Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Harnessing the benefits of complexity: Synopis for the concept of City State
According to the United Nations State of the World Population Report in 2007, sometime in the middle of 2007, for the first time in the history of the human civilization, the majority of people in the world started living in urban areas rather than rural regions. The 20th and 21st centuries will see the largest cumulative migration of the human race, since the time our ancestors left Africa and started populating the continents of our vast planet some hundred thousand years ago - only this time around, instead of diverging across vast spaces of land we will be converging into dense agglomerations called mega-cities. At the same time the total size of our population has been growing exponentially after one hundred millennia of linear growth. One of the consequences of the enormous growth in the population of humans on the planet – estimated to reach 7 billion by end of 2011 from as low as a billion in 1800 – has been the mass exodus from villages and migration into cities.

Expert commentators have written both in awe and appreciation of this grand re-organisation of human populations and in tones of dire warning and prophecies of cataclysm of what this drastic change might mean to the sustainability of our planet and of our race in the future.
This post is meant to be a first draft collection of thoughts exploring this significant ongoing development which also presrents a peculiar dichotomy. The simultaneous growth of two socio-economic phenomena – large scale urbanisation and exponential population growth – which seem both like mutual stimulants and deterrents of each other. I will be following up this post in the following days with more research on this topic, at the core of which will be an exploration in the idea of scale, and how the right size poses significant advantages (no puns intended), despite the complexity it might bring with it.
But before exploring this, a small digression, to describe a simulated environment which might help identify the unique nature of scale and complexity and how they spontaneously influence each other to evolve positive outcomes.
One of the most time consuming, but intensely satisfying activities I did back when I was in school and college, was play the famous strategy game Age of Empires and its various versions on my computer. First I played against opponents generated by the artificial intelligence engine of the computer program, but soon found it more interesting and challenging to pit my wits against another player in an online multiplayer format. Each player in this game takes on the role of a strategist, a puppeteer or as some would see it a central planner, with a goal to marshal ones military, economic and labour resources to advance one’s society. The game engine is built to simulate various constraints and provide comparative advantages between different societies to make the game play complex, competitive and capricious.
To achieve victory in these environments, one can adapt various different ‘strategies’, all of which essentially involve out manoeuvring one’s opponents either through – direct military conquest or in a roundabout way through sheer economic dominance, leading to the stifling and eventual collapse of the opponent’s economy. While some measure of both military and economics activities are required in either case, each of them differs in the scale of the prime activity, biasing them to military or economic nature of victory. Beginners typically start by gathering resources provided by nature and which they then allocate to build housing, military training and socio-technological infrastructure. This is then used to create armies which can go and demolish and destroy the resources and military elements of the opponent thereby achieving victory. Within this controlled environment, what makes game play engrossing is the many different tactics that player can adapt. Players can be adopt an aggressive military strategy with skirmishing bands of cavalry, infantry and ranged units which are sent roving around the map of the game universe, continuously harrowing their opponents. Or they can adapt a defensive stance, where the player protects ones units with a large standing army, supported by fortifications to ‘claim’ territory and protect it against the intrusion by armies of the opponent.
But as one advances up the difficulty levels and as the opponent’s competence level increases, what becomes evident is that both an aggressive military force and defensive fortifications, both become hygiene factors and victory conditions become increasingly complex and demanding. Economic and socio-technological advancement allows players to build up sufficient resources to prevent the complete routing of one’s military forces and the destruction of one’s labour led supply side. Like a central planner’s utopia, territories are organised by a master planner into productive sections of city-states with defensive fortifications – supported by patrols and early warning beacons along the periphery of ones ‘claimed’ land – and subsequent inner concentric zones or regions of military and economic buildings and units, working to essentially replenish military strength and accumulating wealth
As this massive military-industrial complex model of the warring territories - organised into city states - evolves, even siege weapons and aggressive military opportunism do not help the player to attain the conditions of victory through military conquest of the opponent. Repeated military skirmishes against the enemy result only in the denting of the periphery of the fortifications at great military cost to the oppressor and also, the defensive military units within the walls are advanced enough to thwart any attack onto the society’s core. Similarly, even as the total natural resources in the game universe are exhausted – starting with rare metals followed by other resources like stone and wood – the essential scale of these city states it seems is advanced enough to continue to thrive. This is achieved by establishing a trade based structure to essentially keep the cycle going, eliminating sheer economic dominance as away to achieve victory by making it untenable to stifle the opponent’s economy by limiting access to resources.
It would seem that the warring sides have reached an impasse - a situation where the costs of military skirmishes against the enemy is no longer worth the effort and both city-states are resource rich and have a gained sufficient merit to sustain their society’s resource bill. However, it is important to note that the aversion for military opportunism in this scenario is not because of the fear of retribution, in the sense of mutually assured destruction – like in the heyday of the nuclear arms race between the Americans and Soviets – but in the sense of the lack benefits at the margin. This it would seem to be a unique case of a stalemate – a positive sum solution in an essentially zero-sum environment – all made possible apparently by the development of city-states.
In the upcoming posts I hope to further explore the proposition which postulates that as our societies seem to be hurtling uncontrollably towards doom - catalysed by the gargantuan complexity resulting from population growth and urbanisation and multiplied by the need to feed large populations on apparently limited resources - there is an inherent opportunity. This very complexity in its manifestation in the development of the mega city-state is essentially an antidote to the prediction of gloom and doom and the imminent resource wars of the mid twenty first century. And that if allowed to emerge in their strongest form, the city-states of the twenty first century can actually be an engine for peaceful growth – a positive sum game out of an apparent zero-sum environment.
But before I wind up this post, I must assuage the outrage some hardcore gamers and Age of Empires experts might be feeling right now, by acknowledging that I have taken some liberties in describing the scenario of emergence of these warring super powers. Any Age of Empires aficionado worth his salt will immediately realise that the apparent notion that the supply side of supporting the city-state’s demanding resource bill can be supported through trade alone is incorrect. This pipeline will become very unstable once the natural resources are completely exhausted. This is because trading requires open markets, which are only possible if there are allies.
However, while the Age Of Empires environment is designed to ensure victory only at detrimental costs to the opponent through military appropriation, this need not be the case in the real world. While I am in no way arguing for a purely ‘financial trading everywhere’ scenario in the real world as a parallel to the unfettered open markets in the game, global free trade (adequately regulated) is seen by almost everyone, excepting those from the extreme left and the extreme right, as best way to even deal with rouge nations. But that said, I must also note that even an inherently zero-sum environment like the AOE universe, does offer a benign way to achieve victory arising out of the impasse of warring super city-states – by building of a Wonder. A Wonder in the parlance of a Age of Empires gamers is the manifestation of the heights to which the city-state can grow, a monument so grand that building it poses an immense drain on resources for a society and can therefore be afforded only by the most meritorious and accomplished.
In the universe of Age of Empires, a wonder is usually manifest as a grand monument – a cathedral, a temple or a pyramid – which embodies the meritocracy of the builder society. Anybody who builds one and can retain that merit for an extended period of time is according to the algorithm of the game, worthwhile as being heralded as a winner. It would not be improbable to imagine parallels in the real world, of meritorious traits being heralded as signposts indicating winners – the productivity of the New Yorker, the quality standards of a Munchener, the design aesthetics of a Sao Paulista, the temerity of a Mumbaikar, the dedication of a Shanghaian, the prudence of a Lagosean etc.
With the right scale, it is possible to manage and channel complexity to attain sufficient merit to build the real world equivalents of a Wonder. It will be the essential argument of my further research on this topic that cities are the best expression we have of an economic, social and political unit that is capable of the harnessing the benefits of scale and complexity by tying them together in a tight mutual order to forge a grand future.
I will elaborate some thoughts on the resources (and inspirations), I will be using to further this point of view on the topic of scale and complexity in my upcoming posts. 
Image credit: Screenshot from the interwebs (Google Image Search for 'City Complexity' and 'Age of Empires Screenshots'), used with thanks

Monday, 7 March 2011


An interesting map of the submarine data cables that keep the global networks humming can be found here.

One can zoom in and out of the map just like any other Google map.
When any of the lines indicating the submarine cables are clicked, data pertaining to that cable are displayed. This includes details like: date since when it has been in service (RFS - Ready For Service), the total cable length, the landing points.
An interesting data that it displays is the owners list. Many of the submarine cables seem to be owned by multiple corporations from multiple nationalities. This is understandable - considering the nature of investment required and the distribution of the utility derived.
This is a reality of the way our transnational, global resources are owned and accessed in today's world.
However, if seen in the context of how other scare resource with multiple ownership is increasingly been seen as a trigger for future conflict, the ownership diversity of submarine cables can be alarming.
Take for instance this snippet of information I came across -  40% of human population today gets its fresh water from sources that are 'controlled' by two or more countries (UN Millennium Project). This is being seen as a probable driver of future conflict considering that water is a scarce resource.
Brahma Chellaney's new bookWater: Asia's New Battlegroundis a pioneering study on the topic of water scarcity and the potential of shared water resources to become a trigger for conflict.
Asia is home to many of the world's great rivers and lakes, but its huge population and exploding economic and agricultural demand for water make it the most water-scarce continent on a per capita basis. Many of Asia's water sources cross national boundaries, and as less and less water is available, international tensions will rise. The potential for conflict is further underscored by China's unrivaled global status as the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries, ranging from India and Vietnam to Russia and Kazakhstan; yet a fast-rising China has declined to enter into water-sharing or cooperative treaties with these states, even as it taps the resources of international rivers.
While bandwidth infrastructure cannot be compared on a one-is-to-one basis with a natural resource like water, it will be interesting to study the implications of the multiple ownership of 'bandwidth' infrastructure in the future, considering that 'all' of our information nowadays flows through these cables?
The short answer is - in this case it could be a good thing that there are multiple owners, as it limits the risk of misappropriation by any one group or nation. However, I will be researching more on this topic in the upcoming days and will try to develop more robust scenarios to explore the implications of multiple ownership of bandwidth infrastructure.  
As a corollary to this discussion, it is worthwhile checking out Parag Khanna's TED talk (here) on how infrastructure (oil pipelines, etc) are redefining the map of the World, beyond the boundaries of nation states.
Image Credit: Screenshots from TeleGeography's SubmarineCableMap, used with thanks