It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.
It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.
Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”
Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.
Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.
Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.
The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.
This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.
When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.