In essence, Hanczyc says life is the ability to reproduce and evolve. To achieve these 2 functions, 3 characteristics are critical to living systems:
1. Body (or form)
2. Metabolism (or sustaining functions)
3. Inheritable information (or DNA)
A living system has to inherit a body to distinguish the self from the environment. It has to have metabolic abilities that help it to convert resources from the environment to building blocks for its own sustenance. It has to possess inheritable information - an attribute of all adaptive and evolutionary systems.
Listening to this presentation, I was struck by how these characteristics offer an excellent framework to think about our cities as living systems.
I often hear, “our cities are dying.” Or, that “they are crumbling, dysfunctional hubs of humanity”. Most often, “our cities are unable to expand and grow efficiently.”
Now imagine if we were to apply the living systems characterization to understanding what a ‘living’ city would be characterized by? Here’s a simplified attempt:
1. Body or form: City land use development plans and by laws define the ‘body’ of the city, efficiently identify its usable, unusable and reserve organs (read, spaces) and enable it to relate to its constantly changing environment as a distinguishable, self-generating system.
2. Metabolism or sustaining functions: City institutions extend a ‘metabolic function’ by enabling the city, through tools and capacities, to efficiently convert resources from the environment into building blocks for its sustenance, growth and replication.
3. Inheritable information or DNA: City residents encode ‘inheritable information’ in public symbols by sharing information and experiences that constitute the collective cultural memory of the city, thereby enabling it to constantly evolve and adapt even in times of acute stress.
Can this simple 3-fold characterization help us understand how we could rescue our dying cities, and how they can in fact, emerge as living systems if only we view them as such?