Engaging with Complexity to Build Resilience
The evolution of human environments, from cities to farmsteads, is not often viewed in ecological terms; we see the impacts of development on the living world but we are less adept at identifying the living qualities of our built environment.
This situation arises from the human ability to think in distinctly different modes. We process the complexity of the world around us through lateral thinking, a way of thinking that can hold on to seemingly unrelated yet coupled phenomena. When it comes time to make decisions or take actions, we rely on linear thinking--a way of rapidly reducing complexity.
Neither mode of thinking is right or wrong. However, these modes of thinking, whether used individually or collectively, result in distinctly different solutions to needs. During past phases of civilization, the ability to reduce complexity through linear thinking has allowed for focused development of technologies and industrial systems of extraction and production. Our modern notions of how we define efficiencies are grounded in this linear thinking. The power of linear thinking is the ability to isolate the component parts of complex systems. By isolating elements that compose a system we can then take action to make change within the system.
In a world that involves massive and rapid changes to planetary systems we are finding that linear and isolating modes of problem solving are the root of the changes humans have set into motion. Our choices have been very successful, when evaluated in isolation. However, rapid and massive changes are bringing to light other ways to evaluate success. The principle understanding that has emerged is that human needs are inextricably bound to the needs of the planetary systems. The solutions we seek will necessarily be as complex and messy as the systems and patterns of a living world. An embrace of lateral thinking--tackling many needs simultaneously--can allow human development to integrate into the living systems of the planet.
When we apply ecological principles to understanding and developing human habitat, the totality or pattern of relations between humans and their environment comes into focus. A pattern-focused approach reveals that the living qualities of our built environments are not works of singular design genius but artifacts of complexity and negotiation over time.
The linear approach to assessing and making decisions must necessarily ignore the complexity of relationships. As we all know from the relationships we have with other humans, complexity is not just temporal but multi-dimensional. If we begin to reduce people to a linear list of traits we ignore their true complexity, which is developed through a lifetime of learning, choices, and experienced environments. The aggregate of a person must include all three axes of dimensionality. The same holds true for all the components of the living world.
Lateral thinking is the core of a community design process. When coupled with a land-based commitment, the outcomes must resolve human needs over time while integrating solutions into the fabric of living ecosystems and planetary processes.
The core of any design process is the phase of information gathering and problem identification. The standard practice model for delivering design services is for the professional designer to front load much of the research and analysis, even going so far as to do preliminary schematic design for a project space before ever engaging with the communities that will live with the outcomes. This is a linear approach, a practice that seeks to reduce complexity and results in discounting place-based knowledge.
The Design Process is Complex
A community design process leverages the best aspects of linear and lateral thinking. The linear components are organized into clear steps that must be accomplished in order to solve needs. The lateral process seeks recursive explorations and demands that linear conclusions be continuously tested against new understandings.