle:

“A human cerebral cortex holds about 125 trillion synapses, which are connections among neurons, packed into an ultra-thin layer of tissue. That’s equivalent to the number of stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies…These electrical interfaces are found throughout the brain, control our thinking, feeling and movement.
“The sheer number of synapses makes it nearly impossible to see them – even the best traditional-light microscopes cannot resolve them all… A single neuron might have tens of thousands of synaptic contacts with other neurons.”

When I look at cities, I have the same imagery in mind.  Just on a different scale.  These images of brains bring to mind images of cities.  Here is a photo of cities in China, taken from the International Space Station in December 2010 (Photo Credit: NASA):

Photo Credit: NASA

Whether looking at our brains inside us, or the cities we build outside of us, it is clear that despite the fact that there is no one element or person that is in charge, clear patterns emerge.  All of our brains are so alike that we recognize ourselves as a singe species.  Our cities also take remarkably similar shapes independently.  The pattern that emerges from both of these environments is that chaos and order exist simultaneously.

Meshworking is the ability to hold both hierarchies of order and self-organizing systems.  Marilyn Hamilton began using this term to describe the work that she does in cities.  Typically a term used in brain science, she applied it to cities, where she noticed that “the city integrates enabling hierarchies and self-organizing webs of relationships by aligning different capacities, functions and locations so they can be of service to a purpose and each other [1].”

The city, just like a brain, needs hierarchy and order to build itself.  The order is scaffolding.  Once the scaffolding is in place, the city self-organizes itself in numerous, infinite ways by making connections.  It is an amazing combination: the ability to forever reinvent as well as the ability to sort and choose [2].

The value of meshworking – the ability to make catalytic connections – in cities is that it enables whole system thinking.  This is work that naturally takes place in our cities and it is a work that we can choose to enhance to nourish our cities’ emergence into what they next need to be for us.  It requires establishing new order when old hierarchies are in need of recalibration.  It requires establishing new connections at every turn to nurture our self-organizing.  All of this is about our collective learning together to create habitats that meet our needs.

Cities are full of hierarchies and self-organizing systems. The challenge in our work is to find the balance, each and every moment, that meets our life conditions.  Always at the appropriate scale.

There is so much more to say about meshworking.  You may be interested in Hamilton’s work: click here for her web sitehere for her book.  As I conclude this post, I realize that yesterday’s post about inquiry intelligence, and this post about meshworking intelligence, are two types of evolutionary intelligence that nourish the city that is wanting to come into being.

We are in a new era of communication (think social media, internet etc) that is building whole new ways and kinds of connections between cities.  This is certainly a new form of scaffolding (order) we are building for ourselves in our cities.  It is also creating the conditions for new ways for citizens to self-organize.  A new city is emerging.  I wonder what it is.

Tomorrow’s post will explore another evolutionary intelligence for cities: navigating intelligence.



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[1] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 221-222

[2] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 223

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If you are interested in learning more about evolutionary intelligences relating to cities, you will be interested in the Integral City eLaboratory – Co-Creating the Future of the Human Hive

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