Our impulse to thrive in cities

I am at the end of Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse.  Beginning with my June 13, 2012 post, Pause for evolutionary understanding, I asked this question: where do we need to put our attention to ride out our evolutionary burst successfully?

To begin, I explored some theoretical frameworks to shed some light on our evolutionary relationship with cities.  I looked first at Spiral Dynamics with a primer,  the principles that frame the Spiral and the conditions that guide evolutionary expansion.   We grow and develop – evolve – in response to our life conditions.  We evolve with our habitat in all aspects of our lives.  We have within us an evolutionary impulse to thrive.

From this point, I choose to explore Dr. Marilyn Hamilton’s 12 evolutionary intelligences one at a time.  As I concluded this process, I realized that I can summarize these 12 evolutionary intelligences in one sentence:

Seeing the whole city as alive, evolving wholes that need nourishment allows us to navigate toward cities that serve citizens well, and citizens that serve cities well.  

We see the whole city with integral maps, such as the nesting holarchy of city systems and Spiral Dynamics integralthe four quadrants and scalar, fractal relationships.  The four integral quadrants of the city allow us to see the city’s inner intelligence (our conscious capacity and psychological well-being), outer intelligence (embodying right action and biological well-being), building intelligence (creating structures that flex and flow, and our social well-being) and cultural intelligence (feeding each other and cultural well-being).

Thinking of cities as alive draws on our ecosphere intelligence and our living intelligence.  Seeing cities as evolving wholes draws on our emerging intelligence and our evolving intelligence.  And just like any living entity, cities need nourishment.  Cities and citizens thrive with inquiry intelligence and meshworking intelligence.

Our navigating intelligence allows us to declare a destination and notice if we are on track.  Ultimately, I believe we are aiming for cities that serve citizens well – and citizens that serve cities well.

This work is about thriving.  This is work that never ends.


This post wraps up Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse AND it also wraps up the first Part of Nest City.  Part One – City Patterns has looked at three impulses in the human species: the city impulse, the planning impulse and the thriving impulse. My next post will recap the patterns in our relationship with cities before switching gears and tackling how we can organize ourselves, and our nest cities, for emergence.


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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.


Navigating for settlement habitat

Figure 1 - The Skyline Trail (Photo Credit - B. Sanders)

I just got back to civilization yesterday afternoon after spending four days in the backcountry hiking Skyline Trail near Jasper, Canada.  We hiked 46 km in varied mountain terrain – up an old fire road, around mountains, over mountains, through mountain passes, down into valleys, through alpine meadows and a 4.5 km stretch simply along the skyline with a 360 degree view of of the Canadian Rockies.

I was far removed from the city, yet one simple, familiar premise about cities kept popping up in my mind as we hiked: humans settle where the habitat is suitable.

The hikers:  We were two families of four.  Eight of us ranging from grade 4 to early forties.  We chose to take three or four days for the hike.  Many hikers take two or three days; we met a running group who were doing the trail in one day.  We gave ourselves the option to spend an extra night and have a fourth day in case we needed (which is what we did).

Our navigation aids:  We travelled without GPS.  We knew the trail would be obvious.  We also knew there would be people on the trail with information on the trail ahead of us.  We had good topographical maps so we could monitor landmarks and determine our general position.

Our challenge:  We did not know exactly where the camps were located.  None of the maps we could find showed precisely where the ‘settlements’ were.  We knew how far to hike to get to each campsite, but we had no way to measure specifically how far we had hiked and how far we had to go.  On relatively flat terrain, we know we move at about 3 km / hour, including a break.  We were travelling very irregular terrain and our time estimates for distance were off.  Signage with distances to campsites were only at campsites, not in between.  Our challenge was when we were getting tired we needed to know how much farther we had to go.

Then we started noticing the characteristics of the campsites we had seen so for – these were the criteria that gave us clues about how to look for the next campsite for which we so desperately longed.   We grew new navigational antennae…

Figure 2 - Curator Lake from the Notch (Photo Credit: B. Sanders)

Campsite criteria:  As we came through the Notch and looked out over Curator Lake, we were ready to quit for the day. We were tired and we had no idea how far we had to go before we could stop for the day.  The pass on the horizon, just right of center in Figure 2, was part of tomorrow’s trek.  Just above Curator lake, in Figure 2, is a green area.  We made the correct assumption that somewhere in there we would find our campsite.  The vast majority of the terrain was not suitable for any kind of temporary settlement.  This green area off in the distance was the only place we could see that met campsite criteria:

  1. An easily accessible water source
  2. Protection from the elements
  3. Land suitable for setting up shelter (tents)
Figure 3 - Campsite organizing (Photo Credit: B. Sanders)

Campsite design:  Here what we noticed about how each campsite was organized:

  1. A place to set up shelter
  2. A place to cook and store food
  3. A place for human waste (toilet)
The trail and the campsites are described by Parks Canada as primitive.  These are very basic places to settle for a bit and they are fully in relationship with the surrounding habitat.  The way the sites are organized are for primarily the safety of hikers – the places we prepare and store our food are entirely separate from where we will spend the night.  This is for our safety and the wildlife.
A suitable settlement takes into account its surroundings – its habitat – and the needs of the settlers.  In today’s life conditions, we are not looking to establish new settlements.  We are recalibrating our settlements – our cities – to suit our needs. Increasingly, we are are again taking into account our relationship with our surrounding habitat.  We are making our way toward suitable settlements and finding new ways of navigating that will ensure we reach this goal.  We just need to know what we are aiming for.
My next post will put me back on track with my exploration of 12 evolutionary intelligences in our city life.




Feedback for purposeful navigation

Over the course of several posts I have been exploring, one by one, the 12 evolutionary intelligences for cities proposed by Marilyn Hamilton.  I have three left.  Today’s post is about navigating intelligence: whole-system feedback processes.

As I have been exploring the qualities of cities and what drives their evolution, there is one very clear pattern: feedback.  Feedback ensures that we are able to know and understand our world, and this is a very important factor when we consider that our world is always changing.  It is crucial that we understand the changes that are taking place, understand the adjustments that are needed, make those adjustments and confirm if the adjustments have the desired effect.  None of this is possible without feedback.

My view of how cities work (and evolve) looks like this:

Our work, our constant efforts to think, make and do new things, drives our economic life and is, in fact, the force that creates cities.  This takes place in the context of our physical habitat.  Cities start where they make sense, where there is water, shelter, food and a resource on which to build an economy.  As the settlement grows, our work also becomes the physical making of the city.  Our social habitat is the glue – it is where, and through which, feedback travels, telling us when times are changing and new methods of farming are needed, or that communication via computers is possible, etc.

Feedback loops are absolutely critical in the relationship between humans and our habitat.  The quality of our habitat depends on it.  The quality of our lives depends on it.  Our ability to thrive depends on it.

We are moving into a new era where the possibilities of having the means to monitor how are cities are doing is totally possible.  Cities I worked with several years ago slaved to have performance indicators to tell them how there were doing in relation to housing, water quality, education, etc.  But it was hard to get that data and confirm that it was accurate and politically defensible.  As data becomes more and more open, there will be more and more citizens and organizations examining the dynamics of their cities and pointing out what works and what does not.  A new era of noticing city dynamics is soon upon us.  A new era of feedback on how well our cities serve us is coming.

Here is  nifty 5 minute video on Analytics 101 you might find helpful.  As you listen, think about how the vast amount of digital data can help us create savvy cities.  For example, Daniel Haight, founder of Darkhorse Analytics, found that closing emergency service stations in cities results in better service.  There is insight in data, should we choose to look and ask questions.

There is insight in data, and we now have an abundance of data and abundant access to data.  The next question is what we hope to do with the data we have.  What questions should we ask?  What insight do we want and need?  Where do we want to go with our cities (ie purpose)?  What do we need more of to get there?

This whole business if feedback requires us to be prepared to ask questions and receive answers.  And also prepared to respond as needed. It requires bravery and courage.  It is a necessary skill to ensure that we are able to navigate our way to cities that serve citizens well.  The hard part will be articulating the purpose of our cities – our destination – and what success looks like.  Then we will be equipped to navigate our world and dynamically steer our cities into the future.

My next post will focus on living intelligence and the insight of life cycles in cities.


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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

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

Conscious capacity – a city intelligence

I began this series of posts on evolutionary intelligences with integral intelligence (part 1 and part 2).  In these two parts, four maps were shared that help us see our cities as wholes.  One of those maps was the integral map, shown like this (illustrated by Brandy Agerbeck):

This, and the next three posts, will each focus on one of these quadrants, as applied to the city.  Author Marilyn Hamilton calls this Integral City (her book, her website).  For our purposes, imagine the four quadrants like this:

Four of the evolutionary intelligences identified by Hamilton are from the vantage point of each of the four quadrants.  Today, we look at the upper left – inner intelligence.

As we explored emerging intelligence, I made the case that the city is alive.  Alive also means consciousness, a key aspect to Hamilton’s inner intelligence.  When exploring emerging intelligence, I also introduced the notion of the city as a whole system made up of smaller whole systems, such as individuals, families, neighbourhoods, organizations, etc.  Each of these whole systems are holons, each with a conscious intention.  From the vantage point on inner intelligence, Hamilton states that “individual citizen attention and citizen intention lie at the heart of the intelligent city and at the center of the city’s capacity to sustain itself [1].”

It is from our inner intelligence, that together, as a social holon, citizens of a city discern purpose.  Again, Hamilton: “For a city to function optimally, its citizens need to practise, manage and lead from a sense of purpose in their collective lives.  Such an awareness could coalesce the intention of all learning systems with the relevant application of resources in the city [2].”

As we choose to live collectively in the city, we do so with purpose – to create the conditions for us to thrive.  And the very purpose we see for our cities evolves along with us.  It emerges.  Remember the purposes of the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and how we conceive the purpose for the city is in relation to our life conditions.  We evolve and what we need from our cities also evolves.

City Purposes

What we need form our cities comes from the inner intelligence of our individual intentions.  In the holon of the city, this is the intelligence of collective citizenship.   This collective sense of purpose of the city is actually a big mess.  “A citizen in any given city will hold a spectrum of values to which she pays attention and for which she will form intentions and purposes [3].”  Compound this with all the citizens of a city and the values and intentions and purposes end up being potentially quite diffused.  Yet, as Hamilton points out, when enough people share their dreams the cities vision, or mission, or purpose can emerge.  It emerges from the inner intelligence of citizenship.

Our inner intelligence is growing.  Our conscious capacity is growing. As we grow and evolve with our cities we learn new capacities at every turn.  We are learning to grow our capacities to be conscious of our habitat and respond appropriately.  Our inner intelligence is growing so we can be the citizens our cities need.  

My next post will explore outer intelligence, the upper right quadrant, and our capacity to ’embody right action.’


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

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[1] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 102

[2] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 105

[3] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 111

Emerging intelligence of the city

This post is the 5th in a series outlining Marilyn Hamilton’s 12 evolutionary intelligences.  We have seen how integral intelligence and ecosphere intelligence are crucial to the successful evolution of cities.  Both of these intelligences, for Hamilton, are critical to learning a new language about cities that helps us contemplate cities as whole systems of integral systems.

Emerging intelligence is about seeing wholeness and aliveness in the city.  It is also about looking for more than we usually see.

In this post, I will highlight the sense Hamilton makes of this form of intelligence and reveal the sense that I make about how this intelligence shapes our work in and for cities and citizens.

First, consider that cities are alive.  Hamilton draws on scientists such as Fritjof Capra (his book Web of Life), and what he tells us about the qualities of aliveness.  To be alive means that a system:

  1. survives,
  2. connects to its environment, and
  3. regenerates
Reflecting on my previous blogs, I can see that cities as systems behave this way.  So let’s contemplate each of these three elements of the city as a system.

The city survives

Each city is a whole system that survives.  Cities have survived for many generations, decades, centuries and millennia. If it survives, it is alive.  It is, as a system, also an alive ‘whole’.  Another scientist comes into Hamilton’s view: Arthur Koestler, who coined the term ‘holon‘ to describe a whole system.   Each whole is a holon.  The holons of the city are articulated in Hamilton’s nested holarchy of city systems.

The city, as a holon, is made of other several smaller wholes, or holons.  Each their own whole, identifiable system.  Seeing the city this way it is easy to discern what Hamilton calls the “massive interconnections” between the holons that make up a city.  It is a series of relationships that are both dynamic and stable.
The alive city is not made up of parts that can be easily disassembled and assembled.  The city is “a whole system of the human species that has characteristics as a whole that transcend but include communities, organizations, groups, families and individuals and the built environment that we have created to contain us [1].”  Cities are alive because they are made of wholes that are alive.

The city connects to its environment

Hamilton astutely ascertains that the second quality of aliveness is really about adaptiveness. Cities are very connected to habitat; their existence relies on our ecosphere intelligence.   As I explored in Chapter 1, everything we think, make and do is our work, our economic life, and it is always in response to the changing conditions around us.  In particular the physical conditions we are given or created by us.  We are the mechanism by which cities adjust.  As individuals adapt to internal and external life conditions, so too our neighbourhoods and cities[2].  In part and in whole, citizens and city aim to survive and we regularly adapt to ensure our survival.
This back and forth relationship between ourselves and our habitat is what creates our resilience – in ourselves and our cities.  Our adaptiveness is our “capacity to survive under conditions of stress [3].”  This back and forth is also what allows evolution to emerge.

The city regenerates

Our evolving relationship with our city habitat also results in the regeneration of our cities.  Our internal relationships with each other, the makers of cities in all our wholes, are what create city regeneration: “regeneration occurs through inner renewal, shared learning and teaching and coaching others in roles, competencies and capacities, inevitably in collective groupings [4].”  The city’s adaptiveness depends on the adaptiveness of the holons that make up the city.

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Emergence is about the creation of new capacities to respond appropriately to the changing conditions around us.  Hamilton questions whether the “emerging city” might have more traction than the “sustainable city”.  It just might, particularly when “emerging” connotes adaptiveness.  But this is new, unfamiliar language.  “Sustainable Development” was also at one time new, unfamiliar language, but perhaps it isn’t about naming the language just yet.
Our work is about naming the intention – to be keenly adaptive to our changing conditions.  Hamilton issues a more distinct intention than this: “to add value to life on Earth that is both sustainable (not over-using resources) adn emergent (always creating new capacities from existing resources) [5].”  This is our emerging intelligence.  It is what allows us to thrive.
My next post take a closer look at first of the four quadrants of integral theory applied to the city: inner intelligence and conscious capacity.  

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


[1]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 30-31

[2]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 28-33

[3]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 35

[4]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 37

[5]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 49


Evolving ecosphere intelligence

Ecosphere intelligence is both our ability to locate human settlements in appropriate locations and our ability to shift and to forever adjust with changing conditions to our habitat.  As a species, we clearly exhibit this intelligence as we continue our migration across the planet and into cities.  (Please see early Nest City posts: Are people growing cities or are cities growing people? and Driven to do more than merely survive.)

At every turn, we have chosen places to settle depending on geography, for example.  These choices have life and death results.  The choice to settle in St. John’s, Newfoundland had everything to do with ecosphere intelligence: an ice-free, protected harbour at the eastern most point of NorthAmerica with abundant fish stocks.   Much as Jane Jacobs wrote, Hamilton notes that our cities have begun in relationship with their specific physical habitat.  We choose places to settle because they make sense.  This relationship with our habitat continues, even if we have stopped noticing.  At every turn our cities are adjusting:“…the stability of our cities is forever dynamic.”[1].

Figure A - City Dynamic

Our ecosphere intelligence applies both to establishment of a settlement and to a city’s ongoing existence. The fundamental relationship is between everything we do – our work – and our habitat (Figure A – City Dynamic).  Cities are the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.

To continue, our cities need quality feedback from our habitat to ensure that we are able to adjust.   The quality of the relationship between our economic life – our work- with our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  The feedback loops within this dynamic are what give us our ecosphere intelligence.   Without the feedback, we do not have this intelligence.

Figure B - City Dynamic (with feedback activity)

Here is a big question – How do we organize for ongoing, quality feedback for our cities?  the good news is that we already know how to do this.  We have been doing this for thousands of years.  Every time, as a species, we set up a new settlement and every time that settlement has shifted to accommodate changing conditions, we exhibit this intelligence.  We adjust to the changing weather conditions over the short and the long term.  We adjust to the physical changes we ourselves make to our habitat and we keep growing.  We know how to do this.

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This post is the third instalment in a series of posts about Marilyn Hamilton’s 12 evolutionary intelligences for the Integral City.  The first two posts outlined four ways of looking at cities as whole human systems: integral intelligence part 1 and part 2. The four integral maps in these posts are critical to understand the future development of our ecosphere intelligence.  Our cities are becoming more complex, which is in itself a life condition to which we have to respond.  Our usual ways of obtaining feedback about our cities are of an era of earlier complexity.  Think about the census as opposed to the practice of analytics now, where data is everywhere. more and more open to the public.  Public decision-making is becoming more public.

I don’t know what ecosphere intelligence will look like in a few short years, but I know we will use it.  It’s what we do.  As we organize ourselves in cities, we will use this data to create feedback loops to form and  inform our decision-making in cities.  It is time to create the conditions for us to dynamically steer our cities to the future.  This is what it will take to create cities that serve us well: being in tune with our habitat and forever evolving with our habitat.  

Tomorrow’s post is about Emerging Intelligence – seeing wholeness and aliveness in the city

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

[1]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 16




Integral intelligence for the city – part 1

Integral intelligence is about charting patterns.  Since I began blogging Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities on May 1, 2012 (click here for the first blog), I have used three of the four integral maps introduced by Marilyn Hamilton in her body of work called Integral City (here are links to her book and website).

The four integral maps to look at cities in a whole, integrated fashion are:

  1. The nested holarchy of city systems
  2. Spiral Dynamics – the complex adaptive structures of city change
  3. The integral map
  4. The scalar, fractal relationship of micro, meso, macro human systems
In this post, I will outline the first two maps. The next two will be outlined in my next post on Monday.

1.  Nested Hierarchy of City Systems

Figure A – Nested Holarchy of City Systems

I first introduced the nested holarchy of city systems when describing the role of work and our work life as the evolutionary spark that began our migration across the planet, then into cities, and the subsequent growth of our cities.  We are driven to do more than merely survive, so we constantly find ways to think, make and do new things.  The result is that we change our habitat along the way – we create settlements and cities (and many other things that physically change our habitat).  More importantly, our work, at every scale in the city, creates the conditions for even more ways of thinking, making and doing new things: innovation.  Our cities are engines of innovation, which means that  the development of cities is a survival skill.

For Hamilton, to look at a city as whole we must contemplate the city as a human system, which is comprised of a nest of systems, each of which are themselves whole.  Each of which has its own level of complexity that includes the preceding “smaller” systems.

The value of this map is that at minimum, it reminds us to thing of city life at more than one scale.  It also reminds us that to work at any scale, we must also work with the systems that make up that system.  If working at the neighbourhood scale (5), then we must also work at the individual, family/clan, group, organizational scales as well.

Hamilton has made a recent blog post on this if you are interested.  Other Nest City posts that include this map are: Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitatWork at scale to serve the city, and The city as a nest.

2.  Spiral Dynamics – integral

Figure B – Spiral Purposes of Cities

The Nest City blog next introduced Spiral Dynamics as a means to map the evolution of the purpose of cities.  A series of posts (Is an unplanned city part 1part 2part 3 and part 4) tell the story of St. John’s, Newfoundland and reveal how as the levels of complexity change (as the scales of system in the nested holarchy of city systems get larger), we adapt to provide structures that support new levels of complexity.  As the  purpose of a human settlement evolves, we shift and adjust our values and priorities to organize ourselves in response to changing conditions.  These posts are a window into how the Spiral shows up in the city.

Three additional posts outline how the Spiral works: A primer on the emerging spiral7 principles frame the emerging spiral, and Conditions for evolutionary expansion.

The value of this map is not just in the map itself.  The places on the map tell us about the values of that spot, and the things that motivate people and systems from that spot.  This understanding has huge implications for designing and communication with city systems.

The additional value of this frame is the understanding  that movement up or down the spiral is always in response to life conditions – our habitat.  This is so critical for cities – for our cities are our habitat, made by us.

Both of these maps are intensely connected to our drive to thrive in cities.  The nested holarchy reminds us that cities are a systems made of systems and part of larger, expanding systems.  Moreover, as we build our cities we are creating the conditions for our own movement up the Spiral.  We are creating the conditions for our own evolution.  

The next post will address the two remaining maps of integral intelligence: the integral map, and scalar, fractal relationships.  

7 principles frame the emerging spiral

New value systems are emerging as each of us as individuals, and in our city life, evolve.  In my last post, A primer on the emerging spiral, I described Spiral Dynamics, a way of seeing the pattern in our emerging value systems.  Seven principles describe the core intelligence of Spiral Dynamics and frame the emergence of new patterns, paradigms, theories, etc.  As Spiral Dynamics authors Beck and Cowan put it, the principles uncover the deepest trends that generate trends.

The seven principles are[1]:

1.  Humans are able to create new vMEMES.  Looking back over the history of the human species, Beck and Cowan track the emergence of each vMEME[2]: 50,000 years ago PURPLE emerged as we formed tribes, experienced magic, art and spirits.  10,000 years ago the RED world emerged with warlords, conquest and discovery.  5000 years ago BLUE emerged with literature, monotheism and purpose.  1000 years ago ORANGE mobility, individualism and economics came to the fore.  150 years ago the GREEN vMEME emerged as human rights, liberty and collectivism.  YELLOW emerged 50 years ago with complexity, chaos and interconnections.  TURQUOISE emerged 30 years ago with a new discourse on globalism, eco-consciuosness and patterns.

2.  Life conditions awaken vMEMES.  VMEMES are a product of our interaction with the life conditions that we face in the world.  This is not a scripted biology, but rather a result of dynamic interaction between our internal states and our external world.  The age we live in, the place we live in, the problems we face and the social circumstances we find ourselves in shape our beliefs, ideas and values.  For example:

3.  vMEMES alternate between ‘me’ and ‘we’ focus.  Imagine a pendulum that swings between two poles.  As the pendulum approaches each pole, it generates life conditions that can only be addressed with solutions from the other.  Here are the two poles and their characteristics:

4.  vMEMES emerge in waves.  Beck and Cowan describe this best: “New vMEME systems come in like waves to a beach.  Each has its own ascending surge… At the same time, each also overlaps the receding waves of the previous system as they face.  Sometimes the interference generated as the new systems compete in their ascendancies slows the overall Spiral’s momentum, even shoving it backwards.  At other times, the vMEME waves resonate and reinforce one another to speed the evolution of thinking along.”[3]
5. Higher levels of complexity emerge along the Spiral.  There are four characteristics[4] of this flow:
  • Expansion of psychological space – toward more multifaceted personalities, diverse organizational forms, and a much more complicated planet
  • Expansion of conceptual space – toward bigger picture views, wider span on influence, and extended time frames
  • A progressive increase of alternatives – toward more choices to make from a broader menu of ways to do a thing
  • A progressive increase in degrees of individual freedom – toward more possibilities in terms of how to be, ways to display emotions, acceptable kinds of human interrelationships
6.  vMEMES co-exist.  We have the capacity to think in many different ways about many different things all at the same time. While I may be very competitive (RED) on the soccer field, I am also conscious and respectful of the rules (BLUE) and the diversity of skills (GREEN) of my teammates.  I notice the strategic (ORANGE) choices our coach makes about who plays where, how and when on the field, and I appreciate the sense of belonging we have created as a team (PURPLE).  How bright each of these vMEMES shine depends on the life conditions – at a game, RED will be brightest.  As I write, PURPLE is surging as I notice the fond connection I have with my teammates.
7.  There is a momentous leap after the first 6 tiers.  The first six vMEMES, BEIGE through GREEN, are the culmination of our primate nature.  They are the 1st  tier of human development and focus on human subsistence.   The 1sttier vMEMES have very little tolerance for each other.  They conflict and clash, and these are the seismic battles we experience in the world.The leap to the 2nd tier offers a shift from subsistence to ‘being’ – which means appreciating the wisdom of each of the first six vMEMES.  Beck and Cowan advise that the momentous leap is characterized by a dropping away of fears and compulsion, an increase in conceptual space, an ability to learn a great deal from many sources, and a trend toward getting much more done with much less energy or resources.[5]  The words of Clare Graves:
After being hobbled by the more narrow animal-like needs, by the imperative need for sustenance [BEIGE], the fear of spirits [PURPLE] and other predatory men [RED], by the fear of trespass upon the ordained order [BLUE], by the fear of his greediness [ORANGE], and the fear of social disapproval [GREEN], suddenly human cognition is free.  Now with his energies free for cognitive activation, man focuses upon his self and his world [YELLOW, TURQUOISE, etc.].[6]

Summary of the principles

The seven principles provide insight into how the Spiral works.  We are able to create new vMEMES and we do so in response to our life conditions – our habitat.  As we do, the focus of the vMEMES swing back and forth between ‘me’ and ‘we’.  New vMEMES arrive like waves on a beach – always in relation to the other waves – with each wave upward bringing a high level of complexity.  As these vMEMES awaken, all the previous vMEMES  remain in tact.  And until such time that a momentous leap is made from the sixth (GREEN) to the seventh (YELLOW) level, where we recognize the value of each perspective, there is great conflict between the vMEMES.
The emerging value systems highlighted by the Spiral are so clear in city life at many scales – self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, province, nation, continent, world.  Readers interested in an example may be interested in the series of posts on St. John’s, Newfoundland:  Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.  In the meantime, the next post will look at how we move up and down the Spiral.


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 50-67

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 50-51

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 59

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 62

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 66

[6]   Clare Graves as cited by Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 274.  Graves’ use of the masculine in this explanation is indicative of his life conditions and the times.



A primer on the emerging spiral

Figure 1 - City Purposes (St. John's)

There is a pattern in human activity that reveals how our intelligence evolves (Figure 1).  The story of St. John’s emergence as a city in Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse highlights this evolution in the creation of a city.  The purpose of this post is to provide a primer in one way of thinking of evolving intelligence: Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics

Imagine the double-helix spiral of our DNA and the work that has been done to catalogue our genes – the codes that guide our physical being. Imagine a similar spiral with our cultural codes: our organizing principles.

Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, drawing on the work of Clare Graves in the 1970s, have revealed how the organizing principles emerge in humans, and how they glue together our social systems. This area of work is called Spiral Dynamics.  The organizing principles are found in levels of value systems that emerge as we evolve.  They are called value memes, or vMEMES for short (rhymes with genes), as coined by Richard Dawkins.

vMEMES are codes, or behavioural instructions that are passed on from generation to the next, social artifacts, and value-laden symbols that glue together social systems.[1]  Beck and Cowan:

These vMEMES include instructions for our world views, assumptions about how everything works, and the rationale for decisions we make.[2] 

We evolve and grow through these vMEMES – as individuals, as families, cultures, workplaces, cities, nations and as a species. Here is a summary of the eight vMEMES that have appeared to date in humans – our ideas and beliefs gather around each of these:

The spiral of city purposes in Figure 1 is an interpretation of the vMEMES described above. Here is another take on the spiral with some key words you will recognize as the structures and processes associated with ways of thinking at different levels of the spiral:


The first six vMEMES, BEIGE through GREEN, form the first tier of value codes.  Their focus is subsistence.  Very simply: BEIGE, is explicitly about surviving.  When our basic needs are met, in PURPLE we survive together and make sense of the magical world in groups.  When resources become scarce, our groups compete for independence (RED).  When we recognize that stability is needed, BLUE surfaces and we establish institutions, protocols and rules with purpose.  When those rules get in the way, ORANGE shows up as an entrepreneurial, creative spirit.  When uncomfortable with achievement orientation of ORANGE, GREEN emerges and seeks caring and socially responsible communities.

These first six vMEMES have very little tolerance for each other; we see great conflict between the values of competition and community, or the power of the individual vs the role of the collective.  A second tier of  vMEMES (YELLOW, TURQUOISE) surfaces when we desire to integrate the first six.

It is critical to note that none of these vMEMES are better than another.  They simply reflect different perspectives on what the world  and its complexity .[3]  Each vMEME builds on the one(s) before.  Each building block arrives as we adjust to new levels of complexity. Each transcends and includes the previous vMEMES, responding to increased complexity in the world, meaning that the building blocks already created remain in us.

vMEMES are types of thinking in us, not types of us.[4]  As a body of work, Spiral Dynamics notices the patterns in human development, and recognizing the pattern allows for deeper views of the role of cities – and ourselves – in human development.

How does the Spiral work?  The next post will describe seven principles that frame the emergence of new patterns.  As Beck and Cowan put it, the trends that generate trends…


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 31

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 32

[3]   Beck and Cowan,  Spiral Dynamics,p. 50

[4]   Beck and Cowan,  Spiral Dynamics,p. 63

 Additional Reading: