Peter Morgan/AP

As the writer Samuel Arbesman argues in his new book, complex systems are capable of quickly growing beyond our comprehension.

There’s a paradox at the center of our increasingly technological world. The technologies we use in our day to day lives not only do more things for us, they get simpler and simpler to use. A child can use an iPhone or iPad. Our cars will soon drive themselves. But the systems that lie behind these technologies can often be so complex or complicated, they can defy the limits of a normal human’s comprehension.

In his new book, Overcomplicated, Samuel Arbesman provides a playbook for living in a world of “incomprehensible, unpredictable, and overcomplicated” technologies and technological systems.

It’s become commonplace to say that cities are humanity’s greatest achievement. But they are also perhaps the most overcomplicated of all our technological systems, being powered by many different types of infrastructures and technology systems built up over long periods of time.

I asked Arbesman what this new world of overcomplicated technology means for our cities.

The title of your book is “Overcomplicated.” In what ways are cities overcomplicated, or not?

Samuel Arbesman’s Overcomplicated.

Our urban infrastructure has grown and developed over decades or sometimes even hundreds of years. This has led to a great deal of building new upon old, and only sometimes rebuilding from scratch. In other words, cities resemble kluges, a term from engineering that means a system that works—and perhaps looks a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption—but might be far from efficient.

We have subway systems that are run by machines decades-old, abandoned stations still lurking beneath cities, and portions of our infrastructure that can be more than a century old. 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.

There is a huge debate about whether urban economies should specialize or become more diverse. These are big themes of your book. What advice would you give cities about this?

When I think about specialists and generalists, I’m interested more in knowledge at the individual level and how to balance the need for a deep expertise in a specific area with the fact that our world is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and interconnected (something we see in many of our technological systems).

At the city level, a healthy economy might have naturally specialized in a specific domain, but to be robust it must also have a very long tail of diversity. In other words, the likely best distribution is something like a power law, where an urban economy has one or two areas of expertise that have arisen naturally, but with a healthy amount of diversity as well, thereby providing something for everyone.

Ultimately, generalists at the individual level are able to thrive successfully because they are resilient to the many changes around them, and can adapt to new circumstances and information. And I think a city that has a solid generalist approach, with a large amount of diversity—alongside one or two specialized areas—will be able to adapt to change.

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

In the book, you make a distinction between the complicated and the complex. What systems in cities do you think demonstrate that today?

When something is complicated, it is intricate but often lacks the dynamics that makes a system hard to understand. On the other hand, a complex system implies feedback, a sensitive dependence on the initial conditions, and emergent phenomena that are hard to predict.

At the level of urban infrastructure, we can see evidence of complex systems when things go wrong. When a water main breaks and vast portions of a city’s population receive water from a backup system (and have to boil their water, just in case), or when an outage can cause a city to be without power, we see the sensitivity of a city’s infrastructure and the vast complex system that operates for its population, which most of us are normally blissfully unaware of. Similarly, transportation networks, from a subway to the road networks, are also complex technological constructions that are difficult to fully grasp.

In the book you describe the problem of “The Entanglement.” Tell us more about this, and how it might affect cities?

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.

As our cities’ systems grow and increasingly become interconnected, we are finding ourselves in a realm of the Entanglement at the level of our cities. So how should we respond? One response is that of despair and to simply disabuse ourselves of ever fully understanding our urban systems. But a more productive response involves looking at the tools that biologists use to understand living organisms or ecosystems. Since cities do resemble living things, at least in certain ways, perhaps we can use the approaches of biologists for living things and apply them to our own constructions, specifically our cities. This can include such things as cataloging bugs and unexpected behaviors in our infrastructure (like how a naturalist might collect insects), or examine bits and pieces of a city and slowly create a more complete picture of the whole, like studying an ecosystem.

What can science—biology, physics, geometry, computer science etc.—teach us about how to build better cities?

I think we can use ideas from science to at least understand the forces in the growth and development of cities. Obviously, biological thinking can help us to better understand our urban environment, but we might also use ideas from physics to understand how innovation and productivity scale with the population of a city, network science to understand the many different diffuse networks that serve our cities (and perhaps build more robust and efficient ones), and even the quantitative social sciences to see how information spreads within an urban population.

Ultimately, any sort of model that describes a complex system can be useful in providing insight into how cities operate, but we must always recognize that many of these ideas and models are necessarily simplifying constructions, and the details of cities—their economics, deep history, and the choices that caused them to have the structure that they do—will not conform to these simple models. So while these many different models from throughout the sciences can give us insights into our cities, they must always be used with a certain amount of humility, in recognition of the complex reality that is a city.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of an abandoned building in Providence, Rhode Island.

    There's No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood

    Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas?

  2. a photo of a WeWork office building

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  3. Bicycle riders on a package-blocked bicycle lane

    Why Do Micromobility Advocates Have Tiny-Demand Syndrome?

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  4. a photo of Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters in London

    When Climate Activists Target Public Transit

    The climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion is facing a backlash after disrupting commuters on the London Underground.

  5. a photo of cyclists riding beside a streetcar in the Mid Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California.

    San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free

    A just-approved plan will redesign Market Street to favor bikes, pedestrians, and public transit vehicles. But the vote to ban private cars didn’t happen overnight.