Modern Metropolis: Part 1 – In this first installment of Modern Metropolis we learn about an emerging field of science that seeks to understand how we are all interconnected.

Everything is Connected

The Limits of Reductionism

Humanity was born into chaos. Outside is a rapidly expanding and volatile universe, a natural world of ever moving matter and energy. And inside each individual and object, bustling cells are swirling in a personalized, tumultuous cacophony. It’s chaos!

Still, humanity has spent the better part of its existence trying to lasso this chaos, to make order from disorder. Ironically, though, we haven’t tried to grasp the vast and complex by thinking big. No, we went small.  

Since the scientific revolution, most social and natural sciences have taught us to break things down into smaller and smaller measurable parts. The study of these parts would, in theory, teach us about the whole. So a study of the body, for instance, turned inward rather than outward. For answers, we looked to the organs that ran the body, then to the cells that built the organs, then to the DNA stored within the cells. Every new discovery driven by advancements in technology and human ingenuity. 

During such reductionist scientific endeavors, the parts certainly do come into sharper focus. Unfortunately, at the same time the big picture often blurs. To put it another way, the forest gets lost for the trees. And the branches. And the leaves. And the seeds. And so on.

But what if we focused on the forest instead, and didn’t stop there? Approached it as one organism among a vast network. Connected on one planet among a community of planets. And on and on. A system stretching outward and upward. Thinking bigger, not smaller. What about that approach? And what if we applied the concept to our cities?

Gif art by Dave Whyte

A New Way of Thinking

The world we live in is extraordinarily complex and growing more so by the moment.. Still, applying a lens of connectivity and interdependency can offer a broad, holistic worldview that can make these complexities less daunting and more approachable. 

This way of thinking is more commonly referred to as complex systems theory. It posits that all systems function and evolve through principles of emergence, feedback loops and self-organization. As a result, all complex systems operate in ways that can’t be explained through a reductionist’s lens. Bottom line: Complex systems are inherently messy and often unpredictable on the surface, but there is beauty beneath. 

Systems theory can help explain the multifaceted connections that characterize all complex systems, and it can offer insights into how to use those connections to our advantage. Modern cities are a lot like the complex systems of the natural world, and they need to be managed with this in mind to better prepare them for the future.

Explaining Our Connections in the World Through Metaphor

There’s a useful visual metaphor for connections found in ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts known as “Indra’s Net.” 

“Indra’s Net symbolizes the universe as a web of connections and interdependencies … The net is said to be infinite, and to spread in all directions with no beginning or end. At each node of the net is a jewel, so arranged that every jewel reflects all the other jewels. … a microcosm of the whole net. … and individual jewels always remain in flux. Reference.

From both a great distance and closer inspection, everything appears connected to everything else. And for all system types — from our body’s cells to our world’s cities — the whole is something other than the sum of its individual parts.

Jeremy Lent, author of “The Patterning Instinct,” talking about the similarities between systems thinking and ancient Chinese worldviews.


“Indra’s Net” by Autumn Siye

Complexity and a New Science of Cities

This science of connections is a 3,000-year-old worldview with a new twist. The modern iteration of Indra’s Net is playing out in the ways we manage the growth of our cities. The concept of vast interconnectivity is particularly salient when addressing the complexities of climate change and the solutions our cities will need to create. 

One city’s extreme weather events impacts its own residents, but it can also impact other cities far from the source. Take Cincinnati for example, recent above-average rainfall and flooding have increased the volume of urban and agricultural runoff. This polluted water ultimately makes its way into the Ohio River and eventually downstream into the Gulf of Mexico. These phosphate- and petro-chemical-laden waters are linked to the creation of algae blooms — hypoxic dead zones that can grow to the size of New Jersey. Gulf states then experience a reduction in the size of seafood catches and prohibitions on swimming in these waters. The result is a corresponding ripple effect on the economics of the region.

The challenges cities face don’t exist in a vacuum. Nor do the solutions. Those must come from all parts of a city — the government, businesses and residents — coming together as one. It’s our strength in numbers that truly matters when it comes to tackling climate change, which in turn will positively impact the health of our community, economy and all of our cities’ inhabitants.

The urban sustainability model of the 2030 Districts is embracing this new science of cities. Breaking down traditional models of thinking by encouraging people to work together to tackle some of the biggest problems cities face.

About “Modern Metropolis” 

This documentary tells the story of how Cincinnati formed its own sustainability district, designed to make healthier buildings and community. From the city’s mayor to a soap company and into your home, this six-part series documents one community’s efforts to prepare their city for the future.

Part 1: The Science of Cities

Part 2: The 2030 Districts

Part 3: Strength in Unity

References / Further Reading