Over the past couple of weeks, I have managed to catch snippets of the BBC programme The Code. As someone who was interested in maths and physics at school (now mostly forgotten, alas) I found it well worth watching. As an example of how mathematicians and natural scientists are able to get their simple messages across to a mass audience, it was a salutary lesson to us social scientists who are usually more interested in making things sound too complicated; too hard to properly understand.
The first episode I watched used the example of fractal geometry to explain how ‘codes’ can explain seeming randomness in nature. It was compelling, cogent and digestible material for the early evening slot it occupied — a perfect example of how complex science can have a mass impact through careful translation of the key message.
But it rather fell apart, I thought, when the series turned its attention to social and urban systems. It seemed to suggest that the complexities of the urban space economy can be reduced to a set of infinitely scalable constants in the same way that the fractal ‘code’ explains observable patterns in trees and mountains. The answer, according to theoritical physicist Geoffrey West, is apparently 1.15. Double the size of a city and you get a 15% bonus for your efforts: 15% more income; 15% more restaurants to eat in, 15% more trains than you might otherwise feel you’ve got a right to crowd on to.
But thinking about it — or, at least, the way it was explained on TV — it seems really no more than an unconvincing evocation of the social physics of at least 40 years ago. That’s not to say that the models of sort proposed by the likes of Alan Wilson, then and now, are without their uses. They’re not. It’s just that we’ve also found that they don’t account very well for the rather cumbersome tendency for sociospatial relations to morph and confound expectations when we look at them in different ways. Or as that hallowed journal of urban affairs the Daily Mail puts it, ‘no doubt it seems reductionist to reduce the buzz of New York or the sophistication of Paris to a single number.’
That reminded me of one of the reasons why I bought a computer in the first place when I was 17 (remember MS-DOS?). It was to play the computer game SimCity. Despite it being a totally brilliant piece of entertainment, one of the great frustrations about SimCity was that you couldn’t really get its system of rules and models to satisfactorily emulate urban systems that were faithful to experiences of cities beyond those of the standard North American model, or even of some of the more interesting (but unmodelled) social and cultural phenomena we might associate with American urban life — the sort of stuff brilliantly depicted in The Wire. It hasn’t stopped people from trying, though. IBM has recently developed something called Systems Dynamics for Smarter Cities — the first customer is Portland, Oregon, apparently — and it promises to ‘support the development of metrics for the Portland Plan, the City’s roadmap for the next 25 years’ (IBM, 2011). Will it work? If we know anything about cities and their complex politics, probably not. But, like The Code, it’ll be interesting to watch.