What is the meta for?


To get where we want to go, a clear purpose – our sense of direction – is everything. If we don’t know where we are going, and why were are going there, anywhere will do.

Let’s use the metaphor of a city bike tour. The organizers have come together because they know they want to offer something. Their overall purpose is to offer an experience that allows citizens to see their city in a new way, to feel more connected to the city. They imagine that after the bike tour, the impact on citizens is inspiration to find new ways to participate in their city, to simply enjoy it and work to improve it. To pull off a good event, the organizers then need to dig deeper, more specifically, into the purposes of the bike tour, and the purposes of the events that will happen along the way. They have a few options.

They could explore the bike trails along the river the city:


They could visit the best three diners in the city:


They could visit the top four parks:


They could simply head out, unsure of what they would do:


There is nothing wrong with any of the above options; they all meet the overall, ‘intrinsic’ purpose of going on a bike tour to see the city in new ways. There is another layer of purposes that needs to be held: the instrumental purposes of each stop along the way. Once they are known, they will start a dance with the overall purpose and they inform each other. For Steve McIntosh, intrinsic and instrumental purposes are the nature of evolutionary progress. This dynamic takes place even when designing a bike tour of the city.

Knowing what the purpose of each stop along the way is instrumental. If unknown, we lose the overall purpose.

Intrinsic and instrumental purposes.003

Designing a process without purpose in mind – whether the overall or instrumental purposes of the stops along the way – is not design. It is exploration. Both of these are valuable activities – when aligned with purpose. Sometimes exploration is the purpose…


A clear invitation needs clear purposes. 

When the organizers of the bike tour have a clear purposes, they will be able to craft a clear invitation to put out into the world; people to have a clear choice of what kind of bike tour to sign up for. The next layer of purposes are needed – the overall purpose is not enough. For example, for the river valley trail tour, there could be radically different offerings that meet the overall purpose:

  1. Ride the trails of your city river with friends and family. You will have all the support you need along the way, from washrooms, snacks and technical support. Ride the whole thing, or part. The choice is up to you. See the city from a new angle!
  2. Learn about the wild in our city. On our bikes, we will take a day to ride the length of city trails with stops along the way to learn about geologic and natural features of our land from local experts. Lunch and bikes provided.
  3. Explore the wilderness in our city. Bring your journal and your geocaching skills to explore, and navigate, your self and your city. Bring your own lunch and be prepared to look after your own technological troubles. Washrooms will be provided.

The instrumental purposes of each of these invitations are very different. The first is about providing an opportunity for families to explore the river trail system in a relaxed and supportive way. The  second event is about offering a traditional learning environment in the natural habitat, learning specific things about nature in the city from experts. The third is a way for individuals to spend time alone in the valley, learning both about themselves and nature. The instrumental purposes shape the overall purpose.

Each of these invitations has a different vibe to which people respond. Knowing the purposes mean we know what we are inviting.


Why the metaphor?

While designing social social habitats, I find it useful to try metaphors on for size, to tease out purposes. I used the metaphor of a city bike tour to figure out what I had to say about purposes here. (I had an email this morning about organizing a bike tour this am!) It helped me reach for the ‘meta’, high level information I was looking for to inform a discussion in a hosting team I am part of, about the need for purpose to be articulated sooner than later.

Metaphor is a great way to explore and define purpose. And once purpose is known, metaphor is an effective way to test if the design is aligned with purpose, a good way to look sideways at our work. Is the purpose of the bike tour more like a fun run, a traditional classroom, or a personal wilderness learning journey?


A note on designing with purpose vs exploring for purpose.

If we start organizing a bike tour by laying out the routes and sites and people we want to use out before us, and start putting them together in ways that make sense to us, we are exploring. We are figuring out what needs to be figured out and in this journey we may find the purpose of the design, but the purpose comes at the end. What have designed only if what we craft reflects the purpose that came at the end.

There is a big trap in designing social processes: while exploring we may think we are designing and miss knowing purpose, or neglect to test our work against the purpose. If we gather a series of tools and methodologies that feel good together and assemble them into a process, we miss the mark because we have not connected to the purpose of the gathering, and the purposes of each part of the gathering. We can even fall into the trap of naming outcomes that will come from the process and feel good about those. It may look good, and feel good – and be false.

Design takes place when purpose is in mind; activities are chosen because they meet the purpose.


WARNING: Purpose can be hard to find. 

It is tough slogging to find purpose, as though ‘purpose’ is purposely making itself hard to find. That’s because it’s important.

One of the reasons we fall into the trap of thinking we are designing when we are not is because it is easy and familiar. It is easy to pull out the familiar ideas, or the things we are dying to try, lay out all the ideas and put them to work in ways that feel good. And if after our time exploring we nail down the overall purpose of the event, the smaller purposes are then hard to pin down. It seems to never end, but the pursuit of purpose is necessary for the ultimate design to serve well.

I offer this meta view of purpose as a window into intentional design.




Know structural purpose


In the May 15, 2013 edition of Nest City News, I wrote about knowing the purpose for the structures we create for ourselves. If for nothing other than the most practical of reasons, if we don’t know what a structure is for, it won’t do what we want it to.

We have a two-way relationship with the structures we create for ourselves. Just as we create them to serve us, they create us as well. Last month, when I went back to hike the West Coast Trail on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, I noticed key structures placed on the trail to assist our travel over difficult terrain. Ladders help hikers climb ascent and descend the valleys. Cable cars and bridges help hikers cross waterways. Boardwalks help hikers traverse boggy areas. Yet due to disrepair, the boardwalks have strayed from their original purpose:

Scott by deteriorating boardwalk

This boardwalk, put in place to aid travel, is now a hazard. It is slippery and uneven. It is ready to harm the traveller, but what can we do with structures like this?

I noticed five patterns in hikers’ behaviour on the trail:
  1. Walk on it. Not noticing the danger, we risk harm and carry on. This can be conscious and unconscious.
  2. Walk on it carefully, making careful choices about how to use the structure to our benefit while minimizing risk of injury.
  3. Walk beside it, making a new and safer path. Sometimes this means trudging through the mud and meeting the real obstacle face-to-face.
  4. Throw it aside, removing the danger for self and other. It’s pieces might also be useful serving other purposes.
  5. Walk on it to destroy it to a point where there is no structure left – and no hazard. Simply aid in its slow destruction. The risk is injury along the way.

All five patterns have a role to play in our relationships with the structures we live with every day. Each is appropriate in its own way, in its own context.

As I reflect on this specific trail, and our rescue off the trail two years ago after a boardwalk fall and broken leg, the first pattern was not our practice. And in the push to complete the hike we walked on boardwalks carefully and beside them – we did not throw any aside to make the path safer for others behind us. I have to admit we were caught in the momentum of the moment and our immediate task.
Everyday we are in relationship with structure. Structure can take the form of the protocols of family life, the policies in our workplaces, the design of our cities or the laws that govern our expectations of each other as we live increasingly together in cities.

In just the right balance, there is enough chaos to evoke collective wisdom, and enough order to discover wise action. Choosing the right kind – and amount – of structure is a BIG decision that has everything to do with knowing purpose.

Helpful questions to ask of any structure:

  1. What purpose needs to be served by the structure?
  2. What is the minimal structure needed to serve that purpose?

AND specific to any existing structure:

  1. What purpose needs to be served by the structure now?
  2. Does the structure, as it has changed over time, serve today’s purpose? (If no, go to the questions above.)


______ ______ ______

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

______ ______ ______


Who does your city want to be?


Who do you want to be?

~ Rabbi Shmuley Boteach


Hazel realized wearily that Bigwig was probably going to be troublesome.  He was certainly no coward, but he was likely to remain steady only as long as he could see his way clear and be sure of what to do.  To him, perplexity was worse than danger; and when he was perplexed, he usually grew angry.

~ Watership Down, Richard Adams


The exchange that takes place in a city revolves around three elements – self, other and place – at any scale. Just as I need to have a sense of my purpose, so too does my city. As I work toward my purpose, I am in relationship with others and the places around me. Place is the habitat I find myself in, and that too is at scale. It is the office I work in, my home, my block and neighbourhood and city, as well as my country and my planet. At every turn, there is an exchange that takes place between me, others and place.

In a simple statement, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates a pithy question that leads to purpose and destination. This is a question that can be put to me and my city with equal import. Richard Adams articulates the struggle of the human condition when we are unsure of what to do, and the emotional charge embedded in uncertainty. Cities are no different – when we lack a sense of purpose to our cities, we certainly feel the emotional charges. It shows up in our exchanges in others, and the quality of the habitats we build for ourselves.

Here’s a wicked question for you and your city –

Who does your city want to be?

An example of how my city is figuring this out: Make Something Edmonton.

_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

_____ _____ _____


Destination both alive AND adrift


The last series of posts explored the role of destination as we organize ourselves – and our city habitat – for continuous improvement.  In Destination alive or adrift, I proposed to cover the role of ‘purpose’ in a city, what makes a city alive, how we can tell when we are adrift, and the connection between individual work and city purpose. All of this to reveal why our work matters.

Cities are alive with purpose. Higher order purposes give us something to latch onto, allowing us to focus, learn and choose. Higher order purposes are not precisely planned, but we do have an opportunity to shape them because the purpose of evolution is evolving. We are moved to improve our conditions and this takes place in a self-other dialectic; we pursue self-improvement and give to the wider community at the same time. This is the evolutionary influence at work. Evolution has a purpose that is co-created by the agency of humanity.

This evolutionary impulse is alive and adrift. It is very alive in each of us, and the collectives of which we are each part, yet since we don’t know the purpose of evolution, which is itself evolving, things are also adrift. As Steve McIntosh put it, evolution “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 (p. 161).”  The highest order purpose, or destination, can not quite be defined because it is alive.

The city’s purpose, as it is for each of us, is survival and improvement. At every turn, we aim to survive and improve (see 100 urban trends), which adds up to our continuous attraction to move “toward more complex forms of social organization (McIntosh, p.  146).”  Our impulse to thrive in cities is alive and well, and the result is a nest of city purposes (Figures A and B), at every scale (from individual, to city/region, to planet):

Nest of city purposes - colours ascending order.002.002
Figure A: Next of purposes
Spiral of purposes - 8.005
Figure B: Spiral of purposes

Our short-term destinations and our bigger destinations are connected, with each of us, between each of us, and between each of us and the larger collective. There are scales of purpose in the purposes themselves and the scales of our social organization. The small is connected to the small – and the large.

As we discern that the city’s destination is our own evolving purposes, it necessitates looking at our role – and purpose – in the city. To use Steve McIntosh’s language, each citizen, as a whole evolutionary entity, has intrinsic value. Citizens have value both as a whole, and as a fundamental part of something larger. As a part, it is instrumental. Citizens are of instrumental value to the intrinsic value of the city created by us. Instrumental and intrinsic purposes are evident at scale. The intrinsic value of each citizen is instrumental to the city.

How we show up as citizens, showing up for our quest for survival and continuous improvement, for both self and others, is critical. If I don’t show up, then I affect my personal ability to survive and continuously improve as well as my city’s ability to do the same. Self and the city are only as good as we make them. Everything we do matters. Our cities are as good as we make them.

Destination is simultaneously alive and adrift. It is most alive when we work from our passion, our inner drive to improve. When we catch glimpses of bigger destinations, for both self and the city, our direction, through short-term destinations, is discerned for fleeting moments. Between these fleeting moments, we feel adrift, which is to feel alive.

What is your intrinsic value? 

How are you instrumental to your city?


_____ _____ _____

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.

_____ _____ _____

Further reading…

McIntosh, Steve. Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins




Purpose – planned and not planned


‘Purpose’ has some sort of connection with ‘destination’. Why would you go anywhere without a purpose in mind? Why go to the trouble?

While exploring instrumental and intrinsic purposes in the macro evolution of the human species, based on Steve McIntosh’s work, I realized that citizens are instrumental to the intrinsic city. As I connect this to the destination / journey / emergence Venn diagram (Figure A), I see that there are two ways to look at destination: specific destination and longer-term direction. The difference is subtle and significant.

Destination venn
Figure A

An immediate destination is a concrete goal or objective that has my attention and serves to focus my action. For example, I will run a half marathon this spring on May 19, 2013. This means that I will have to organize myself, my life and my schedule; I have to plan out a training schedule and commit.

I have chosen this sort of destination before, only to be thwarted by injury. I aimed to run a half marathon in February 2011, but in November 2010 I hurt my ankle playing soccer. With the help of my physiotherapist, I adjusted my expectations and my training schedule and still ran the race. I did a lot of cycling, instead of running, to maintain fitness. I reintroduced running slowly, little bits at a time, gradually increasing time running. The race was no longer about a time goal, but simply finishing without harming myself.

When I set my goal, I had no idea what could knock me off course. I learned to shift my destination in response to my life conditions. I recognized that an important part of the journey on the way to destination is that new destinations will emerge. I also recognized that they will only emerge if I am open to learning and adjustment on the way.

I have a new injury to grapple with as I think about the May 19, 2013 half marathon, and a new destination in mind. The purpose of this run is to simply be a destination that serves a larger, overall purpose: my well-being. I can’t define ‘well-being’ well, but I can recognize actions (or destinations) that will move me in that direction.

There are so many different routes to well-being, many of which I have not contemplated as being a part of my life, but could well emerge over time. At 43, with a healthy body, I can be physically active. In my life to come, there will be quite different destinations I will choose. I can not possible imagine, or plan out, how I will achieve well-being. I can look at shorter term destinations and ask if they are consistent with the direction I wish to go.

Short-term destinations lend themselves to being planned; they are linear and rational. Direction is nonlinear, hard to grasp and full of possibility and purpose. Direction unfolds.

We can only plan so much, but we can stop and look at our direction.

What direction are you going? 

What direction are we going?


_____ _____ _____

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.

Instrumental citizens for an intrinsic city


It’s time to boil down the philosophical theory of evolutionary progress and purpose after yesterday’s heavy post on instrumental and intrinsic purpose. What does this ‘big’ thinking mean to how we look our cities and our relationship with them?

Steve McIntosh, on whom I draw heavily for this exploration of purposes at different scales, offers the language of instrumental and intrinsic purposes when looking at evolution at a macro scale. I take some liberties today to think about what this means for our cities. I’m zooming in, perhaps closer than McIntosh would, so the limb I am venturing out on is my own.

Intrinsic and instrumental purposes.003

This diagram is an oversimplification of scales at work in the city, but consider the red circles as citizens and the yellow circle as the city – the habitat we build for ourselves. The yellow circle, the city, is made up of many whole entities, from organizations to families and citizens. An increasing number of cities on Earth now have more than one million whole entities – citizens -in them. (See the post that starts the Nest City book posts: are people growing cities or are cities growing people?)

In our city habitat, the large whole/holon is the city. It is made of millions of smaller wholes/holons that are both wholes and parts at the same time.  If you imagine the red circles as citizens, consider them as whole entities that form part of city. Just as the cells that make up our body are instrumental to our existence, citizens are instrumental to the existence of the city. Without citizens there is no city, and when we change our habits, we change our cities.

Citizens are fundamental to the creation of cities. Cities, in turn, are significant and have an intrinsic, essential value. When we start to notice what the essential value of cities is for us, we start to see a different relationship between us and our city habitat. The essential role of the city is its role in our very evolution; while we create cities they in turn are helping create us. And so on.

Simply by looking at the intrinsic value of cities, our role in them becomes increasingly instrumental. To organize for our own emergence, we need to consciously organize ourselves at the scale of instrumental citizens and an intrinsic city.  Our work at this time is to figure out what it means to consciously play a role in both the well-being of cities and citizens.

If citizens are not well, then our cities can not be well. And if our cities are not well, then we will not be well. It seems easy to recognize this as a vicious circle where we are helpless, but I choose to look at this appreciatively. Our cities emerge from us, we can look at this as a virtuous circle, where we choose to create what we wish to create.

If we are the building blocks for our cities, what kind of building blocks do we choose to be?

What do we choose to build?


_____ _____ _____

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.



Instrumental and intrinsic purposes


The evolutionary pattern of wholes, or holons, is helpful to understand purpose at scale. To explore this, I draw on the work Arthur Koestler, Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh, who articulate the sequence of evolutionary emergence where each evolutionary entity, or level, is a whole and a part. Each whole is also a part of larger wholes. Marilyn Hamilton’s nested holarchy of city systems (Figure A) is an example.

Hamilton's nested holarchy of city systems spiffy

Holons, which are each whole, are nested as parts of other holons/wholes. The smaller wholes are more numerous. Imagine the cells that make up your body; they are far more numerous than the one whole body that is you. Likewise, you are one whole, along with many others, that make up the whole family to which you belong, or the organization where you work, or your neighbourhood or city, nation or species.

In looking at the scale of wholes, that are both parts and wholes themselves, the smaller entities are ‘fundamental’ and ‘instrumental’.  Without these smaller wholes to form part of the larger whole, the larger whole does not exist. The smaller the holon, the more fundamental; the more larger holons emerge, the more fundamental the smaller ones become.

Larger holons emerge as entities that transcend and include the smaller holons in new combinations. The larger holons are  not fundamental, but rather ‘significant’. McIntosh on Wilber:

…as evolution produces larger and larger encompassing holonic levels, each new level contains more and more parts and thus more and more whole entities. And as holons come to embrace more whole/parts within themselves, this increases their intrinsic value, or what he calls their ‘evolutionary significance (McIntosh, p. 124-125).’

From an evolutionary perspective, larger holons are more significant than their smaller counterparts, while the small holons remain, and become, more fundamental.

There are two value pulls here: one toward the smaller, fundamental value of encompassed parts, and a second toward the increasing significant value of emergent wholes. While these ‘pulls’ are in opposite directions, they are complementary; they co-exist in relationship with each other. As wholes become larger and more significant, the component wholes that are part of that whole become more fundamental. For McIntosh, this is the nature of evolutionary progress as described by Wilber.

As for evolutionary purpose, McIntosh sees the same complementary relationship between holons with new language: the encompassed parts are of instrumental value, and the emergent wholes are of increasing intrinsic value. Smaller holons serve instrumental purposes and larger holons serve intrinsic purposes.

From an evolutionary perspective, at a macro scale, what happens to purpose at different scales?

For McIntosh, the intrinsic purpose, or value, of evolution itself is not static: “its value is ‘alive, free, thrilling, and always moving (McIntosh, p.  160).'” Yet is also moving in a direction, toward goodness, beauty and truth. Intrinsic purpose is grand and shifty.

The process of growth, however, also involves parts that are no longer growing or emerging, yet they “nevertheless [contribute] to the growth of the emergent levels which encompass those parts as a foundation for further growth (McIntosh, p. 160).”  The holons that are encompassed as parts of larger wholes are of instrumental value to the more complex system of which it is a part. Small holons are in service to larger, more significant holons. They are of instrumental purpose.

Recognizing that larger holons are more significant than smaller holons does not negate the value of smaller holons, for they are fundamental. McIntosh puts it bluntly: ” instrumental value is the complementary equal of intrinsic value (McIntosh, p. 156).”

This exploration is a reminder that small entities are building blocks, and their health and well-being have instrumental purpose and value to the entities in which they are part. It is a legitimate, and not lesser, role to play in evolutionary progress. For McIntosh, this “two-fold purpose that orients our personal development is grounded in evolution’s essential organizing structure of wholes and parts, wherein every whole is also a part and vice a versa. Every evolutionary entity thus partakes of both kinds of purpose (McIntosh, p. 155).”

Every entity is a whole and a part. Every entity has instrumental and intrinsic purpose.

What is your intrinsic purpose?

In what are you of instrumental value?


_____ _____ _____

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.

_____ _____ _____

Further reading…

Koestler, Arthur. A Brief History of Holons, by Mark Edwards

McIntosh, Steve. Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins

Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy



Scales of purposes


The purposes I pursue are informed by what I value. The purposes we pursue are informed by what we value. Purpose and value drives both my decisions and those of the larger wholes of which I am a part.

I am a whole system myself, and I find myself within the larger whole of my family. My family is a system within the larger system of our neighbourhood. My neighbourhood is a system inside the larger system of the city of Edmonton and its region. Edmonton is a system within the larger system of Canada, and Canada a nation of the world. Each system is whole and is also a part of larger wholes. Each system has its respective purpose and set of values, which may be aligned or disparate, but they each are live with purpose.

Figure A: Hamilton’s nested city systems

Each scale will have a purpose that reflects its life conditions. (See Figure B to see the Spiral; here is a primer on Spiral Dynamics.) While I value prosperity and creative entrepreneurship today (with the time I have to write), I recognize that the school and police systems in Edmonton are operating out of authority and moral codes today because of two teens who threatened, online, to hurt many people. Their actions have been taken seriously and they have been charged. Organizations across Edmonton are diving in to make financial contributions to the Edmonton Food Bank to ensure families have enough food this Christmas. They are guided by moral codes to serve folks in survival mode.

And as we gather for upcoming winter festivities, whatever religion, we are engaging in long-held practices that bring communities together to bond for collective survival of culture. Others in my city are working on open data systems that help the city see itself, so we are able to explore more fully the diversity of knowledge at our disposal. Others yet see ways to make all of the above be healthy and vibrant, so we have a city that serves citizens well.

Figure B: Spiral of purposes

A variety of purposes are alive at every scale, from the individual to the city to the planet and the Universe. Each scale of individuals and collectives, are reaching, as interested and able, into expanded purposes.

What purposes are alive in you? In your city?

What purposes are you and your city expanding into?


_____ _____ _____

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.

The Spiral is based on the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan: Spiral Dynamics.




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?



_____ _____ _____
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.

Inter-city tournaments

As I spent  the long weekend at a soccer tournament, I pondered what it means to be at a tournament – for both 11 year olds and for cities.  Immediately to mind is Marilyn Hamilton’s work on Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive.

In her blog, Hamilton writes Howard Bloom’s story of the honey bee, and the roles in the beehive.  There are four roles that form a strategy for individual adaptation, hive innovation and species resilience.  These roles ensure the beehive is adaptable to its surroundings:

  1. Conformity enforcers – 90%.  Find the pollen by doing what the majority of beehive is doing.
  2. Diversity generators – 5%.  Find alternative sources of pollen.
  3. Resource allocators.  Reward successful behaviour of diversity generators and resource allocators by putting resources where the ‘return’ is favourable.
  4. Inner judges.  Work with the resource allocators to ensure the hive meets its sustainability goal of generating 40 pounds of honey per year.  When conformity enforcer bees come back to the hive with less pollen they engage with the new information from diversity generators.
  5. Inter-group Tournaments.  The competition between hives that share territory (their eco-region).

For Hamilton, “the Inter-group tournaments operate at the level of species survival – ensuring any hive that gets an edge in the innovation and evolution curve is the one most likely to survive and pass on its learning.”  Inter-group tournaments advance not just a hive, but the species.

So how does a soccer tournament for 11 year olds fit into this picture?  To begin, let’s contemplate the basic transaction.  A team of 16 kids is learning how to play the game of soccer. They are serious about the game and have joined a club team to play competitively.  They have a coaching staff that is keen to give the kids opportunities to play the game and to play against teams that challenge them.  For the coaches of this team in particular, the tournament is not about winning at this age, but about having time to play – in games, rather than practice – to try out the technical training they receive between games.  In most tournaments, the team gets to expand its horizons.  They get an opportunity to play with unfamiliar teams.  They get a chance to advance their game – technically, physically, mentally – as individuals and as a collective.
They are at the tournament to better themselves.  That may mean winning, it may not.  The purpose of this Inter-group tournament, for this team, is to improve the game for each player and the team.
This is where the city comes in.  Competition between and comparison of our cities is part of a naturally occurring aspect of human life in that it compels us to be the best we can be.  We always have a choice about what the purpose of the “tournament”.  For some cities, it really is about survival in the strictest sense.  For others, it is simply about a learning journey and putting ourselves in situations where we are challenged, for their is no improvement without challenge.
For our cities, if we stop striving to improve, we risk losing our ability to survive at all.  The honeybees and the coaches of 11-year-olds have some insight for us:
  1. Most of us will conform with the behaviour of others around us.
  2. A handful of us will regularly seek out new ways of doing things.
  3. There are people in positions to reward (and withhold reward) our performance.
  4. There are people in positions to assess our performance.
  5. We advance our contributions with competition.

For our life in cities (and elsewhere), this means:

  1. It is natural and appropriate to conform and be part of a team.
  2. It is natural for some of us – but not all of us – to look for new ways of doing things.
  3. There are naturally occurring boundaries on our efforts (referees, coaches, supervisors, parents).
  4. It is appropriate to assess performance related to an identified goal.
  5. We learn about ourselves – and where we need to improve – when we see how we “stack up” against others.

In the end, this little blog is a reminder for me that cities, and the relationships within and between cities, are complex adaptive systems.  As the bees adapt to ensure they create 40 pounds of honey each year while also supporting their habitat that allows them to do so, I wonder what the similar goal is for humans and cities.  The purpose of the tournament over the weekend was not to win the tournament, and this makes a huge difference to the learning opportunity for the players and the team.  A city, on the whole, isn’t out to “win” either.

What performance goals do we set for our cities?  

What efforts to we make to reach those goals?

How will we know when we reach them?