5.1 The call to adventure

The epic battle waged during the 1960s between Jane Jacobs – writer and community activist, and Robert Moses – the master planner and builder of New York City, has long become the stuff of legends. While usually depicted as a tale of David vs Goliath, this rivalry and the strategies that had decided its fate hold all the underpinnings of Social Acupuncture at its very best. Jacobs was not simply fighting an all-powerful agent, rather she was fighting a complex dynamic system within which Moses was but one formidable player. Her now celebrated success was in undermining and transforming this system, changing not only the urban landscape she lived in, but how cities are viewed, designed and managed to this day.

Her unique impact as a change agent, stemmed from both her intellectual contributions, most notably her 1962 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her grassroot activism.A vocal and adamant critic of Modernist urban design, Jacobs helped fight a chain of urban planning initiatives aimed at expanding roads and traffic lanes close to her home in Greenwich Village. These included a plan to drive heavy traffic through the lovely Washington Park, where one can still today relax, play a game of chess, or enjoy a day out with the family; and most famously offsetting LOMEX -the mega expressway project that would have cut across lower Manhattan, erasing in its path some of today’s most valuable New York real-estate clusters of Soho, Greenwich Village and Little Italy.

Of course, clashes between local communities and authorities are a well-known fixture of any modern city’s life. Yet these were not mere NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) confrontations. They were the focal outlets for much deeper systemic pressures. These included growing tensions between forces for change and forces for conservation; fraught relations amid citizens and public officials; vested interests held by developers, unions, and politicians; down to contradicting worldviews as to the very nature and meaning of city life. Jane’s writings, advocacy, and public activism have pinned and probed all these underlying pressures, ultimately facilitating their transformation.

So how did Jacobs do it? And what exactly did she do? If she changed the system, what system did she change, and how can we better make sense of her strategies? To answer these questions, we need to first make sense of the systemic problem Jacobs had chosen to take on, in other words try and identify in retrospect the complex patterns she wanted to undermine and overturn. In our quest to identify her rival system, we should also remember that the very definition of a systemic phenomenon as ‘problematic’ is after all, agent driven. For example, while many might find gun laws in the US a systemic problem calling for change, others might support the status quo. Similarly, while Jane Jacobs found the actions, policies, and overall direction of urban design of her day destructive to local communities and the vitality of city life, many others actually saw them as progressive.

Systemic change is thus an adversarial effort by definition, with different change agents competing, adapting, and counteracting each other. What each of them needs most is leverage, but what could become leverage for one agent in the system might be completely useless, or inaccessible to another. Thus, both the understanding of one’s “rival system” and his or her potential leverages for changing it are unique and in many ways personalised, ultimately drawing on their own systemic positions and abilities. In Jacobs case, that would have meant first developing a more general sense of the system she had chosen to take on – i.e. what constitutes her systemic problem? What are its driving rationales? What keeps it going? Followed by a clearer understanding of her own strategic position within that system – i.e. where does she fit in? what and who can she get access to? and what dynamics and counter dynamics within this system can she influence best?

5.2 Every complex rival is a social network

If we were to hypothetically look at New York’s urban policies through Jacobs’ eyes, how would we make sense of her complex problem? Like all highly motivated change agents, perhaps a good place to start would be with the actions and decisions that have infuriated her most. Obviously, topping the list was the City’s plan to tear down her own home and neighbourhood as part of an urban regeneration project that would have had the new lower Manhattan Expressway running across it. To prevent it, Jacobs would have first needed to understand the system within which such plans and decisions were made and implemented, starting with the individual decision makers officially entrusted with the power to make such planning choices – the City’s Planning Commission.

Appointed by the Mayor, the Commission’s members held the formal authority to make all decisions regarding the city’s long-term physical development. They were the ones to approve the new expressway and all the redevelopment projects in its path. Unfortunately, even if she could find a way to get to these specific individuals, the Commission’s decisions were not self-generated. Rather, they were the end result of much wheeling and dealing among many different people and bodies across the city’s governing bureaucracy. These included officials and departments in charge of issues such as finance, infrastructure, zoning, or district management, with different sub-committees, public agencies, and associations, all partially involved in the urban design and planning process.

As Jacobs would have dived into the city’s planning labyrinth, pulling together names, positions, and mandates, a network view would have begun to take shape. And yet, the boundary of this network did not stop at the formal municipal gates. Rather, the mapping of people, relations, and connections would have expanded much further afield.

While the city’s authority might approve certain new infrastructure, highways, or housing projects, other agencies, whether public or private, both funded and delivered the actual construction works. Thus, Jacobs’ exploration must have also included the developers, architects, lawyers, union leaders, and politicians with vested interests in the initial promotion and implementation of such projects. With them came key media outlets and journalists covering urban politics and shaping the stories told about public works, regeneration projects, and communities. Lastly of course, were Jacobs own neighbours whose support or opposition to the city’s new plans would greatly influence her ability to operate.

Intuitively, all these different people, playing different roles in different positions, and holding different yet sometimes overlapping interests, belonged to what Jacobs’ would have considered as her “problem space”. In an obscure manner which still had to be assessed, their accumulated actions and interactions created an environment which facilitated the kind of urban renewal she loathed, clearing out whole neighbourhoods, shutting down local highstreets, moving families into detached high-rise projects, while expanding multilane roads and highways. Saving her neighbourhood was therefore not simply down to the few people at the helm of the Planning Commission, rather it required a multitude of players across this dense network to alter their own preferences and actions. Of course, the big question being - why would they?

It is here where a more general understanding of complex networks can shed important light on the relations between individual behaviour and systemic outcomes. While individual actions may be unpredictable and uncontrollable, their accumulated impacts do reflect certain systemic logics and underlying patterns. It is these patterns that form the feedback effects within which the contexts for individual choices are shaped. Hence the fundamental need for a systemic, rather than a tactical change. Crucially though, every human network does share some key fundamental properties that can help direct change agents to their sources of leverage.

5.3 Every network is a continuous pattern, not a fixed structure

How does a system made up of commissioners, politicians, administrators, developers, city planners, journalists, and the likes, operate? It is easy to map out the people and institutions effecting some issue area, but what makes them into a ‘system’? As a slight detour, we first need to take a closer look at the nature of networks.

A network, by definition, consists of people – defined as the network’s nodes; and their connections – shaping the network’s web-like structure. It is the nature of these configurations that stands at the heart of the systemic interplay, explaining both its current patterns of behaviour and its inevitable transformation. Like all human networks, Jacobs’ one had been shaped by some common underlying logic as explained by both network theory and anthropological research.

Whether hunting a mammoth or building a skyscraper, humans were never able to go it alone. Individuals needed to share information, resources, and coordinate their actions so as to access food, build shelter, or gain personal protection. Network structures have thus emerged as the natural organising principle for any society, with personal connections proving fundamental to the survival of any individual. The greater and stronger his or her connections, the higher their survival prospects. Notably, the importance of networking is not a recent phenomenon, as perhaps implied by the seventy-one thousand networking-related book titles currently available on Amazon. The need to connect and maintain our relations with others is seemingly programmed into our DNA.

So how are connections made? And how does one decide who to connect with? Making connections after all comes at a cost. They take time, and usually require some freebie exchanges, they also run some risks as well as carry alternative costs. An aspiring leader chimpanzee for example, might spend hours grooming and befriending others in his community, hoping to build his supporting coalition. But deciding who’s back to rub first might prove tricky. He might spend time grooming some ungrateful chimps, while his rival gains the support of others. He might also miss out on pampering some influencers, those whose status in the community could help him more easily gain the support of others. Our aspiring leader is thus faced with two dilemmas: the first relates to the fundamental problem of any exchange – the question of trust; the second relates to the need to optimise one’s network positioning. In the case of both challenges, humans have developed unique strategies that enabled them to collaborate across ever larger scales of networks, and in effect, take over the world.

Let us start with the challenge of trust. Trust is a core element in any social exchange. How could one know if the hunter he sets off with will play his role, will fairly share their game, or for that matter if he is any good? Similarly, how does one know today if after transferring an agreed amount of money, the shoes he just ordered online will be delivered? Economists would highlight the importance of repeated transactions. Hunting for food, like buying shoes, are not one-off events. The participants in these transactions will want to collaborate again and therefore have an incentive to stay true to their initially stated commitments. Moreover, as everyone would want to exchange something at some point, societies will develop some rules-based institutional frameworks that would serve as partial trust mechanisms. Having said that, human connections rarely start off with actual transactions, a certain need for personal familiarity seems to exist first.

The ability to create personal familiarity and rapport are both rudimentary and sophisticated at the same time, laying the groundwork for all human connectivity and collaboration. As Yuval-Noah Harari beautifully explains in his epic book Sapiens[1], the innovative way through which humans have learned to mine and share fragmented information about each other has given us our competitive edge. Current research suggests that around seventy thousand years ago, a genetic mutation effectively rewired the sapiens brain. Dubbed the ‘cognitive revolution’ it gave us the unique ability to communicate information outside of an immediate context. Of course, most animals have some means of communication, warning each other of coming predators or signalling the directions to food and water. Yet sapiens seem to be the only ones who can convey information about something that has no immediate or physical manifestation. In other words, to gossip.

Years before tabloids, the emergence of gossiping created a qualitative leap in human collaboration. On the one hand, it provides a critical source of information for building personal reputations. On the other hand, perhaps similarly to the grooming rituals among our ape forerunners, it provides a bonding vehicle in its own right - another form of social exchange that is not purely transactional. An accumulated stream of fragmented information about others in our network’s proximity provides some familiarity when considering specific collaborations or even simply considering whether to connect with someone or not. Interestingly, such information would tend to focus on the subject’s personal traits, behaviours, or experiences. Rather than gossiping about the CEO’s business credentials, people might gossip about her shopping habits, the way she treated her friends in high school, or her love life.

Naturally prone to risk aversion (and perhaps a bit of Schadenfreude) we also seem to pay more attention to negative bits of intel. When little is known we tend to revert to virtue signalling - consciously and unconsciously looking for any signs of incompatibility in how people dress, their handshake, accents, or the language terms they use. These tend to be assessed via our own subjective experiences with a tendency to prefer connecting with those displaying some shared similarities with our own, overtime creating greater homophily across networks. Reputation and social signalling thus become our network-building filters.

Crucially, once connections seem to prove themselves certain levels of loyalty tend to sink in. Like the synapses in our brain, the more intense and frequent the interactions, the stronger the individual ties become. In other words, exchanges themselves, whether social, economic or political, become a strategy for maintaining and strengthening existing bonds rather than simply creating mutually beneficial transactions.

When given the opportunity for example, to share new information or business opportunities that have come our way, we will tend to prefer existing connections, using the interaction to strengthen both our ties and our reputation. In this sense, networking is not only a natural expansion process but also an editing process – we choose to connect and interact with some as well as choose (consciously or unconsciously) not to connect or interact with others. Overtime this creates certain layouts within the network, with clusters of people more intensely connected to each other than to others. This natural formation of cliques, coalitions, counter coalitions, and those simply left out, is further driven by another critical networking attribute – ‘preferential attachment’.

When faced with alternative opportunities, we tend to prefer connecting and interacting with those who have more connections. Such preference creates a positive feedback loop whereby the more connections one has the more others will prefer to connect with them, thereby intensifying the process as a whole. Thus, when mapping network distributions of friends, communities of experts, or even website links, a common pattern seems to emerge. All these networks will display a small number of nodes with many connections – dubbed as ‘hubs’, while most nodes will have only a few connections[2]. Rather than a gradual process whereby connections spread and deepen evenly across large groups of people, it seems social networks follow what scientists refer to as ‘scale-free power law’ distributions, with spontaneously emerging hierarchies of status and influence.

All this tells us more about what a system is, as well as what it isn’t. First, it is not a machine-like coordinated effort towards some shared common agenda or outcome, rather it is a distributed pattern whereby individuals choose to connect and interact locally in a manner that overtime synchronises to create the systemic outcomes experienced by everyone involved. There is no intent nor organised method of operation behind the system, it is simply a network build on connection which have assembled overtime and were based as much about social familiarity as about immediate joint interests.

Second, such a network is not a fixed structure of nodes and connections, rather it is more like a living, breathing, dynamic assemblage, continuously recreated via energies exchanged across individual connections. These energy flows may consist of bits of information, money, traded goods and services, or simply social cues signalling the do’s and don’ts of what is deemed as the “acceptable” or “normal” behaviour. As long as such energies continue to flow through the network, their dominating patterns of operation and outputs will not only continue, but will also intensify.

In this sense, the system Jacobs faced was neither a coherent, organised, or intentional rival with which she could openly debate alternative solutions, nor a set of individual players with whom she could negotiate and barter. Rather it was a historically rooted collection of well-connected cliques and hubs, familiar both with each other and with an existing way of doing things. Like all systems, it too emerged and self-organised over many years with overlapping personal, business and political connections, continuously strengthening among individuals opening their doors to similar others in their network’s proximity.

As long as such synchronised action proved beneficial to its participants, the network would draw in even more information and resources towards it, while at the same time strengthening its emerging layout and power structures. To offset or disrupt it, Jacobs would have to make sense of these power dynamics, identifying the flows, hierarchies and hubs that lay at its core.

5.4 Every network weaves its own power structures

From a systemic perspective, power reflects someone’s ability to a) access flows of knowledge, money and resources transmitted across their network; and b) take part in the collective actions that harness such flows. In this sense power accumulates almost effortlessly once certain dynamics are put in place. For example, as Sandra Navidi suggests in Superhubs[3], the accumulated power and therefore wealth yielded by the global financial elite, does not emerge out of some carefully crafted masterplan or coordinated action. Rather, like all complex patterns, it emerges through the self-organisation of a tightly interactive network.

Leading financiers, policy makers, and CEOs tend to run into each other at frequent international forums such as Davos or the IMF meetings, their children might go to the same network of private international schools, their business transactions will sometimes overlap, while their norms and their political preferences for influencing the rules by which economics play out will converge over time. Just like Jacobs’ system, here too individual access to information, resources, and opportunities to collaborate are determined by connections and random collisions between socialising individuals.

Any power generated across a network is therefore systemic rather than a personal attribute, reflecting a self-sustaining pattern of information and resource flows within an intensely connected network. Everyone’s power is drawn from their relative position in relations to others, a position which continuously shifts through their interactions and the rippling interactions of others. Nevertheless, the more connections a node may have the more potential power they may yield. Thus, the strongest centres of power tend to be generated by the network’s greatest hubs. Unusually though, in Jacobs’ system such flows gravitated towards a hub with no personal wealth nor formal political standing – Robert Moses.

Over the condensed 1162 pages of his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Power Broker, Robert Caro carefully untangles, and lays bare the power relations that have made Robert Moses a legend - the ‘master builder’ of New York City. Though classified as a biography depicting Moses’s forty-four years in public office, the book truly explores the everyday, almost mundane, manifestations of power - how it is created, harnessed, and utilised, inadvertently shaping individual lives, communities and economies. Like all systems, while Moses might have been deemed the most powerful American public servant that ever lived, his power was a systemic product, harnessed through network relations and exchanges built over many years.

Ironically perhaps, Moses himself started out as a highly successful change agent. Making his way into the close circle of New York’s progressive Governor - Alfred Smith, he took on the challenge of public parks. While this might seem a peripheral social issue, with over five and a half million people, New York of the 1920s was a densely populated city quickly expanding eastwards. Factories and workshops intermixed with shops and cramped old residentials, with the scent of clean air and open greenery far and in between.

If New Yorkers were to venture outside their city, they would find very little accessible nature, with most open fields held as part of vast private estates owned by the great robber barons of the time. The latter also seemed to do their very best to keep the masses away, using their own connections with local elected officials to oppose public land use, transportation, or the upkeep of local roads a further disincentive for outsiders to venture near them[4]. The need for “lungs for the city” and “breathing space for the slums” has thus become a poignant social and political issue[5].

In 1922, almost by chance, Robert Moses identified vast woodlands owned by the Brooklyn Water Authority in Long Island. Bought in the 1870s the whole area was meant as a backup source for extreme cases of water shortages, but had never been used. Moses stumbled upon his first potential public park. What he then needed was the authority to develop it for public use, and the means to construct new transportation routes that would assure easy access for its expected crowds of weekly visitors. This inevitably meant taking over the privately-owned lands in its path, building access roads as well as securing significant government funding. After a couple of hard years pushing his vision through the governor’s support network, Moses finally broke through, and in 1924 was officially appointed ‘President of the Long Island State Park Commission’.

Using his unique experience, connections, and insider’s knowledge of bureaucratic and legislative processes, Moses was able to create an extensive mandate for both himself and his commission, with surprising powers of condemnation and funding through renewable bonds. While initially confronted by strong opposition, within a few years he had successfully wrestled with some of the richest families of the state, winning political support in new circles and the public at large. His growing reputation as an incorruptible and effective public official taking on the rich and powerful, was also a pattern that would help sustain his power and prevent critical media coverage of his choices for decades to come.

Crucially for our story, as Moses started bringing his visions to life, something systemically magical started to happen. As the newly created Parks Commission began injecting new resources into the environment, new network dynamics began to take shape. Overtime, old existing hubs weakened, and a new network landscape began to take shape – the one Jacobs would have to contend with three decades later.

As Caro explains[6], the construction of parkways provided a great new resource for politicians. First of all, they required real-estate transactions of mostly unused lands leaving landowners financially better off. Knowledge of, not to mention direct involvement in deciding parkways plans, offered politicians great new opportunities to share valuable information with their preferred connections, thereby enhancing loyalties, opening doors to new connections and laying the ground for future reciprocities. Condemnation also meant legal procedures which drew in well-connected attorneys pushing for high compensations, awarded generously (after all, the state was paying) by claims judges who have also risen through the ranks via old political connections.

The new roads connecting hitherto inaccessible sleepy towns created a new supply of housing and industrial development, with rippling effects for gas stations, insurance brokerage, material supplies and a whole range of subcontractors, laying the groundwork for a future suburbia. Almost overnight a new ecology emerged, with multiple players seeking out connections and access to the great new resources flowing in their proximity. The Parks Commission with Moses at its helm, became a new gravitation base, drawing in ever more connections and willingness to collaborate on new development projects.

As Moses moved from parkways to highways, from highways to bridges, and from bridges to inner-city public works (ironically Moses never learned to drive), the same forces continued to propel him forward, drawing in ever more players wishing to connect to this burgeoning network and take part in its endeavours. Referring to himself merely as a coordinator, Moses used his hub status vigilantly, negotiating pathways and awarding contracts only to those who supported his ever-expanding mandates, helped him push through the necessary legislation, or assured him public funding support. At his pinnacle, the “New York’s Master Builder” formally held twelve titles, lead numerous public projects, and facilitated the kind of power relations necessary for pushing through transformational public projects.

For Jacobs, understanding the power dynamics shaping her rival system meant she could not really change the preferences and behaviours of the people involved without some disruption of these protracted dynamics. And yet, to start designing a winning strategy, it was not enough to understand the stickiness of the system or the power relations that held it together. There was one more systemic property needed for effective network collaboration – collective myths and narratives.

5.5 Every system tells itself a story

Moses’s system fed off the money, information and social bonding generated through the construction of large-scale public projects. Yet the physical outcomes of this system could have taken on many different forms. Why build highways rather than rails and trains? Surely you can make money doing both; Why run them through the city’s centre or parallel to the river banks? Why separate high-rise apartment blocks from public amnesties, and commercial or manufacturing spaces?

None of these were intentionally created to sabotage the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Rather they reflected a certain worldview, a shared vision of what a modern city and a modern urban society should aspire to. Most importantly they provided a common set of values, directives, and means of organisation shared across the system’s network, thereby effectively facilitating its interactions and exchanges. To better understand its underlying logics, we must first revisit Yuval Harari’s analysis of the Sapiens’ cognitive revolution.

Human’s ability to share information outside of an immediate or sensory context had taken us much further than mere gossiping apes. It has enabled us to develop a whole new capacity for networked collaboration at unprecedented scales. As previously suggested, human endeavour requires network collaboration, one which requires sharing information and coordinating action.

When operating in small family-like groups, this can be achieved relatively easily as all participants can directly communicate, negotiate and agree on goals and tactics. For larger collectives, gossiping played a constructive role in creating the levels of familiarity and intimacy needed to work effectively. Yet research lead by Robin Dunbar has shown that as a trust building mechanism, gossiping tends to lose efficiency beyond a certain network size, usually tipped at around one hundred and fifty participants[7]. Apparently, however many friends you might think you have on Facebook, deeper personal familiarity has its social and cognitive limits. And yet, humans have been able to scale up network synchronisation and collaboration beyond this Dunbar limit. So how have societies been able to coordinate farming and irrigation systems, not to mention economies, or wars?

Unlike ants and other social insects, human societies have not evolved swarm-like properties by which repeated simple behaviours produce information flows, feedbacks effects and continuous adaptation. We therefore required some other more sophisticated mechanisms to enable scaling up our collaborative networks. As Harari explains, the secret to how large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully is found in their common beliefs[8]. It is human imagination, the stories we tell ourselves about the reality we live in, and the potential future realities we could collectively create, that give our daily actions their primary compass.

Rather than a pronounced purpose or plan, shared myths provide a more abstract compass, reflecting some common understandings of the cause-effect relations shaping reality around us and a set of shared ambitions deemed worth aspiring to. These are the big collective ideas, nudging our daily decisions and preferences and legitimising institutional structures and organisational hierarchies. In other words, they fundamentally explain – ‘the normal’ to such an extent that in our day-to-day we do not question its existence. It usually takes someone new to the system, say a child, to ask why things are the way they are. He or she might be told that it’s because God said so, because supply ultimately meets demand, or because all men are born equal. Similarly, every industry, political arena, or community of knowledge would hold its own set of shared myths, together creating a coherent doctrine to guide its participants in their local transactions and interactions.

Like all systemic phenomena, doctrines are also an emergent property, well adapted to wider systemic conditions whether technological, political or economic. Consequently, as these conditions slowly shift over time they gradually undermine a doctrine’s fit with its environment, ultimately leading to its demise, and the rise of a new one in its place. All areas of social endeavour witness the rise and fall of doctrines, with the rise of new ones sparking episodes of effective collaborative action, and their unravelling instigating network inefficiency, disintegration, and conflict.

Over the last fifty years for example, the World Bank and the wider international aid community has been governed by three consecutive and very different doctrines. During the seventies the nature of development and the purpose of international aid had focused on providing for the basic needs of the most vulnerable in poor countries, with governments deemed as the engines of development; Over the eighties, development was viewed as maximising market growth and the purpose of aid given to facilitating market expansion, with governments told to get out of the way; from the mid-nineties to development was reconceived as a comprehensive nation-building endeavour and the purpose of aid focused on strengthening governance, law and order, and social institutions. Still today, the network driving global development seems to be going through a new doctrinal shift with no clear conceptual framework dominating as of yet.

Notwithstanding their underlying philosophical and political worldviews, the systemic role development doctrines have always played remained the same – providing the diverse network of governments, aid institutions, and NGOs an ideational anchor, key shared concepts and a common language for synchronising their policies and projects.

Just like the framing of a common understanding as to what development is and how best to achieve it, the behaviour dominating urban planning networks was also rooted in a certain guiding vision. For mid-century America, this vision was Modernist Urbanism. Like all doctrines it too emerged out of a shared wish to solve a complex problem. In this case, it was the degraded urban environment of the 1930s.

While skyscrapers might have symbolized some of man’s greatest engineering achievements, helping lure more and more people into the great cities of the time, a continuous surge of newcomers together with the Great Depression created appalling urban despair. Overcrowding, dirt, pollution, and disease, simply did not fit with the promise of the “skyscraper city”[9]. The progressive zeitgeist of the time, eager to improve city life, dreamt of wiping the slate clean and starting again from scratch. Emboldened by the victories of WWII, a sense of social optimism, and a renewed belief in grand public projects, architects and city planners began translating the modernist vision into actual visuals and blueprints.

Visions for future modern cities, highly influenced by the ideas of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, began taking hold during the twenties and thirties. By the time of the Futurama exhibition of 1939, presented as part of New York’s World Fair, its key attributes seemed to be within reach. Displaying superhighways running through green open spaces, reaching carefully placed geometrical superblocks surrounded by light and air, it portrayed an almost antidote to the messy, crowded, and dark tenement misery of the time. This new vision of a clean and organised urban future won the hearts and minds of politicians and the public alike, and set expectations from leaders, city planners and master builders, such as Robert Moses.

Fundamentally, this idealistic vision for the modern city can be best demonstrated in four principles. First, was the need to completely reorganise the physical space according to urban functions. Inspired by the logic of machines, urban efficiency was viewed as a reflection of its segregated parts, with residential, industrial, and commercial areas neatly separated into distinct geographical areas.

Second, was the need to do away with streets and street life. Eliminating poverty and cleaning up slum culture required the elimination of informal spaces for people to congregate, such as extensive sidewalks. Third, was the view of cars as the new social emancipator, with highways as “arteries of progress” powering the new city. Lastly was the view point of the city planner, looking at the city from above. The new modernist urban utopia could only be engineered top down. Massive transformations required a mandated supervisor taking a bird’s eye view, scanning where everything was and where it should go[10].

Throughout the forties and fifties, urban renewal projects across the US tended to adhere to these Modernist principles, yet the unique power Moses was able to amass and his unique ability to facilitate his network’s effectiveness, meant New York was able to implement them on a much larger scale.

The different commissioners, politicians, administrators, developers, city planners, and journalists making up Jacobs’ rival system were not only well connected and benefiting from the system’s outputs, they also shared a general belief in the direction the system was operating, seeing urban renewal as the answer to blight, without which the city would continue to rot away. It is this implicit understanding that facilitated the network’s efficiency and led the ins and outs of everyday activities, one that Jacobs would have to address for real systemic change to happen.

5.6 Every system harbours its own demise

As explored throughout this chapter, complex problems are not random. The decision to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway and relocate the communities living in its path was part of an overall pattern of urban policies which had developed in New York City for many years. It reflected certain ideas and worldviews about what cities need and how they should be organised. In fact, these ideas were shared across most great American cities at the time.

The ways in which such visions were brought to life also reflected certain socially accepted processes of decision-making, collective action, and business norms. Equally, they reflected certain power relations that allowed the preferences and choices of some within the urban planning network, to override those of others. All these were channelled through a dense network, with each node contributing intentionally or unintentionally, to its protraction through their own daily actions and interactions. It is all these factors together that had made up Jacobs’ systemic problem.

To offset this system Jacobs had to strategically approach each of these systemic dimensions. Unless she was able to seed an alternative worldview into the existing governing doctrine, even sympathetic nodes would not find a compass to guide them, not to mention synchronise their actions; Unless she found a way to access the network she would not be able to identify counter cliques and oppositions in waiting; Unless she identified key resources and information flows to disrupt, the system would simply continue to sustain itself by its own inertia.

Yet Jacobs did not have to go it alone. Like all successful change agents in history, she was helped by the greater forces of change around her. All she had to do was find a way to ride these waves and take advantage of their emerging momentums towards leveraging her own agenda. But how would she know where to look for them? Well just as the nature of complex dynamics explained her system’s formation and continuity, so could they help uncover its patterns of demise. While the former is all about convergence and enhancement, the latter is all about contradictions and systemic tensions – perhaps the social equivalent of entropy.

As complex systems emerge and take hold, a different set of dynamics begins to set in – systemic tensions. A tension is a dynamic by which emerging patterns seem to be putting opposing pressures on individual actions and opportunities. For example, as spiking oil prices in the mid and late noughties maximised the economic and political power of its state producers, so did it push the incentive to develop alternative energy sources such as shale gas, ultimately enabling the US to reach energy self-sufficiency; as mass-produced consumer goods in Asia made private consumption ever cheaper and more accessible, so did it raise demand for luxury and small-scale artisan goods, as well as set of cultural trends such as the makers movement; and throughout history, as political values emphasizing the needs of society at large became dominant, so did undercurrents for extreme individualism take root.

Systemically, it seems every dominant trend seems to emerge with its own “anti-trend” in tandem. The network formed as the basis for Jacobs’ system, also generated a natural gathering of potential opposition - the politicians, lawyers, contractors, not to mention the community activists, who did not end up as part of Moses’ orbit, and who needed to carve out another path for themselves; the money and opportunities initially charging the system slowly clogged up; and the utopia of Modern Urbanism accumulated the inconsistencies of reality; moreover all these transpired within the wider social and political shifts of the time.

Taking advantage of history is neither a stroke of luck nor an inevitable outcome. Like a living organism, Jacobs’ complex problem was a conceptually coherent network-based structure, and energy-dependent by nature. Undermining it would require a string of interventions across all dimensions – from the ideational to the transactional. With her heretic approach to urban development, intuitive understanding of complex dynamics, strategic ingenuity, and a bit of luck, Jacobs effectively worked to bring her rival system to a halt. Exactly how will be discussed in the next chapter.

[1] Yuval-Noah Harari, Sapiens – a brief history of humankind, (Vintage: 2015).

[2] See Barabasi, Linked: the new science of networks, (Basic Books: 2014).

[3] Sandra Navidi, Superhubs: how the financial elite and their networks rule our world, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, (London 2016)

[4] Robert Calo, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York City, (Alfred Knopf: 1974)

[5] Calo, p143

[6] Ibid 207-212

[7] Robin Dunbar, How Many Friends Does One Person Need? (Faber and Faber: 2010).

[8] Sapiens, Kindle location 426

[9] Matt Tyrnuare, Citizen Jane – Battle for the City, 2016. (documentary)

[10] Ibid