Urban Networks Overview
Like all complex systems, our urban infrastructure has developed through an evolutionary process over a prolonged period. Evolution is a process of development that acts on technologies on all scales. An electrical power grid is a good example, since its inception in the Industrial Age, electrical grids have evolved from local systems that serviced a particular geographic area to wider expansive networks that incorporate multiple areas, typically covering a whole nation. At no point was there the option to simply build the whole national electrical infrastructure from start as a homogeneous system.
These massive networks, like power grids and global supply chains, illustrate why evolution is very important within complex systems. Because they are too complex to build from start, we never get a clean slate; one person or organization could not create the Internet with all its content. These things only really get created by many different actors with different local level agendas. Think about a city like Saint Petersburg, this could not be created by developing a master plan and building the whole thing in one go from start. These things get built over a prolonged period of time, primarily due to the local incentives of individuals and local organizations as they act and react to each other’s behavior, self-organizing to create patterns of coordination, which both compete and cooperate to eventually give us some kind of emergent global coordination. And all the time, evolution is acting on the system in order to define which patterns of organization are best suited and which are not.
Individual component parts of our engineered environment don’t exist in isolation. They are part of a whole ecosystem of other technologies, organizations, and processes and their utility is not just defined by how well they operate in isolation but also defined by how well they fit into that environment. For this reason, it is not always the most efficient solutions that get adopted but instead those that fit in with existing processes and people’s way of doing things. Technologies and services today rarely stand alone. They more often form part of service networks that deliver functionality, and thus their effectiveness is also largely in their capacity to interoperate with other technologies and provide a required differentiated function within these service systems that make up our urban environment.