Wednesday 3 August 2011

Harnessing the benefits of complexity

Harnessing the benefits of complexity: Synopsis 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 the 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 presents 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 to 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 one’s 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 gameplay complex, competitive and capricious.

To achieve victory in these environments, one can adopt various different ‘strategies’, all of which essentially involve outmanoeuvring 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 economic 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 gameplay engrossing is the many different tactics that player can adapt. Players can 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 adopt a defensive stance, where the player protects one’s 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 enough 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 a great military cost to the oppressor and, 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 a way, 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 are no longer worth the effort and both city-states are resource-rich and have 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 of 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 the emergence of these warring superpowers. 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 the 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 the building of a Wonder. A Wonder in the parlance of an 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 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 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 Lagosian 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.


Image credit: Screenshot from the interwebs (Google Image Search for 'City Complexity' and 'Age of Empires Screenshots’), used with thanks



1 comment:

Christine Barr said...

Thanks forr writing this