Tension – evolutionary driver of cities


When I have an uneasy feeling, my being is aware of something whether I am conscious of it or not.  If unconscious to what bothers me I end up avoiding the natural itch within me to do what I know I ought to do, or be the way I really want to be.  I may be able to avoid it for ever, or something just my jolt me to see fully the tension I am experiencing.

Tension is often a gulf between what I know I ought to do and what I actually do. This phenomenon is called akrasia (for more see my last post, our cities are itching for improvement.)  Feeling uneasy is often a clue that akrasia is alive and well.  I have a choice about how much attention to put to that tension.

So what is the nature of the tension that forms the akratic gulf?

  1. Living with the akratic gap is unavoidable.  We operate in a world where we regularly grapple with what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.
  2. Living with akrasia is hard.  Akrasia is unavoidable for most of us – if we are seeking improvement of some kind.  The result is that there are always, everywhere, ways and places that things could be better and are not.  This is a reality that can be hard to live with.  Akratic gulfs are everywhere, so our relationship with akrasia is what matters.  It can be friend or foe.
  3. Living with akrasia means accepting vulnerability.  As we choose to explore what bothers us, we welcome unwanted thoughts.  They are typically unwanted because they threaten the status quo, but deep down they signal what is really wanted.
  4. Akrasia can serve or paralyze.  We can beat ourselves up about what we don’t do, or we can explore what is wanting to emerge as a result of discomfort.  The choice is ours.
  5. It’s not about getting rid of the itch.  The best way to live with akrasia is to scratch from time to time.  Some itches are best left alone because scratching can sometimes cause more itch.  It is a decision to be taken seriously, considering how much more itchiness can be tolerated.
  6. Akrasia is about questions, not answers.  Exploring the gulf between what I know I ought to do and what I actually do is not a linear exploration where questions have immediate answers.  Or any answers, for that matter.  An answer, whether given to me or provided by me, is really a way for me to avoid the deeper questions that will lead to more itch and deeper exploration.  Living with akrasia is a way of being where asking and exploring questions are primary.
  7. Akrasia pulls us along evolutionary path.  As we constantly strive for improvement in self and in our collective endeavours, we are stepping individually and collectively into the future we create for ourselves.

Exploring the tension in our world is a purposeful act of being self-aware and awake to what is happening with self and around self.  This exploration is tough for each of us individually.  It is infinitely more challenging at larger scales of social systems, for the gap is really a span as wide as our collective consciousness.  Imagine a canyon, with a city’s action on one side and what we know we ought to do at the other side.  On the ‘ought’ side, however, there are many perspectives on what that should be.  The gulf is small for some and massive for many others and we discuss and debate what we should do.  The actual span of the collective gulf is as wide as the perspectives within the collective.

As individuals, it is imperative that we explore the gulfs in our lives constructively and in a supportive fashion, or they will paralyze us.  And the only way for our cities to explore their gulfs well is if there are enough of us with the ability to do this for our selves.  This is learning journey for cities.  It is not a simple matter of jumping on a bus and giving the driver directions.  We do not know exactly where we are going.  We have to figure it out yet.  And we have such varied perspectives on this that it is quite messy.

As we steer our lives as individuals, families, organizations, neighbourhoods, cities and civilization, we need to be well with each other, consciously choosing how to live with each other and our tensions.  The gulfs between us and with us do not have to be a hindrance.  They can serve us, for the tension we experience is what drives our economic life and the very creation and evolution of our cities.

My next post will explore ‘itchy indicators’, the things that tell us when something is bothering us.  

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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

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.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.


Our cities are itching for improvement


At the heart of our impulse to thrive (Chapter 3), is the essential itch in us all – to improve our quality of life.  What triggers this impulse is what makes us uneasy on the journey of life as individuals, as cities and as a planet of cities.

We are uneasy when we catch a glimpse of something that is wrong, especially when we see how that something could be better and some kind of change is needed.  We are uneasy when we see that there is room and possibility for improvement.  We are endlessly aiming to close the gap between what we have and what we would like, what we actually do and what we would like to do, what we are and what we would like to be.

The gulf between what we know we ought to do, and what we actually do is called akrasia.  This never-ending gulf is the driver of improvement and it requires that we live with unease and consciously allow our unease to be full of meaning.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines akrasia:

The Greek word ‘akrasia’ is usually said to translate literally as ‘lack of self-control’, but it has come to be used as a general term for the phenomenon known as weakness of will, or incontinence, the disposition to act contrary to one’s own considered judgement about what it is best to do.  

The reasons for akrasia vary. Philosopher Donald Davidson notes that knowing that if A is better than B, and that if B is chosen, it can be because of lack of will, or due to consideration of a subset of consideration, not an all-things-considered judgement.  It can also be a result of conflict between reason and emotion (see this Wikipedia page on Akrasia for more).  Psychologist George Ainslie notes that akrasia can be a result of hyperbolic discounting; we make different choices depending on our proximity to a reward.

Another philospher, Amelie Rorty, see four forms of akrasia: akrasia of direction or aim, of interpretation, of irrationality, of character.  While we may ‘suffer’ from akrasia, it is actually serving us in a most essential way.  It is at the heart of  our evolutionary impulse to thrive.  It is what compels us to improve our work, which is at the heart of the impulse that fuels our evolution and the very creation and recreation of cities.

Regardless of definition or interpretation of akrasia, we experience a never-ending quest to cross (or close) the gulf between where we are and where we want to be.  Between what we see and what more there is to see.  Between what we understand and what more there is to understand.  Between who we are and who we wish to be.

Our reality is that as soon as we cross the gulf we see another.  This fuels our unease in the world.  This is why consciously embarking on a learning journey alongside our trek to a destination is so critical.  We need to be well individually and collectively to ensure we find a chosen destination.


It is not enough to simply say where we want to go and start travelling; that avoids the unease and discomfort.  It is time recognize that it is hard work travelling together and learn how to learn along the way.  In this way, we can take advantage of the akratic gap, rather than be paralyzed and fearful of uncertain future.  Because our cities are literally itching for improvement.

My next post will explore the role of the akratic gap in the city journey. 


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

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.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.