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21 Jan

Thinking Fast and Slow: Systems Edition — Part 2

“Things that are good have a certain kind of structure. You can’t get that structure except dynamically. Period. In nature you’ve got continuous very-small-feedback-loop adaptation going on, which is why things get to be harmonious. That’s why they have the qualities that we value. If it wasn’t for the time dimension, it wouldn’t happen. Yet here we are playing the major role in creating the world, and we haven’t figured this out. That is a very serious matter.

... What does it take to build something so that it’s really easy to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you’ve made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what is already there? You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate, whatever. This kind of adaptation is a continuous process of gradually taking care.

... Because the adaptation is detailed and profound, each place takes on a unique character. Slowly, the variety of places and buildings begins to reflect the variety of human situations in the town. This is what makes the town alive.”

— Christopher Alexander, Architect and Design Theorist

Have you ever been to a place and thought to yourself, "Wow, this place feels so homely and cozy!"

Why do some places feel unwelcoming and hostile while others feel warm and homely?

The reason often is that the one that feels unwelcoming often strongly imposes its philosophy top-down on its inhabitants in such a strong way that it almost feels totalitarian.

These systems are designed (read over-designed) top-down in a way where they do not allow any meaningful diversion from what the structure has already dictated. Anything that doesn't abide by the same aesthetic immediately feels out of place, and perhaps, this effect carries over to the people visiting these spaces as well.

The top-down structure doesn't allow large deviations and modifications, it imposes a way of operating and living, it is inflexible and it has a strong opinion.

"Grand, final-solution buildings obsolesce and have to be torn down because they were too overspecified to their original purpose to adapt easily to anything else. Temporary buildings are thrown up quickly and roughly to house temporary projects."

In contrast, there are structures that impose minimally to boot and are flexible enough to allow its residents to shape it from the bottom up. Over time, such a place takes on the character and personality of the people living in it.

And just like humans — who have value systems that are more or less consistent over long time spans and habits that keep changing with the seasons — you will often find that this place has some structural elements that stay constant with time while it has certain other non-structural elements that keep changing based on the changing preferences imposed by the environment and its residents.

"The insight is this: “The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components simply following along.” Slow constrains quick; slow controls quick. The same goes with buildings: the lethargic slow parts are in charge, not the dazzling rapid ones.

... The slower processes of a building gradually integrate trends of rapid change within them. The speedy components propose, and the slow dispose. If an office keeps replacing its electronic stuff often enough, finally management will insist that the space plan acquire a raised floor to make the constant recabling easier, and that’s when the air conditioning and electrical services will be revamped to handle the higher load.

... The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint. Buildings steady us, which we can probably use. But if we let our buildings come to a full stop, they stop us."

The best systems and buildings start feeling more and more alive and human as time passes.

And what author Stewart Brand posits in his book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built is that this sort of thing essentially has to do with freedom.

Freedom from what, you ask? Well, there's a list of factors.

"A young couple moves into an old farmhouse or old barn, lit up with adventure. An entrepreneur opens shop in an echoing warehouse, an artist takes over a drafty loft in the bad part of town, and they feel joy at the prospect. They can’t wait to have at the space and put it immediately to work. What these buildings have in common is that they are shabby and spacious. Any change is likely to be an improvement. They are discarded buildings, fairly free of concern from landlord or authorities: “Do what you want. The place can’t get much worse anyway. It’s just too much trouble to tear down.”"

With old and barren structures like abandoned garages, there's not a tonne of expectation going on. These systems do not come in the public eye; and people who assume ownership of them are not obligated to extract much out of them.

Consequently, you will find that historically, a lot of Silicon Valley startups started in small, inconspicuous garages and not in grand buildings in the public eye. The projects flourish in the low-supervision environment, free of turf battles because the turf isn’t worth fighting over.

"Many have noticed that young artists flock to rundown industrial neighborhoods, and then a predictable sequence occurs. The artists go there for the low rents and plenty of room to mess around. They make the area exciting, and some begin to spruce it up. Eventually it becomes fashionable, with trendy restaurants, nightclubs, and galleries. Real-estate values rise to the point where young artists can’t afford the higher rents, and the sequence begins again somewhere else."

Garages and lesser-known places that are out of the limelight often allow for the kind of freedom needed for experimentation that is free of judgment.

As systems, such spaces don't impose any personality or opinion while giving their users enough structure and support to start off with. The roof is steady and all the basic tools are in place, while the furniture inside is movable, and most of it is just free space; an open playground to play on.

You will find the same pattern repeating in other areas of life where good things have come out of people who organically came together out of shared interests, without any obligation to be there. There was no strong mission, just a shared interest, curiosity and vibe that got them going — in a place that felt freeing and non-judgmental.

Brian Eno, musician and producer calls this “scenius” — an idea of genius that isn't limited to the individual and her genes but arises as an emergent property of a cultural scene.

For a scenius to take root, he mentions a few pre-requisites:

  • Firstly, there is mutual appreciation, which is like motivational peer pressure.
  • Secondly, there is a rapid exchange of tools and techniques, in which as soon as something is invented, it’s widely shared among everyone within the scenius as everyone within the scenius is united by a common language.
  • Thirdly, there are the network effects of success, which means whenever there is a success, it’s celebrated by everyone within the scenius.
  • Fourthly, within the scenius there is a local tolerance for the novelties, which means that renegade, maverick, unusual, and revolutionary ideas are protected from tampering by a buffer zone. Scenius, in other words, is a flourishing space for non-conformity.

In systems language, a scenius is a system in which these four aspects create the bare structure while everything that consequently happens inside it is organic, bottom-up, and evolves over time.

And the creation of scenes needs this kind of structured flexibility and freedom because only operations that are well-established, high-turnover, standardized or highly subsidized can afford to build highly opinionated top-down systems. 

You will never find a much-loved bookstore or antique shop in a newly constructed mall. Malls only have chain stores, big retail brands, and chain restaurants, and so it is with all new construction. The economic obligations are higher in these spaces, so niche hobbies and creative/artistic outlets seldom can afford to be a part of these.

Hence, your favorite local pub and pawn shop is often housed in an old and decrepit building, only known to the locals and not much to anyone else. They all are housed in places where the cost of a seat and table aren't very high and these not-so-profitable but loved cottage-core hobbies can absorb the low rents.

Consequently, they evolve slowly, build character, and capture time. Whereas brand new stores opening up in the newest mall in your city will probably shut down within the year if they do not find a market that would buy enough to make their high rent affordable.

Are there any takeaways or learnings from this? There are some.

The biggest one is that high-risk creative new directions in business are best supported by systems and infrastructure that don't impose too many constraints on their people.

The second learning is to see the value in starting simple and letting the system evolve over time; to let it come into its own being without trying to formalize it too much too early. A lot of valuable learnings and insights take time to accrue, especially when you're working with complex systems with unknown unknowns.

The third one is that even though the novelty is always what pulls public attention, now more so than ever, it is the slow, stable, and consistent parts of the system that actually build long-term goodwill, trust, and respect.

Build slowly, build lean, and don't get too excited by the shiny new glass buildings around you.

Even if you don't gel well with this reasoning, it certainly should make you think.

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