From Holons to Social Holons in a Science of Integral Cities

18 years ago, I read Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology & Spirituality, which introduced me to the Integral model. This book changed my life. In the short term, it provided a unifying framework that enabled me to make sense of the data in my dissertation that was focused on: learning and leadership in self-organizing online community systems, using the case study of Meg Wheatley’s Berkana Community of Conversations. In the long term, it influenced me to expand the trajectory of my career in the study of human systems from the community scale to the scale of the city.

9 years ago, I published my first book (derived from this PhD research). Writing it changed my life and the way that I look at cities.  In the Introduction to this book Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences of the Human Hive, I lamented, “where is the science of cities?”  With not a little hubris but a lot of motivation (because the formal study of cities was not my expertise), I set out to map a science of cities that was based on the frameworks of Living Systems, Complexity and the Integral Model. Over time, with the Integral City paradigm, there became not one map but five maps of the city that shapeshifted into and out of one another. (Click here for Map 1, Map 2, Map 3, Map 4, Map 5.)

Last week with the publication of Book 2 in what has now become a series on Integral Cities.  In Book 2, Integral City Inquiry & Action: Designing Impact for the Human Hive our community of practice brings to readers the field work, that we have developed from applying the theory of Book 1.

When I first started to work with “the city” as a human system, like Geoffrey West (author of Scale), I considered the city to be a holonic organism as a form of complex adaptive system. However, after some serious feedback from advanced thinking transdisciplinarians in our Integrally informed circle, I have come to consider the city to be a Social Holon.

This framing rests on the tenet that the “terminals” in the system i.e. individual humans, are not invariant. (West considers individual people in his discussion of the city as a complex adaptive system, to be “invariant terminals”). 

As regular consumers of integrally informed literature are aware, increasingly large data sets are accumulating in academia that corroborate the developmental levels of consciousness and culture that support my proposition (in relation to Scale’s tenets) that humans are variant terminals (not invariant). (Furthermore, the emerging Artificial Intelligence technologies able to analyse language and verbal exchange. (It can be noted that this was the data source and basis for my PhD and that it has since transmuted into at least 2 different branches of technology, offering related but more effective methodologies than I developed.)

Without this profound understanding, the historical external behaviours and actions of humans can be mapped by West’s data analysis – but the sub-sets of data that demonstrate the super or sub-linearity of their actions (within a city context) cannot be fully understood or adequately explained. This significantly impacts decision sets in cities relating to both infrastructure and socio-economic performance. (Not the least reason may turn out to be because if variant terminals are the effective norm of individuals and groups, this may argue that the hierarchy of holarchic subjective/intersubjective networks has inverted dimensions to the spatial objective/interobjective networks?)

As an example (using the interactions with water as a situation that West explores), I would say that Flint Michigan and Walkerton Ontario were afflicted with assumptions about “invariant terminals” of the mind/brain body/actions of their water managers that were dangerously inaccurate, as the significantly variant terminals (aka the people managing the infrastructure) made life-threatening decisions. (A similar mismatch has also happened across Africa in the installation of wells without an understanding of relational networks or technical knowledge to maintain them and in Canada on First Nation reservations lacking safe drinking water.)

(Also in the study of Organizations and Cities, I have come to concur with Adizes’ Organizational Lifecycle proposition (and Howard Bloom as a paleobiologist) that the City has 4 major Voices or Roles that impact how we perform as a city. These 4 Voices impact all 4 properties that West names above, through their (variant) capacity to influence Space, Time and Moral Influence. This will be the focus of my Book 4.)

Finally, regarding West’s very stimulating (and for me, very relevant) exploration of the dimension of time, I would suggest that the developmental implications of variant terminals (suggested above) have evolutionary impact. This no doubt makes the Time dimension more complicated or complex to explore, because of the multiple-generations now co-existing in cities – but it appears to have implications that not all cities are operating in the same paradigm.

West’s contribution to understanding the laws of city growth is impressive. But would it not be interesting to explore how the social holon of the city and the multiple scales of social holons that are in our cities, are aging and/or developing at different rates – thus perhaps distorting data that is read through merely “invariant terminal” and spatial network lenses? I wonder how such a reframing through Integral City lenses would bring us much closer to appreciating cities as “Gaia’s Reflective Organs” and enable our capacity to care for ourselves, each other, our cities and our planet – simultaneously. (In other words, practising the Master Code?)

About the Author:

HI I am the Founder of Integral City Meshworks Inc. and Chief Blogger. Working with cities and eco-regions, I ‘meshwork’ or weave people, purpose, priorities, profits, programs and processes to align contexts, grow capacity and develop strategies for sustainability and resilience in the Integral City. You can read more details about me here

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