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Are Cities Too Complicated? (citylab.com)
109 points by state_machine on Sept 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments



This is the fundamental premise that object oriented thinking was created to solve. You cannot understand a sufficiently advanced system from both an overview and granular view. You have to either see the overview and trust the granular objects, or specialize in one granular object and then trust your adjacent objects.

Its a problem written about in detail by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations when he comments on running an empire. He notes that the most difficult part is not having information in a timely fashion at scale -- you can either have timely information about a single place, or out of date information about the entire empire.

They key part in both is trust and responsibility. You must trust that granular objects can take responsibility for themselves. If each one requires knowledge of the entire system to function, then the weight of that will overburden any system over time.


> If each one requires knowledge of the entire system

The general problem is the growing number of dependencies. James Burke in "Connections" warned that civilization is an interconnected web of technology traps[1]. We survive as long as everything works (or "mostly" works), but there is a risk of cascade failure.

More recently, Dan Geer warned[2] about the same type of problem:

    In the last couple of years, I've found that institutions that I more
    or less must use [...] no longer accept paper letter they each only
    accept digital delivery of such instructions.  This means that each of
    them has created a critical dependence on an Internet swarming with
    men in the middle and, which is more, they have doubtlessly given
    up their own ability to fall back to what worked for a century before.
    [...]
    Everything in meatspace we give over to cyberspace replaces
    dependencies that are local and manageable with dependencies that are
    certainly not local and I would argue much less manageable because
    they are much less secure.  I say that because the root cause of risk
    is dependence, and most especially dependence on expectations of
    system state.
    [...]
    Accommodating old methods and Internet rejectionists preserves
    alternate, less complex, more durable means and therefore bounds
    dependence. Bounding dependence is *the* core of rational risk
    management.
[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKELMR6wACw

[2] http://geer.tinho.net/geer.blackhat.6viii14.txt


But a paper system which uses mail also has huge dependencies. You rely on a transportation and post office infrastructure that can also have problems.

In fact, the internet was funded by DARPA to deal with disruption of the conventional communication network.


> also has huge dependencies

True, but they are different dependencies. One of the goals is to eliminate the risk of common-mode failure[1]. One failure that makes the internet inoperable also takes out everything that depended on it, which shouldn't be "everything".

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_cause_and_special_cause...


> One failure that makes the internet inoperable also takes out everything that depended on it, which shouldn't be "everything".

While the current structure may not reflect this (and, to the extent it doesn't, this is a problem), a central part of the idea of the internet is that it should be structured so that a single failure would at most make a minor part of the internet unusable, and perhaps cause a two-way partition between remaining usable parts, not make "the internet" unusable in a general way.


> a minor part of the internet

> a two-way partition

These are localized problems, not common-mode failures. I'm talking about a problem with something that takes out a significant portion of the internet. This isn't about a simple network partition; a common-mode failure is a problem in something that is common to an entire class of devices.

A totally contrived example might be a worm that bricks routers (we've seen a few router vulnerabilities recently) and spreads with the speed of the fastest worms. Good luck finding "usable parts" of the internet when a large part of the routing capability needs to be physically replaced and reconfigured. This risk has grown in the recent past with the centralization of many services.


What about a simpler idea, like sudden, widespread lack of electricity?


Diesel generators?


Is there a pre-existing network of diesel generators? Are there enough diesel generators and diesel fuel in a given city to power it? I'm guessing probably not.


Where would I put that in my apartment?


I don't think it matters too much that most institutions no longer accept paper since paper is just the external interface. You get no more reliability if they did when all critical processes rely on technology.

In other words, you aren't walking your check to the IRS, the postal service couldn't deliver it, your bank couldn't cash it even if they did, and WTF would the IRS do with a billion checks?


The point isn't really that paper is better. It's that we had systems that worked for a long time and we removed them. We shouldn't need to walk lots of checks to the IRS, that's the point of modern tech.

However, the IRS maintaining the capability of using old, simpler methods should be retained because it serves as a backup for (hopefully rare) situations where the primary infrastructure fails.


> The point isn't really that paper is better. It's that we had systems that worked for a long time and we removed them.

Because we have better ones, that are less expensive, in many (but not all, due to excessive design rigidity in some cases) cases cheaper to adapt to change, and provide more value. That benefit is significantly limited if you bear the cost of maintaining (across requirement changes) the old processes (or analogs to them reliant on similar infrastructure) as well as the new processes, especially if you have to maintain the infrastructure (including the human infrastructure -- e.g., for the IRS, of people trained to process tax returns by hand) they rely on.

> However, the IRS maintaining the capability of using old, simpler methods should be retained because it serves as a backup for (hopefully rare) situations where the primary infrastructure fails.

Certainly, functions that are short-term critical need some fallback. Functions that aren't, it may be more efficient to devote resources to restoring the primary infrastructure rather than burning them executing inefficient backup processes in the absence of primary infrastructure.


"WTF would the IRS do with a billion checks?"

You just pointed out a reliance on banking system. IRS can not function without it and that may be considered a problem. For a fail-safe measure, other means of payment or taxation should be devised/allowed, like paying with gold (or other valuable assets) or provision of services for local/national authorities.


It might have been reasonable to maintain backup paper workflows years ago when those paper workflows already existed and institutions were just starting to offer digital alternatives. But new institutions and workflows have arisen that never had paper alternatives in the first place. And it's unreasonable to expect institutions to build and test paper alternatives just as a backup. No one's going to pay for that, regardless of potential consequences.


I agree that new institutions that never had pre-internet systems are a harder problem.

> it's unreasonable to expect institutions to build and test paper alternatives just as a backup.

Some type of backup is necessary for anything critically important. From my previous [2]:

    In sum, as a matter of policy everything that is officially
    categorized as a critical infrastructure must conclusively
    show how it can operate in the absence of the Internet.
    
Depending on a single source for mission critical features has been popular since at least the dot com era. Maybe some people can live with the risk that e.g. Twitter can shut their business down at any time by banning their API key, but some institutions need to be reliable. In the past, this need for reliability lead to the agreement where Intel licensed AMD to second-source[3] the 8086 and other parts.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_source


Some type of backup is undeniably useful, but why does it have to be paper? The problem with paper vs electronic is that they're largely incompatible, requiring manual labor for interoperability. A backup system should be as drop-in as possible, so for digital systems, it should be another digital system.


Making communications digital doesn't mean that they necessarily rely on the Internet. For local dependencies, you can just as well use a local intranet, which could even be a decentralized mesh network - and the use of common protocols like TCP would allow for something like http://www.broadband-hamnet.org/ to be nearly a drop-in replacement for the whole stack above.

And for dependencies that aren't local to begin with, mail doesn't offer any advantages in terms of cascade failure - you're still relying on some centralized infrastructure that can't really be maintained just locally, and if it goes, your connectivity breaks down all the same.


Interesting! I used to wonder myself about such a dependency pushed on money. There are a lot of efforts to get all the society cashless, and it's understandable because there are upsides for many involved parties, but the downside is the reliance on its infrastructure that can fail or be attacked. I also used to wonder if people will consider this vulnerability without a precedent or not. I see this state of things persists in a lot of other systems too.


Indented text is replicated verbatim and intended for quoting code.

It's a pain in the left kidney to read on mobile.

Just use asterics around the text to italicise it to indicate it's take from elsewhere.

This has been a public service announcement.


I've met micro-managers that actually defend micro-management but even if you think it's a viable way to actually get what you want from your reports this is an objective fundamental problem with it as a management style. You simply can't scale it to any useful degree because any kind of scale requires trust and delegation.

Once you pass that magic threshold the people that report to you will take advantage of any slack you give because micro-managers don't inspire or create loyalty. They will also actively avoid making decisions because that's the manager's job and they don't want them all over their ass for being autonomous. At that point you're a manager with no time to think about the long term and you're in firefighting mode constantly. And I can't say I have any sympathy. You reap what you sow.


You've hit the nail on the head with the trust and responsibility. There does need to be overall planning and co-ordination; but solutions cannot be dictated at a large scale. Instead /goals/ must be dictated, strive for X, prevent Y, co-operate with Z to prevent unwanted unintended consequences.

Larger governing bodies need to provide a basic framework, the minimum standard and boundary for the system's operation. Possibly a framework for re-adjusting or outright re-initiating failed layers they contain.

They should then provide both the goals and responsibilities to their contained units, but not an express direction on how the task is to be handled. This allows for adjusting and reacting at a more finely grained level which also reduces the time needed to reach consensus and adjust.

I would like to provide an example. It's true of the metro area that I live in, and I suspect it is true of others as well. There appears to be a complete disconnect between landing sources of jobs, providing places for workers to live, and reliable transit to/from jobs. In particular suburban sprawl from hell exists (yet is confined vaguely within outlying urban growth boundaries); a result that is a misuse of resources and ensures that traffic is a nightmare. What's worse, departments of the government, such as the DoT, are so focused that they can only see trying to use their own specific hammer on the problem, instead of working with other departments to reach an actual solution.

In the containers system, the DoT would work with some urban planning / their own measurement to show current and projected traffic needs, as well as the budget required for tolerating them. Their containing layer, reacting to the massive budget shortfall properly, would pass directives that require localities to increase the density of 'quality' housing and lower the housing prices, and 'make the housing attractive to families'. The localities would then react and modify the environment, leading to an actual solution to the issue.

Government is a complex system, just like an engineer of any discipline should recognize, and it needs a massive overhaul.


Instead /goals/ must be dictated, strive for X, prevent Y, co-operate with Z to prevent unwanted unintended consequences.

I don't think it's that simple. The "goals" of a city are the goals of the people living in it, which are as complicated as the city itself. Your example is actually a great illustration of how large-scale decision making can go wrong: the sprawl met someone's goals, or it wouldn't have happened, but it didn't match the needs of the actual people living in the city. In general, how do you know the goals you're dictating are the right ones? A better focus would be on ways for individuals and communities within cities to organize, communicate their needs and get resources to solve their unique problems.


I think this is the insight underlying Tokyo's zoning system (linked here a few weeks back) that keeps the city so eclectic and alive, and Toyota's production system that seemingly no one can replicate though its been studied for decades, with support from Toyota.

It seems to me that in Toyota, a first, basic process is designed centrally by someone who is an authority in that specific area, but realizing that the top of the pyramid lacks the on the ground information necessary for continuous improvement, it pushes agency to change the process down to the bottom of the pyramid, to the people who make up the process.

That is how Toyota is able to evolve their process and achieve yearly gains in efficiency of around 10%. There's no great genius other than in the insight that the boss can't do the job of his subordinates, that knowledge is situational.

And that is probably why companies fail to adapt the TPS - because they do not trust and even despise people on the floor.


I think that this is more a natural observation about distributed systems that object orientation. Neither precludes the other, but the root of the problem is the inherent necessity and limitation that comes from distributing information and decision nodes, and less from leveraging hierarchy to "get shit done".


Really, this is the idea behind every paradigm for programming. It's all about creating rules, structures, and abstractions to compartmentalize software horizontally and vertically (so to speak) and formalize relationships between the pieces.


I think there is an important art in recognizing signal over noise and being pragmatic when considering how to design a system. I think you're right about trust, but I would add in a focus on fundamentals/first principles over design.


> The Entanglement is a term from the computer scientist Danny Hillis, referring to a new era of technology that we find ourselves in, where no single individual can possibly understand what we ourselves have constructed. In other words, when even the experts are unable to fully grasp a system that they might have been themselves involved in the construction of, we are in a new era of incomprehensibility.

This is not a phenomenon of just cities or other large societal systems. In my experience, this is already true for many a single company.


It's true for life in general. It is a rare luxury to have and understand all of the information before being asked to make a decision. This is why fields like economics have traditionally been poor predictors of actual human activity, they assume an ideal that is rarely true.


Reminds me of the trope that the choice should ALWAYS be left with consumers. Every consumer is a 'rational actor'. Reality is most humans have too many things going on, too many choices with not adequate info and are emotional actors.


Yet solutions emerge, even if individual agents have zero intelligence

http://www2.econ.iastate.edu/tesfatsi/Gode%20and%20Sunder-JP...

Your lack of belief in the force of the free hand is troubling, especially when it can be proved by computer models and reality.


To clarify for the person you've responded to: the problem with humans isn't exactly that we individually have _too little_ intelligence, it's that the heuristics we have evolved to use for compensating for missing information include a great deal of bias. This results in the very-well-documented lack of rational actors in the real world.


Not to mention the distortion of rationality created by advertising.


That is a great term. I believe it can also be extended to devices like modern computers. They are now complex enough that no single person can understand all the parts of the system. Now I have a word for it, thanks!


Cities have a dark side. I think that most people who grew up in a small town and later moved to a big city have gone through a period of disillusionment.


I don't want to seem mean, but you're like a caricature of a country person. People are living things which grow to suit their environment, everyone thinks their way is the best way and that their hometown is the coolest. When you say things like "city people care more about money" and "city people are mean" you sound like a bumpkin.


Maybe he's a caricature, but he's 100% right.

I grew up going to school in the burbs, all summer in a small home-town - and have lived in several major cities.

'City people' are definitely more about the money.

Small towns are communities. Everyone knows everyone - often for multiple generations. Families have ties - not just people. You can't 'not care about' someone you've known for 40 years, even if you don't know them that well.

In cities, people are exposed to a lot more people, they have tons of 'associates' but very few friends. People come and go - and they get individualist.

I find city people, having been exposed to 'more kinds of people' tend to be more 'tolerant' in the modern sense of that word, but have absolutely no idea what community means and are far more judgemental, ideological, selective in everything. City people walk and talk with a kind of 'facade' - they are trying to project an image - almost all of them. In a small town - this would seem ridiculous.

Also in small towns - when people speak to you - they are speaking to you then are 'present'. In the city, people are usually polite - but conversations (and relationships) 'transactional'.

My brother (small town) threw a big bar-b-q for his friends birthday, and invited a bunch of people. Some really odd red-necky types showed up - and don't mean negative - just poor. They were welcome. Old guys in wheelchairs. Young partiers. It was an unbelievably mixed crowd. I don't think my brother would have preferred they came - but there is no way on earth anyone would say anything - after all 'it's joe from the corner store' - and 'Mary, Sean from across the streets Aunt'. When you go to social gatherings in urban areas - they tend to be hyper-specific in terms of social groupings.

Even the near-homeless/poor people in small towns 'know someone' and most people 'know them' by name. Down the street from where I live (urban) - there are a couple of completely 'nameless' homeless people.

Also - small town people tend to have a lot of gatherings where it's mostly family. In the city, often less so. When you hang around mostly your family and extended friends, it's a completely different world from 'people your age in your clique' etc..

The craziest thing about this - is 'city people' often have absolutely no idea what a community actually is. They make all sorts of crazy assertions, but have no clue.

You call this guy a 'bumpkin' because - no offence - you might not know what he is talking about - also - your comment might be a kind of bigotry.

In the suburb where I grew up - I don't know anyone. They've all moved. I have some contact - but the people, stores, restaurants, neighbourhood - totally unrecognizable. My 'hometown' - I still know some people, epc. through family. It's incredibly boring, and would be nary impossible to live there (it would be nice if it were a commute from a city), but if I don't go back often enough, I go crazy.

To someone from a small town, living in a city often feels like 'living in a corporation' - and to some extent they are correct.


I also grew up in a suburb.

I feel like I got the worst of all of the worlds. There wasn't a real sense of community, but there was also a major lack of opportunity.


> Some really odd red-necky types showed up - and don't mean negative - just poor. They were welcome. Old guys in wheelchairs. Young partiers. It was an unbelievably mixed crowd.

And had a trans person showed up, how would that have gone? A Latinx person? A queer couple?

Had the opposite experience moving from a suburb to a major metropolitan area.

There's a level of community here (not all communities are communities that straight white tech workers are involved with or are welcome in) that is unparalleled.

It may cause the hyper privileged to become more individualistic but for everyone else we have thriving communities with true friendships and support networks.


I believe the term is "communities of choice". In a small community there is only one community and everyone has to be in it, for good or ill. In a city you can make a much better community suited to you - but it requires active effort to maintain that link, so it's much easier to fall off and become invisibly alone.


I agree - except that 'communities of choice' are far more fleeting than otherwise. In 'communities of choice' - nobody cares about old people, for example.

'Communities of choice' work when you're young OR when you're part of a specific ethnic group (say Somalis in Philly or whatever) - which is in many ways like a 'small town' within a city.


The flip side of course, is if the small community shuns someone they have no other communities to migrate to without a geographic migration.

(What you are describing did happen to me a long time ago, and it did take a long time to work my way out of it. So It's a completely valid point)


Anyone of any ethnicity could have showed up, it would have made no difference. Small town people have less exposure to other cultures, and might have some prejudices, but the prejudices are not hateful, they're more rooted in lack of exposure.

Trans or Queer - that would have been different. You can be gay in the country, but you can't flaunt it. If you were to have introduced 'your boyfriend' that would have made people feel uncomfortable. Trans - well - you'd be treated fine, but like someone with a disability type thing. People would not accept it as your identity, but just consider it weird.

Here's the big thing: When you know people you treat them totally different than what your prejudices might incline you towards. I didn't say 'small town people' were more tolerant in the classical sense - in fact I said 'city people' were more tolerant. BUT - and here's the differentiator: if you're gay - remember that everyone has known you since you were a kid. So it's the difference between someone being 'uncomfortable with gays' to 'my brother/cousin/family friend' is gay. Which is a completely different social context.

"There's a level of community here (not all communities are communities that straight white tech workers are involved with or are welcome in) that is unparalleled."

I've lived in San Franciso - in the heart of the Castro - with gay people - and I know the micro-communities well enough. Yes - any grouping of marginalized people tends to be a little closer, and I do agree that there is 'community' in the Castro for example.

BUT - this is definitely not the norm in cities or burbs.

AND - it's not the same. Nobody will care about you when you are old, young kids will not know your name, the young gay kids will laugh at the older gay dudes to their faces and be pretty harsh etc. (although, I think this is a special feature of that community).

When my (small town) Grandfather passed away - his wake was 3 days long. 3 days of people streaming by his casket. He owned a hardware store and was a 'good community member'. He wasn't anyone really special. But you spend 94 years in one place and you literally know thousands of people - most of whom would 'pay their respects' by coming to the wake. The whole community mourned.

If you've ever seen how the Danes have their old age homes, their much smaller, familial and local, they are still in a way, a part of the community. I think that the North/West European countries have a huge social advantage on North Americans when it comes to community culture.

Finally - and more controversially: most European and Asian nations are ethnic groups - so people are surrounded by 'like people' in terms of ethnicity. A lot of culture boils down to ethnicity. When people are surrounded by other people within their ethnic group - there is no 'hatred' for others, it's just that they feel more affinity for 'their own'. If you're from a small town - it's not something you ever really think about. It's just normal. 'Multiculturalism' challenges all sorts of norms and wipes out the things that differentiate us. The burb I grew up in was the most multicultural place in the world: Mississauga, Ontario (burb of Toronto). People were friendly, we got along very well, but ironically - a complete absence of culture. We have a word for it 'living room culture' because outside the home there's nothing. In the city I live in now, almost all the local cab drivers are from Haiti. They feel alienated and often want to go home when they have enough money even though it's much less advanced. Why? Because 'it's home'. I am sympathetic to them, and not upset with them because they 'don't like my culture'. They want to 'be among their people'. Who can blame them? Again - that's another issue or urban cultural dissonance that is too uncomfortable for most people to talk about in North America, so the discussion never happens :)


FYI I should say 'large cities' - especially North American ones.

Please like Munich, Frankfurt feel pretty 'small town' relatively speaking. People tend to stay put a lot longer (like forever, even hundreds of years over generations), and the geography of those cities are completely different as well.


So really you're just talking about New York (which is absolutely a rat race nightmare) and some dysfunctional, badly planned American cities.

Because I look at this:

> 'City people' are definitely more about the money.

And then I look at Berlin (3.5 million people!). And I just laugh.


No, I mean most American cities.

Berlin is not like Munich or Frankfurt - and does not fit the template of most other German cities. It's quite a bit bigger and spread out. That said - it's more like Frankfurt than it is LA. Also - 'Greater Berlin' is more than 5 million.

Also important to note: many European cities don't have 'suburbs'- what they have is 'city core' then 'dense surrounding'- which is not that much - but instead of suburbs, they have tons of 'surrounding towns'. It's really quite hard to describe.

Frankfurt - I could almost run across it in my daily run - and it has big skyscrapers. It has the busiest Airport in Europe!

Imagine taking all of Maine + Vermont - and instead of 30Km between each small township - make it 3km. So basically, you have tons of 'mini, distinct communities'.

Many of those 'mini communities' are 1000 years old type thing, and people are not very transient.

Within those communities - generally things are walkable, you have unique local restaurants, often high quality, artisans, small businesses, sometimes Universities.

Much of Europe - and to some extent Asia - is like this.

It's hard to describe but obvious when you see it.

It's the model I think we, in North America, should have used for urban planning - instead of the mega-city model.


So, it all boils down to "in a smaller community you don't have many options and you should watch out yourself not to narrow down further that pool". In a big city where one doesn't rely so heavily on others you see the people acting more as how they want it to be. (Most people, especially the ones without any kind of impairment, don't care that much for community.)


>your comment might be a kind of bigotry

The irony is so deep.


">your comment might be a kind of bigotry The irony is so deep."

I was making generalizations about people that I think is true.

But I wasn't calling people names, or making them seem as though they are 'out of touch and stupid' because they are either from the city or a small town.

There are advantages and disadvantages of both - but city people are by far and away more 'individualist', in much the same way that 'Americans' are usually more individualist than say, Swedes. It's just a generalization, not bigotry.


I was referring to the post I originally replied to, which has since been edited. It called "city people" selfish, depressed and obsessed with money among other tired stereotypes.


City people are actually more selfish, depressed and obsessed with money.

It's not a stereotype, it's true.

There's a lot of data on urban/rural happiness and it all points in the same direction.

As for the other attributes, they are generally true.

Spend more than 3 months solid in the same small town. Then come back to the city - it will feel weird, antisocial, and a little crazy.


Another word for complexity is diversity. Resilience comes from that complexity. Very much like biology.

NYC (where I live) is wildly inefficient, except at delivering benefits that millions of people consider worthwhile.


Your point is a step in the right direction. Life is complex and diverse. Cities serve as models. Daily life is a test of the inputs and results. Every day they can be reconfigured and the data analyzed.


The article doesn't answer the question stated in the title.


I see statements equivalent to these in the article:

- Cities are inefficient Rube-Goldberg contraptions

- Portions of city systems are too complex for one person to understand

- We see evidence of complex, unpredictable systems when things go wrong

- Cities have multiple complex systems that can and do produce unpredictable failures

- Methods inspired by scientific study may help us improve city life

I'd summarize it as: Here are some problems caused by complexity, and here are some (vague) ideas for how to fix them. From the article's content, I think there's an implied "yes" answer to the title.


I think it's a rhetorical question, with the article's answer being something along the lines of "Cities are possibly too complicated for humans to understand at a holistic level," which seems almost obvious.


> Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no." [1]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headline...


John Edgar (former VP Strategy at DigitalOcean) and his team are working on and writing about this extensively >> medium.com/city-as-a-service/



Use the right kind of probe to see the right level of detail. - Mark Burgess

Make our comprehension of the world more manageable by limiting the amount of information we have to interact with at any time. Our experience of the world can be made comprehensible, or incomprehensible, by design. - Mark Burgess

The effect of limited information is that we perceive and build the world as a collection of containers, patches or environments, separated from one another by limited information flow. These structures define characteristic scales. - Mark Burgess

The more details we can see, the less we have a sense of control. - Mark Burgess

Separation of concerns ... a necessary consequence of loss of resolution due to scale ... a strategy for staying sane. - Mark Burgess

These quotes are all from In Search of Certainty: The Science of Our Information Infrastructure (2013), via my fortune database https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup


Can anyone with access to the book please answer whether or not Geoffrey West, Joseph Tainter, or W. Brian Arther are among the cited references?

I'm flipping quickly through a copy of Arbesman's The Half-Life of Facts and am disappointed to see that he (or his editors) have fallen prey to the gross misconception that numbered footnotes and bibliographies somehow diminish a book's value. Quite the opposite. (THLoF has end notes, but they're not indicated within the text, and insted reference pages and passages, which is a form of torture to be included in a future revision of the Geneva Convention.)


I don't know how useful biological ideas will be to urban planning, but this sentence tickled my brain:

"...This can include such things as cataloging bugs and unexpected behaviors in our infrastructure (like how a naturalist might collect insects)"

This sounds like what anybody working on a computer can use at a place like Stack Overflow. People have problems, post a description of it, and somebody else who happens to know helps them. The result of this process is available to others on the web who might have a similar issue.



Joseph Tainter has done some interesting work on the relation between societal complexity and collapse[1], here's a recent(ish) paper of his on the subject http://wtf.tw/ref/tainter_2006.pdf

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Studies-Ar...


They are often overcomplicated due lack of planning(environmental, ergonomics/accessibility), ad-hoc building design driven by commercial interest and persistent ignorance of users(cities are user-unfriendly) needs. Unless the bureaucrats are faced with public anger/complaints they would defer to major companies and investors opinion of what the city needs. While some problems like fracking are really noticeable(creating wide-spread publicity), the corporate power creep seems invisible to average joe who blissfully thinks the city is made for him. Infrastructure is not actually people-centric, its built to maximize utility/efficiency providing minimum standard that is "acceptable" instead of striving to improve the city(solving the problem the quick way).


Cities have developed in a complex and often fascinating manner, but along the way, we have portions of these systems that are more complex than any single person can understand.

Just like life itself.


Betteridge's law is fumbling here: yes, perhaps they are. Big, old cities are full of ancient infrastructure that slips through the cracks. People depend on it, and nobody knows exactly where its networks are routed; then when it breaks, it's a big disaster.


On the other hand, perhaps the answer is that they're just complicated enough. If the big, old cities didn't provide a unique economic advantage through their increased interconnectivity then no one would stick around to tolerate that ancient infrastructure.


Huh, path dependance. By virtue of existence and being big enough, they are worth sticking to.




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