Concluding city patterns


In these Nest City posts, I have looked at cities in three ways so far: our impulse to build and gather in cities, our impulse to organize our cities and last, our impulse to thrive as a species.  In exploring each of these three impulses, patterns about our cities are revealed that are crucial to understanding how to organize our cities our cities to serve their citizens well – and how to be citizens to serve cities well.

Chapter 1 – The City Impulse

Building cities as our habitat naturally occurs for us.  We work at this every day – psychologically, physically, socially and culturally.  Our work, whether paid or unpaid, is always in response to our habitat.  We work constantly to think, make and do new things, which changes our habitat and our responses to habitat.  And so on, endlessly.

Our relationship with our habitat – cities – feeds the evolution of our cities and our habitat.  Given this relationship, it is time to build the nest we need.


Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse

The overriding purpose of a city is to integrate the needs of its people with its context, to create a habitat in which citizens will survive and thrive.  The purpose of planning is to support a city’s efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure the city is able to integrate the needs of its citizens with its context.

The city is a dance of voices and values and  the act of linear planning is simply a level of organizing that responds to a particular set of life conditions.  There is a time and place for linear planning, and life conditions are now emerging allowing us to recalibrate the practice of planning that holds a destination in mind while allowing for learning and adjustment along the way.  We are learning to live into a reality in which we recognize that we do not know exactly where we will end up.


Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse

Our cities are built by us and for us.  We do this to ensure that we survive, yet as we saw in Chapter One, we have a drive to constantly think, make and do new things in our work.  The result is our drive to thrive.  This drive results in cities.  And cities compel us to think, make and do more new things.  This is the essence of our evolutionary relationship with cities: an infinity loop.

Spiral Dynamics describes this pattern well: we grow and develop – evolve – in response to our life conditions.  12 intelligences also serve the evolutionary character of cities and our relationship with cities.  While they each offer much to understanding cities, they can be summarized in as evolutionary intelligence one useful 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.  

On to Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence

Part 2 of Nest City will focus on four things: destination, journey, emergence and the sweet spot at the intersection.  This is the dynamic of how we can set ourselves up to organize ourselves and our habitats well.


My next post will lay out the plot for Part 2 – Organizing 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.


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.


Building structural 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 with four quadrants (see part 2).  Marilyn Hamilton imagines the four quadrants as four intelligences for an Integral City (her book, her website).

This is the third of four posts that look at four of the evolutionary intelligences for the city from the vantage point of each of the four quadrants.  The last post, embodying intelligence in action, explored the upper right quadrant – outer intelligence.  Today, we look at the lower right and our capacity to create structures that meet our needs in cities.  In particular, this intelligence is about building structures that flex and flex and flow in response to our changing needs.

The city is a built environment.  It is built by us for us.  It is built to serve our needs, whether we do this consciously or not.

When I first started the Nest City Blog back on May 1, I traced the migration of humans from a small settlement in Africa to the expanse of our planet.  As we migrated, we physically built everything from makeshift shelters and eventually cities.  We also built social structures to organize ourselves to meet our needs.  As we build cities, we build physical artifacts and social systems.

The relationship between physical and social structures is critical.  As Hamilton puts it: “… the alignment of infrastructure and human organizational structure optimizes intelligence [1].”

Building intelligence is part of the story of the evolution of St. John’s, Newfoundland that I relayed in my posts entitled Is the uplanned city unplanned? Part 1part 2, part 3, part 4).  In these posts I write about how as the purpose of a settlement evolves, the structures (physical or social) evolve alongside (see part 3).  These structures will respond to the life conditions of the time – and our value systems as they are evolving.  This is the essential relationship between us and our habitat, and one of the results is our building intelligence.  (For more on evolving value systems, please visit A primer on the emerging spiral.”

So our structures reveal our values.

Edmonton’s City Market Downtown is vital to the exchange of goods in the city, particularly between the city and its region:


This reliable, sturdy building houses accountants in Toronto:

The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibits creativity and entrepreneurship:

The physical shape we give our cities reflects our values, as do our social structure choices.  This is how our building intelligence of the lower right quadrant materializes in cities; “Structures become a visible history of human intentions, choices and relationships [2].”

What we build (physically and socially) always adjusts over time in response to our needs.  Our ability to do this rests not alone in the building intelligence of the lower right quadrant. It has everything to do with our ability to adjust our intentions (upper left) and our actions and choices (upper right) that result in what we build (lower right).  The integration of these integral city perspectives is what creates the conditions for cities and citizens to thrive – particularly when this intelligence can flex and flow with the changing conditions.  

My next post will highlight the lower left quadrant – story intelligence – and how we culturally feed each other in our cities. 

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[1] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 160
[2] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 167

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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

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.  

Evolutionary intelligence – integrally

The last five posts articulate a body of work called Spiral Dynamics:

  1. Pause for evolutionary understanding begins Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse outlines the need to pause and understand our evolutionary trip as we organize ourselves in cities.
  2. Primer on the emerging spiral reveals a pattern in our emerging intelligence: Spiral Dynamics.
  3. 7 principles frame the emerging spiral articulates how the Spiral works: the trends behind the trends.
  4. Conditions for evolutionary expansion articulates the conditions that need to be met for the natural growth in our intelligence.
  5. Evolutionary impulse to thrive looks at movement on the Spiral in the context of changing life conditions.
The perspective offered by Spiral Dynamics is best viewed integrally, that is to say in consideration of the spheres and scales by which we experience the city.  In City – a dance of voice and values, I begin to knit together the Spiral of values and the four integral city voices: civic managers, civic developers, civil society and citizens.
Imagine the Spiral alive in each quadrant.  Imagine the Spiral alive in each individual in each quadrant. Imagine the Spiral alive across the whole city: a symphony of voices each expressing themselves from where they are at any given moment.  When an earthquake hits and our city is destroyed, we will hunker down for BEIGE survival.  On a day when the local hockey team has just one a big game, the city experiences a surge of RED elation and pride.  On a day when a drunk driver has killed a busload of school children, we call for a recalibration of our BLUE rules.    When we reach the big job at the top of the corporate ladder, we revel in our ORANGE achievement.  When we realize that our success has meant that others do not succeed, we are motivated by a GREEN communitarian ethic.  There is a point where we realize that the gifts of all these value systems are indeed of value together, rather than in competition with each other.  This is when we hunger for the integration of YELLOW, to flex and flow.
In a city’s population, these value systems are forever in flux, in each and all of us. The dance of voice and values is in self, others and the city all at once, all the time, at every scale, at every moment.
It makes city life a wonderfully dynamic experience with endless possibilities.
The next series of posts will explore some broad, macro principles that help create the conditions for the self and the city to thrive: evolutionary intelligence.


Evolutionary impulse to thrive

I once heard Don Beck explore the difference between the words ‘change’ and ‘adjust’.  What he said made perfect sense at the time and then moments later I lost track of why it made sense.   I have been trying to figure it out for a couple years.  Today, I now realize that these words are all about our efforts to thrive – with efforts to survive, as appropriate, in the mix.

Change is movement on the Spiral

Adjust implies tinkering.  Change implies something more significant.  Both are relevant and needed, but they are not the same.  The difference lays in our life conditions and the degree to which we are open to change (see the last two posts on the principles and patterns in/of the Spiral, and the conditions that enable movement up the Spiral).

If adjustment is tinkering, then that means creating new ways of doing things within the current vMEME.  It is a way of making the current value system work.  It is a way of allowing the current value system to take into account any inconsistencies.  Change, however, arises when the value system itself is challenged to the point where a whole new view comes into being.  This can be up or down the Spiral – upward to a new perspective, down to a previous perspective.  Change is movement on the Spiral from one vMEME to another vMEME – either up or down.  While change means movement on the Spiral, adjustment means staying put.

Figure A - Movement on the Spiral

Two directions of movement on the Spiral

When life conditions change around me I react in some form.  If I experience sufficient discomfort, I may be compelled to look at the world quite differently.  I may experience – and begin to live – a new, higher, view on the Spiral.  Depending on the degree to which I am open to the potential for change (see condition 1), I may be unable to see the new conditions  and be closed to this change, I may need additional discomfort before so I am partly open to change, or I may be ready and open to doing things in a totally different way (open).  All three scenarios are open to me at any time.  Yet just because I am open to change does not mean that movement on the Spiral is necessary – adjustments that maintain the status quo may be fully appropriate.

There are two directions for movement on the Spiral: up and down (Figure A).  As circumstances dictate, coupled with our openness to change, we move up and down.  When moving up the Spiral we are expanding our perspective and understanding, inclusive of all the levels below.  When moving down the Spiral we are constricting, or hunkering down.

When we first starting using automobiles few rules were needed.  As more vehicles came into use and as they moved faster and faster we noticed that life conditions were changing.  The RED world of impulse led to accidents and death and injury.  Society began to see that BLUE rules were needed: speed limits, laws of the road, enforcement, road design standards, etc.  Speed limits and road design standards would not have emerged if there was no discomfort with the RED conditions.  A change came about and we moved up the Spiral.

Similarly, when the forest fire hit Slave Lake, Alberta in May 2011 and destroyed most of the town, any roadway rules were put aside.  (See How could a whole town burn?)  Life conditions changed quickly and citizens hunkered down to ensure their survival.  A change came about and folks moved down the Spiral.

Movement up and down the Spiral takes place when life conditions change around us, compelling us to change.  It also takes place when we are open to the change and are able to make the change (for more on the conditions that allow change, please read yesterday’s post).  At every threshold we are a point of allowing our very expansion and evolution or of constricting it.  Yet, there are also times when constriction makes perfect sense.  The trick is in being fully aware of the situation and noticing what the context is really demanding of us.  The easy route may be in being closed to change and hunkering down.  The tough route may be in facing what we are fearful of.  This is hard enough for us as individuals, let alone as a collectives the size of cities.  This is big, important work to undertake within ourselves as we build cities for ourselves.

Adjustment is in one spot on the Spiral

Recognizing when it is time to move up or down the Spiral is one decision.  Another significant decision is when it is time to stay put and tinker with things as they are.  This is another totally appropriate response to our world – when life conditions are appropriate.  In one organization I worked with, our leader looked to us to tinker with policies and procedures (BLUE authority) when the organization was in crisis and our attention needed to be put on the things that were driving people out of the organization.  In contrast, I have watched how the National Building Code has been adjusted over the years in an effort to raise construction standards relating to energy efficiency.  While each adjustment is not revolutionary, over time the standard of constructive is considerably different.  Tinkering resulted in a recalibration of the rules over time.

We need to be skilled at changeability and adjustability – recognizing when it is time to tinker and when it is time to expand and when it is time to hunker down.  Taking wise action in any of these directions requires significant self awareness.  Over time, we will find that the most appropriate response is lower on the Spiral – when our attention is on surviving.  Once things settle, things recalibrate and we again begin our journey upward – where our attention is on thriving (Figure B).  Every action on the Spiral – even the pauses to adjust and the moments when we need to hunker down – is in service to our upward impulse to thrive.

Figure B - Evolutionary impulse to thrive


Conditions for evolutionary expansion

Our impulse to work to improve our world is an impulse to evolve.

I suspect that you recognize a deep impulse to survive and thrive in you, in other individuals, your family, your community, your nation and in the whole of us as a species. When faced with hardships and challenges, we do what it takes to protect ourselves and our clan, to survive.  We don’t often think of this, but it is ever present in our actions.  What is also present is our impulse as a species to thrive –to learn how to grow and change and adapt constantly.  Survival alone is not good enough.  We are always seeking more of what is possible in the world.  This is an impulse that even drives the creation of cities.

The last two posts, A primer on the emerging spiral and 7 principles that frame the Spiral, lay out one way of seeing how new value systems emerge within us as we evolve:  Spiral Dynamics.  As we move up the Spiral, our awareness and understanding expands as we meet ever more complex challenges in life.  Clare Graves called this movement up the Spiral a never ending quest.  Our evolutionary expansion, however, is not a given.

Potential for expansion – six conditions

Beck and Cowan outline six conditions that need to be in place for upward change on the Spiral to be possible.  Keep in mind that this is not a recipe – it is possible that most conditions are met and change does not occur.  It is also possible that only some conditions are met and change occurs anyway.  This is a pattern that offers some insight into how change happens, but more specifically, about the conditions in place as we move upward along the Spiral, at various scales – individuals, families, groups, organizations, nations, species.

1.  Openness to the potential for change.  Beck and Cowan are very clear that not all people are equally open to, or even capable or prepared for change.  Normally, humans are in a potentially open system of need, values and aspirations, but “we tend, however, to settle into what appears to be a closed state wherein we operate in a consistent, enduring steady way.  Once reached, we tend to stay in these zones of comfort… unless powerful forces induce turbulence.”[1]  So the potential for change revolves around three elements: thinking that is open, or at least arrested; having the appropriate intelligences, ie the ability to operate under more complex life conditions; and being free from restrictive patterns, ‘sink-holes’ and ‘baggage’.

Beck and Cowan distinguish three states in which we may find ourselves relative to potential for change[2] that I have organized as follows:

Openness to the potential for change

2.  Solutions.  Change will not occur if ‘serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state’.  Satisfying this condition involves: adequately managing the problems at their vMEME level creating comfort and balance; and direct excess energy to exploration of the next, more complex system.[3]

3.  Dissonance.  “Change does not occur unless the boat rocks.”[4]  The sensation of dissonance is stirred when the waves of some kind of impact jostle the steady-state system.  The factors that create dissonance are (verbatim)[5]:

  • Awareness of the growing gap between life conditions and current means for handling those problems.
  • Enough turbulence to create a sense that ‘something is wrong’ without so much chaos that the whole world seems to be falling apart.
  • Abject failure of old solutions to solve the problems of the new life conditions may stimulate fresh thinking, release energy, and liberate the next vMEMES along the Spiral

4.  Barriers[6].  Beck and Cowan discern two steps in this process. The first is recognizing the barriers, which typically are external.  ‘It’s their fault.’  ‘The bloody establishment holds us down.’  The second step invites exploration into why the barriers are effective obstacles, which reveals both internal and external obstacles. In the end, we have to clean up both the world outside and inside.

So barriers need to be eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else to provide the needed solid foundation on which to build change.  But all this is to be done conscious of risks, consequences and the pain of barrier removal, as well as exposure of the excuses and rationalizations for not implementing change.

5.  Insight.  When leading change, it is critical to understand the thinking systems in play, and discern the different patterns, models and structure that come with those ways of thinking.  Further, “alternative scenarios must be active in the collective consciousness before they can be considered.  Too often they are guarded in the minds of an elite few ‘planners’ or ‘decision-makers’.  People need mental pictures of what things might be like for them in their own real Life Conditions, not for some distant Hollywood start or textbook case-studies.”[7]

Change is ultimately about changing patterns, and Beck and Cowan offer the following ways to initiate change in patterns[8]:

  • Greater insight into how systems form, decline, and reform – particularly one’s own.  People must accept the possibility of change as well as the means.
  • Put a stop to wasteful regressive searches into out-moded answers from the past which simply cannot address greater complexity in the present.
  • Consider optional scenarios, fresh models, and experiences from applicable sources.  Scout the competition and demonstrate concretely what alternatives look like.
  • Quickly recognize the appearance of new life conditions and the vMEMES required to shift into congruence. Custom tailor for best fit.

6.  Consolidation.  Beck and Cowan say this best: “When significant change occurs, you can expect a period of confusion, false starts, long learning curves, and awkward assimilation.  Those who change – either as individuals or as organizations – may be punished by those who do not understand what is happening and now find themselves left out, misaligned and threatened.  Old barriers may be rebuilt in the form of punitive rules, turf battles and power tests.  New obstacles might be set up.  Sometimes, you will have to go around, let the bridge burn and not look back.”[9]


There is a gap that sits between how we experience the world and how we see the world could be that propels us forward.  This is not a gap that we all see in the same way at the same time.  It is not a gap that we are all even able to see, nor are we all required to see a gap before making attempts to cross it.  But there is always a gap, should we choose to notice it, examine it, explore it and cross it.  We are always at a threshold.

My next post will explore the word “change” from a Spiral perspective, and the difference between changeability and adjustability.  When at a threshold, when is it appropriate to change or adjust?


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76-82.  The text.

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[6]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[7]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[8]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[9]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 85


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:



Conclusion of The Planning Impulse

The purpose of planning is to support a city’s efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure the city is able to integrate the needs of its citizens with its context.  As we build cities, our work is to ensure that we create a habitat for ourselves in which we will thrive.

This second chapter of Nest City explores where the impulse to plan comes from as our cities become more complex. The first four posts that form the second chapter of Next City build on  my experience in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Mayor Dennis O’Keefe invites visitors to a planning conference to explore the ‘unplanned’ city.  My exploring continued after my visit there.  The first four posts that make this chapter are:

  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 1  Life conditions – the times we live in, the geographic place, the challenges we face and the social circumstances – shape the purpose of a city.  
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 2  The shape of a city is determined by its geography, its purpose, the activities within and in connection to other cities – it’s life conditions.
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 3  As life conditions change, cities shift and adjust. The purpose of the city evolves.  Planning is an activity that supports our collective work to organize ourselves to ensure our habitat – our cities – serve us well.
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 4  Along with evolving purposes of the city come corresponding evolving modes of organizing.  One of the new ways of organizing was the planning profession.

The subsequent posts tease out the complexity of planning now – it is not a simple linear, mechanical process:

  • City – a dance of voice and values  The evolving city purposes and modes of organizing are part of an evolving value system.  There are four integral ‘voices’ in the city: city managers, city builders, civil society and citizens.  These values and voices are in the mix as we organize ourselves to thrive in cities.
  • Integrating voices and values  Many purposes, modes of organizing and purposes occur all at once, creating a messy and uncertain world.  No one entity has control of the city.  Planners do not have a recipe – let alone all the ingredients.
  • Recalibrating the purpose of planning  As an activity, planning has to hold a destination in mind, allow for learning and adjustment along the way, and recognize that we do not know exactly where we are going to end up.
  • A new era of planning cities  Planning now is about have a clear, collective sense of intention and purpose to drive our work.  Cities are growing and we are growing with them.  The opportunity is to grow purposefully.
Two conclusions arise.  The first is that the overriding purpose of a city is to integrate the needs of its people, with its context, to create a habitat in which people will survive and thrive (Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 3).  The second is that the purpose of planning is to support city efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure people survive and thrive (Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 4).
The activity of planning is in the process of recalibrating, in order to integrate the new and emerging voices and values of the city.  This is necessary for planning to respond to today’s life conditions, rather than those of decades or centuries ago.  To meet the needs of  citizens, cities must adapt.  In order for cities to adapt to the evolving needs of citizens, citizens need to adapt as well.
The next series of posts will form Chapter Three – The Thriving Impulse.  They will explore what it means to thrive, from an evolutionary sense.  Part Two – Organizing for Emergence and Part Three – Nest City will get into the details of how we can organize ourselves to serve ourselves better.  
Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.