Nested purposes


When looking ahead at our expansive, evolutionary future, there is a distinction between specific and general destinations. We do not know specifically where we are headed, but the general destination is known: survive and improve. But destination is not only way out in the future; we choose immediate, short term destinations in our day-to-day lives. The closer these choices are to the present, the more specific they seem to become.

Let’s touch base with the scenario introduced in Cities are as good as we allow them, where I dream of crossing the Rocky Mountains to reach the West Coast of North America to surf the ocean waves.  I have a long-term destination in mind: to get to the coast. My short term decisions are more specific: I need to get fit, I need to buy the equipment I need, I need to research how I will cross the mountains, and I need to start saving money for this trek. I know nothing about surfing, so I will not know where exactly I will surf until I get to the coast and check in with locals about a good place to go.

My short-term decisions are not disconnected from the longer-term purpose: surfing. My short-term decisions are not fixing what is wrong with my current state, but rather focused on what I want to come to pass. Each small decision has a purpose that is connected to the larger purpose. Each large purpose informs the purposes of smaller, more immediate decisions.

So there are scales of purpose. As we contemplate the purpose of each piece of destination, it is informed by the smaller and larger decisions. In yesterday’s post, I resurfaced my graphic of city purposes as a spiral, using Spiral Dynamics. Each level of purpose also transcends the previous purposes and becomes the foundation for a larger, more expansive purpose. There are scales of city purposes just as city systems are scaled (recall Marilyn Hamilton’s holarchy of city systems in Figure A).

Figure A: Hamilton’s nested holarchy of city systems

The destinations we aim for, and the purposes of those destinations, either for the self or the city, are nested as well (Figure B).

Figure B: Nest of purposes

These are the same purposes articulated in yesterday’s Spiral, but with two additional levels (systemic flow and global life force), the additional layers of purpose now emerging. (For more on Spiral Dynamics, here is a primer). Our decisions today, whether in the short- or long-term are crafting these new layers of purpose.  We are, in the relationship between self, other and the places we create, co-creating the emerging next purposes and destinations. As Steve McIntosh points out, the overall purpose in evolution itself is still evolving (Evolution’s Purpose).

Back to my journey across the mountains. Each step I take in the short term is a building block to the destination I have in mind. As I make my choices for food and lodging on my journey through the mountains to get to the coast, the resources I will have when I get there are impacted. I have to ensure I have both the bodily sustenance to physically perform when I get there and have enough money to pay my way. My short-term decisions are connected to both a short-term destination and a longer-term destination. Both the short-term and longer-term destinations are of value. The big destination can not be reached without the small steps, each with their own short-term purpose. The small steps we make are the fundamental steps toward the future that is calling.

Of course, when I get ‘there,’ I may find that the ‘there’ is not what I thought. When I reach the Coast and try surfing, I find that it is not surfing that was calling me, but rather floating on the water and exploring the shoreline in a kayak. My destination moved. Or rather, it emerged. I knew roughly where I wanted to go, made the effort to get there, and learned that my destination was a direction, not the destination itself. The direction was to explore the water; I just didn’t know specifically how. There was direction in the destination, just not as I conjured it setting out on my journey. A reminder that farther-off destinations are general, not specific.

The pattern appears to be that the more immediate the purpose the more specific the destination. The more ‘expansive’ the purpose, the destination becomes a direction: improvement.

How are your short-term destinations connected to the bigger destinations you feel in your soul?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.


There is direction in destination


The purpose of the city is survival and improvement: survival of the human species and the improvement of the quality of our life conditions.

The first-order and second-order purposes described in city purpose – survival and improvement, are essentially this: the drive of all living things to survive and reproduce, and, in humans, a self-reflective capacity.  Humans possess free will, and for Steve McIntosh, author of Evolution’s Purpose, this means that we have the ability to perceive and pursue higher values.

…it is this emergent capacity to discern and make moral distinctions that gives us the ability to evolve our culture. Because of our sense of higher purpose – because we can feel the ever-widening potential of a better way – humans are continuously driven and drawn toward more complex forms of social organization (p. 146).  

Our drive for improvement, the “ever-widening potential of a better way” pulls us in our own development of  how we organize ourselves. The top 100 trends in urban thinking reveal the nature of this pull in the year 2012: cities are idea makers, density catalyzes human progress, the reason for the existence of cities is the well-being of inhabitants, and collaboration as part of the human experience. Our ways of organizing ourselves are continually emerging into higher levels of complexity.

One way to look at these increasingly complex forms of social organization is through Spiral Dynamics, where our development, in response to our life conditions, oscillates back and forth between me/myself/I (warm coloured text on left) and we/us/our (cool coloured text on right).  As we develop, we value new things and the very purpose of our cities evolves along with us.

City Purpose Spiral

We have within us an impulse to thrive in cities. While we work continuously to organize ourselves to change and improve our life conditions, we are moving in a direction that is expansive and emergent. We are growing. While the specific destination is unknown, the general destination is known: survive and improve. As we work at our short-term destinations day-to-day, we can trust that an overall destination is emerging. There is direction in destination.

What is the nature of your city’s emerging destination? 

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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

100 urban trends reflect Nest City


You know something is really cool when the glossary is exciting. Try the BMW Guggenheim Lab Berlin glossary that identifies the 100 most talked about trends in urban thinking. The glossary and its preamble articulate these Nest City ideas: cities are idea makers, density catalyzes human progress, the reason for the existence of cities is the well-being of the people who inhabit them, and collaboration has long been part of the human experience.

Here’s part of the preamble to the glossary:

Integral to this glossary is the concept of cities as ‘idea makers.’ In cities, people come together, share their thoughts and common interests, and generate the ideas that shape our world. Dense, growing cities have been and continue to be the catalyst for human progress, powered by daily proximity amount their citizens as much as anything else…
Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities – that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence…
Clustering, searching for a concentration of people, and finding ways to collaborate have been part of the human experience since prehistoric times. 

The top 100 trends identify the emerging destination for a our cities, one that embraces ideas, catalytic human progress, the well-being of inhabitants and new ways of experiencing the collaborative city together:

What destination is your city reaching for?

City purpose – survival and improvement


In my last post, the purpose of evolution is evolving, I introduced the work of Steve McIntosh and his book, Evolution’s Purpose.  There is another layer of insight from McIntosh that frames the question of destination and whether we are alive or adrift: first- and second-order purpose.

McIntosh articulates the “evident purpose inherent in the urge to survive and reproduce shared by all forms of life (p. 13)” as a “first-order purpose” that is an instinctual or semi-automatic urge in most animal and plant behaviour. In contrast, “second-order purpose,” is possessed by humans. Here is McIntosh’s take on the nature of human, second-order purpose:

Humans not only have purposes, we have purposes for our purposes; we have relative freedom of choice regarding the urges or impetuses we want to act on and the appetites we want to resist. Moreover, humans can have purposes that require a lifetime of more to fulfil, we can have highly creative purposes, compassionate, loving purposes, and world-changing purposes that improve conditions for everyone (p. 13-14).

Humans experience two orders of purpose: immediate survival of self and the species, and a range of purposes that originate from our agency, that originate in response to our life conditions.

The latter of these two orders of purpose is “a self-reflective type of purpose that includes rational, moral and aesthetic aspirations (p. 88).”  These aspirations are improvements we seek in our life conditions.  Humanity’s creation of cities, if aligned with purpose at all, must have two purposes: survival and improvement.

Cities, as part of the human journey, have two destinations: survival and improvement.

Is your city organized to ensure survival and improvement?

Is your city alive or adrift?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

Purpose of evolution is evolving


If the work we do creates our cities, and if, as individuals, we lose our sense of purpose in our work, so do our cities.  If we lose track of where we are going, then the very cities we build that support us on our journey have lost track too.

Last week I started to post “book bits” from Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, with these key questions:

  • What is the role of ‘purpose’ in a city?
  • What makes a city alive?
  • How can we tell when we are adrift?
  • How does the purpose of our individual work connect to the purpose of the city?
  • How, exactly, does our work matter?
Before diving into these questions, a quick touch on purpose and its relationship to evolution.

The work we do is powered by improvement, what we are aiming for when we “scratch the itch”, when we choose to look for ways to fix what is bothering us, or what could simply be better.  We have a drive to improve the quality of our lives. Steve McIntosh, in his new book Evolution’s Purpose, sheds some light on this phenomenon.

We are moved to improve our conditions and this takes place in a self-other dialectic:

…as we are moved to make things better, we inevitably encounter the ever-present dialectic of self and other, which shows up whenever we set out to improve our conditions (p. 154).

We pursue self-improvement and give to wider community:

…our ability to grow and continuousely make things better is predicated on the pursuit of both self-improvement and the giving of ourselves to the larger community (p. 154).

An evolutionary influence is at work:

…as we increasingly experience and understand this developmental impetus, we can perhaps sense that we are encountering an ancient and even sacred influence.  This is an evolutionary impulse, the ultimate source of creativity in the universe (p. 155).

McIntosh makes the case that “grow and thrive as individuals over the long term, we not only have to take care of ourselves, we also have to provide service to something larger than ourselves (p. 154).”  The dialectic between what our current state and the one we desire, akrasia, takes place with another critical dialectic, that of the relationship between individuals and the collective.

The role of science and philosophy, and even spirituality, are explored at length by McIntosh. I refer anyone interested in the argument that evolution has a purpose to McIntosh’s work; it is well laid out.

For this post, it suffices to note that evolution has a purpose of some kind that is co-created by the agency of humanity. Since cities are our creation, they are part of this dynamic. In fact, one of the forms of the individual-collective dialectic described by McIntosh is the relationship between citizen and city.

As we dive into exploring the destination of our city journey, this realization, by McIntosh, is essential:

… as we are moved by evolution, as we growing our ability to experience and create intrinsic value, we come to see how the purpose of evolution itself is still evolving – it cannot be discerned with finality because it is still in the process of being determined by the beings whose choices are required for its creation (emphasis mine, p. 161).

We don’t know where exactly we are going, but we have a hand in where we are going. We don’t know exactly where we will go with our cities, but we have a hand in where they will take us.

Where do we choose to go?

If our work shapes where we go, what work do we choose?



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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

Focus, learn and choose


As we approach the winter solstice and the darkness increases, my energy levels are low.  It is hard to get out of bed in the morning and get the day underway. From a life cycle perspective, winter is time to rest, from the activities of the fall harvest and for spring and summer’s growth. I am torn; I feel the pull of rest I feel that there is much for me to be doing – I should be busy.

In this time of darkness I feel adrift, in the increasing gray nowhere described in John O’Donohue’s Blessing, “The Time of Necessary Decision” (yesterday’s post.) As regularly happens, quite naturally, I seem to have lost track of my destination. Without clear purpose, I waver as I decide what to do with my time and energy.

Today’s realization was that I am overthinking things and not listening to my Higher Self. Even as I wrote in my journal about it, I felt like I was overthinking, so I had a conversation with my Higher Self. Here is what transpired:

self: Have I been thinking about how to live from my spirit instead of really doing it? Being it?

SELF: Yes. Yet you’re not far.


self: Release what?

SELF: Release self.

self: That is my learning curve?

SELF: Yes.

self: A lot of self is released already.

SELF: Yes.

self: There’s more.

SELF: Of course.

self: That next bit is hard to figure out. I’m not sure where it is, where to go to release it.

SELF: Don’t look for it, just let it go. To look for where is about control.

Let it go.

self: Is that what I need to rest into? Over the next few weeks and into the darkness? Just sit with what needs to be let go and let it go? I imagine right now some grieving, but its weird not knowing what I am releasing.

SELF: Sit in the darkness.  It will start getting lighter soon. The self to release will find you.

Remember that what you are growing into will transcend and include what you are growing from. You are not jettisoning anything, so no need to fear losing anything but what is not needed anymore. It’s still around, repurposed.

It is difficult and murky territory when in transition. Focus, learn and choose are three words that stood out for you as you explored the oracle card this morning. You are facing a soul-full challenge right now. On what will you focus, learn and choose? 

self: I focus on reaching my fullest/highest evolutionary potential in my lifetime. I am learning to live from my spirit, my Self and all that I am, freely, expansively, deliberately, consciously. I choose to nourish my Being. 

SELF: Ahhhh… Your energy has shifted.

self: This is a higher order of understanding. It’s not just look after self, it’s nourish self.

Today, I latched on to the higher-order purpose of my work.  A moment to focus, to notice what I am learning, and to make a choice realigns to why I do what I do. I am more connected to my very existence. I am ready to settle into my work, both inwards and outwards, for the next two weeks until things start to get lighter. I can choose to get ‘busy’ and distract myself from the inner work at hand, or focus on it, to learn more about the choices I have.

The gray nowhere, as all seasons do, comes and goes. While it continues to get darker, while I continue to feel somewhat adrift, I feel more alive, connected to my personal journey that is necessarily part of the larger journey of humanity.

This bit that’s alive, connected to purpose, will steer me through all shades of gray of nowhere.



Destination alive or adrift


When we lose our sense of purpose in our work, we drift.  This is no different for our cities; when we have no idea what our city’s purpose is it can drift too. This post is the first in a series to explore the role of purpose, or ‘destination’, as we organize ourselves in cities.  Does knowing our purpose have an impact on our ability to be fully alive?

As I get into this exploration, here is an excerpt from John O’Donohue’s blessing that serves as a supportive thread for Nest City, “For the Time of Necessary Decision”:

Perhaps the work we do has lost its soul
Or the love where we once belonged
Calls nothing alive in us anymore
We drift through this gray, increasing nowhere

The work we do creates our cities, and if we lose our sense of purpose in our work, so do our cities. If we lose track of where we are going, so do our cities, the very habitat we build to help us get there.

Here is the terrain I expect to cover over the next few weeks:

  • What is the role of ‘purpose’ in a city?
  • What makes a city alive?
  • How can we tell when we are adrift?
  • How does the purpose of our individual work connect to the purpose of the city?
  • How exactly, does our work matter?
Do you have any responses to these questions before I get started?  
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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.


Journey and destination


Does having a destination in mind make the journey any easier?  While there is so much to say about the uneasiness we experience in our evolutionary journey with cities, it is time to look more closely at the role of ‘destination’ in our journey.  We organize our cities; do we have some kind of destination in mind?

It seems that having some sense of direction is key as we organize for emergence, but do we have a sense of direction?  Are we on a journey with a destination or are we adrift?

We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.  Discussion has given way to debate.  Communication has become a contest of wills.  Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere.  Why?  Maybe it’s because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know… anything.  But nobody’s willing to say that.
John Patrick Stanley *
Over the course of the last series of posts, pieces of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, I argue that our cities are a platform for our never-ending journey. It is not an easy journey, but it enables us to grow and learn together. I identify 10 practices that help us travel in this uneasy fashion, rather than fight it.
As I dive into sharing parts of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, here are some plot helpers for Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book that I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

The next series of posts will explore the role of destination as we organize ourselves and our cities for continuous improvement.

Is your city alive with a sense of direction, or adrift?

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* In the playbill for The Citadel’s production of his play, Doubt, 2008-2009 season (Edmonton, Canada).



The plot for Part 2

Here are the highlights of how Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence is organized.  Chapters 4-6 each focus on one of the circles in this diagram: journey, destination, emergence.  Chapter 7 explores their relationship with the city’s habitats from Part 1, our economic life, social habitat and physical habitat.

Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey recognizes that change and adjustment within ourselves to co-create cities that serve us well is a very personal journey.  Both as individuals and as a collective.  This is a journey that is not meant to end.  It is a journey full of uncertainty.  By naming and exploring this reality of organizing cities we can find ways to allow this uncertainty serve us, rather than hinder us.

Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift teases out the role of destination as we organize our selves and cities.  Knowing where we are going does not mean we know exactly how we will get there and this compels a different way of being and thinking. It will take practice.

Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds explores the role of bravery and risk as well stand at the threshold of organizing ourselves for possibility to emerge.

Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibility wraps up Part Two of Nest City, reconnecting Chapters 4-6 to our social and physical habitat.  The quality of this relationship has an impact on our abilities to release our fullest potential.


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Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.