In early March I had an opportunity to explore the question, “Are Cities Evolving as Gaia’s Reflective Organs?” My audience was an erudite gathering of the online 3 Horizons University (3Huni for short).

I proposed to explore the case for the evolution of cities, not as a bane on the Earth, but as a necessary stage of maturing capacity of Gaia’s living system. I offered evidence from science, thought experiments and practice, from my Integral City Book Series, Reframing Complex Challenges for Gaia’s Human Hives (2018), Inquiry and Action: Designing Impact for the Human Hive (2017) and Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive (English 2008, Russian 2014).

This is blog 1 of a 4-part blog series – to continue to the next instalments click on the links at the bottom of the blog.

Macro and Micro Science

My curiosity has long been piqued by James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis – that the Earth is a living system. Also, Elisabet Sahtouris, Evolution Biologist. The former speaks to the macro scale of life on our planet. The latter speaks to the micro scale and how the qualities of living systems at all scales reveal self-same patterns or fractals.

Elisabet wrote in the Foreword to the new edition (upcoming) of Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, sharing an experience that we have had in common.

            Looking down on Earth’s surface from an airplane, whether by day or night, our cities look remarkably like cells—nucleated cells, with their obvious nuclear ‘downtown’ hubs, scattered smaller concentrations of buildings like cell organelles, flowing transport systems, extensions into the surround like the pseudopods of amoebae.

            This has struck me again and again in flying around Earth as an evolution biologist and futurist seeking answers to our big questions on whence, we came and where we are headed, all the while teaching my evolving take on them. Eventually I realized that cities were indeed living entities, and now undergoing a rapid evolution comparable to the origins of the nucleated cells they so resemble.

Lovelock imagines that Gaia is evolving for herself a “Reflective Organ” through the evolution of human beings. Sahtouris observes that the process of maturiing the human species is passing through early stages of consumption and competition. She points out that as our species matures it will recognize that both these stages consume too much energy (i.e. they cost too much in terms of the relationship of the input of energy to the output of sustainable and resilient results). Sahtouris contends that we are waking up to the energetic equation that collaboration costs much less energy than conflict, wars and pillaging resources, and is the evolutionary intelligent behaviour to enact.

When we see the havoc that humans have created on Earth as we evolve through the early stages of our species growth cycle, it is easy to imagine (as most people do) that Humans are the bane of Gaia’s existence. Our cities tend to be heaped with special blame because they accumulate and concentrate so much wealth. In Book 3 of the Integral City series, I note the veritable vortex of threats that we have created as we have drawn down on the planetary layers of resources (see Figure x).

Our VUCA Vortex (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) is whirling around our cities manifesting threats to our quality of life through challenges that are becoming increasingly intelligently documented. The following list names the big challenges and key authors who have explored the data and the implications.

  • Financial Upheaval (Esborn-Hargens, Raworth, Henderson, McCrum, McLeod)
  • Energy (Monbiot)
  • Water Scarcity (Linton)
  • Climate (O’Brien, IPCC, Hawken, Lester Brown)
  • Environment/Ecology (Esborn-Hargens / Zimmerman, Taylor)
  • Food Scarcity (McKibben, Taylor)
  • Collapse (Diamond, Wright, Hawken)

When we plot these threats on a cosmology of the evolution of the Universe it looks something like this.

Yet, when we look at key city discourses through the lenses of Sustainable Development Goals (UN), Scale (G. West) or Urban Crisis (R. Florida) we can read excellent analyses of indicators, infrastructures and environmental degradation. But we are hard pressed to find how these authors imagine the vital contributions of consciousness and culture to solving complex problems let alone relating them within a context of evolutionary development. In short, these core frameworks do NOT include a developmental dimension. By contrast, Integral City proposes that cities are not developmentally “flat” or “steady state” but emerge and change and shapeshift in all their internal and external contexts over time. As a result of this understanding the evolutionary dynamic and its impact on the quality of life in cities, we can open up to ever more complexity and possibilities for the human hive – rather than contracting or shrinking away from such change.

Integral City frames its view of the world through developmental lenses, seeing that individuals and collectives all traverse lifecycles of maturing that produce capacities and intelligences at every scale of human system from individual to family/team, organization, sector, community and the city. The patterns that these different scales exhibit consciously and culturally reveal the fractalness that Sahtouris has noticed through the biological and systems perspective. Thus, the five sets of intelligences that cities, as living systems, have evolved keep them alive, connected to their environments (sustainable) and regenerating (Capra, Wahl).

This blog series explores science, thought experiments and maps to inquire if “Cities are Becoming Gaia’s Reflective Organs?”

Are Cities Evolving as Gaia’s Reflective Organs?

Thought Experiments – Listening & Learning from Bees

Integral City Maps, Intelligences, Emergent Practices for Gaia

Evidence for Big Bite & Hope for Gaia