Blog All Kindle-clipped Locations: Destruction and Creation

I fin­ished my pre­vi­ous post on why design­ers should be inter­est­ed in John Boyd with the rec­om­men­da­tion to read his essay “Destruc­tion and Cre­ation”. I thought I’d share the bits I high­light­ed in my copy. It is part of Osin­ga’s Sci­ence, Strat­e­gy and War, to which the loca­tions below refer.

Loca­tion 3176 – Boyd intro­duces a very sim­ple but fun­da­men­tal rea­son for why we should care about deci­sion making:

… a basic aim or goal, as indi­vid­u­als, is to improve our capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action

Loca­tion 3183 – the same applies to design and design­ers. We do not want to be con­trolled by our cir­cum­stances. Boyd was talk­ing to a mil­i­tary audi­ence, but the descrip­tion below is true of any social sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing the design practice:

In a real world of lim­it­ed resources and skills, indi­vid­u­als and groups form, dis­solve and reform their coop­er­a­tive or com­pet­i­tive pos­tures in a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to remove or over­come phys­i­cal and social envi­ron­men­tal obstacles.

Loca­tion 3190

Against such a back­ground, actions and deci­sions become crit­i­cal­ly important.

Loca­tion 3192

To make these time­ly deci­sions implies that we must be able to form men­tal con­cepts of observed real­i­ty, as we per­ceive it, and be able to change these con­cepts as real­i­ty itself appears to change.

Loca­tion 3195 – design­ers are asked to do noth­ing but the above. The suc­ces of our designs hinges on our under­stand­ing of real­i­ty and our skill at inter­ven­ing in it. So the ques­tion below is of vital impor­tance to us:

How do we gen­er­ate or cre­ate the men­tal con­cepts to sup­port this deci­sion-mak­ing activity?

Loca­tion 3196 – in the next sec­tion of the essay Boyd starts to pro­vide answers:

There are two ways in which we can devel­op and manip­u­late men­tal con­cepts to rep­re­sent observed real­i­ty: We can start from a com­pre­hen­sive whole and break it down to its par­tic­u­lars or we can start with the par­tic­u­lars and build towards a com­pre­hen­sive whole.

Loca­tion 3207

… gen­er­al-to-spe­cif­ic is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, while, spe­cif­ic-to-gen­er­al is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and integration.

Loca­tion 3216

… such an unstruc­tur­ing or destruc­tion of many domains – to break the cor­re­spon­dence of each with its respec­tive con­stituents – is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. We call this kind of unstruc­tur­ing a destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3225

… cre­ativ­i­ty is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and inte­gra­tion since we pro­ceed­ed from unstruc­tured bits and pieces to a new gen­er­al pat­tern or con­cept. We call such action a cre­ative or con­struc­tive induction.

Loca­tion 3227 – here Boyd starts to con­nect the two ways of cre­at­ing con­cepts. I have always found it grat­i­fy­ing to immerse myself in a design’s domain and to start teas­ing apart its con­stituent ele­ments, before mov­ing on to acts of creation:

It is impor­tant to note that the cru­cial or key step that per­mits this cre­ative induc­tion is the sep­a­ra­tion of the par­tic­u­lars from their pre­vi­ous domains by the destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3230

… the unstruc­tur­ing and restruc­tur­ing just shown reveals a way of chang­ing our per­cep­tion of reality.

Loca­tion 3237 – so far so fair­ly straight-for­ward. But Boyd gets increas­ing­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed about this cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation. For exam­ple, he sug­gests we should check for inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy of a new con­cept by trac­ing back its ele­ments to the orig­i­nal sources:

… we check for reversibil­i­ty as well as check to see which ideas and inter­ac­tions match-up with our obser­va­tions of reality.

Loca­tion 3240 – so this is not a two-step lin­ear act, but a cycli­cal one, where we keep tun­ing parts and wholes of a con­cept (or design) and test them against reality:

Over and over again this cycle of Destruc­tion and Cre­ation is repeat­ed until we demon­strate inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy and match-up with reality.

Loca­tion 3249 – in the next sec­tion, Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the process he has pro­posed by show­ing that once we have formed a con­cept, its matchup to real­i­ty imme­di­ate­ly starts to deteriorate:

… at some point, ambi­gu­i­ties, uncer­tain­ties, anom­alies, or appar­ent incon­sis­ten­cies may emerge to sti­fle a more gen­er­al and pre­cise match-up of con­cept with observed reality.

Loca­tion 3257 – the point below is one I can’t help but iter­ate often enough to clients and cowork­ers. We must work under the assump­tion of mis­match­es occur­ring soon­er or lat­er. It is an essen­tial state of mind:

… we should antic­i­pate a mis­match between phe­nom­e­na obser­va­tion and con­cept descrip­tion of that observation.

Loca­tion 3266 – he brings in Gödel, Heisen­berg and the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics to explain why this is so:

Gödel’s Proof indi­rect­ly shows that in order to deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy of any new sys­tem we must con­struct or uncov­er anoth­er sys­tem beyond it.

Loca­tion 3274

Back and forth, over and over again, we use obser­va­tions to sharp­en a con­cept and a con­cept to sharp­en obser­va­tions. Under these cir­cum­stances, a con­cept must be incom­plete since we depend upon an ever-chang­ing array of obser­va­tions to shape or for­mu­late it. Like­wise, our obser­va­tions of real­i­ty must be incom­plete since we depend upon a chang­ing con­cept to shape or for­mu­late the nature of new inquiries and observations.

Loca­tion 3301 – so Gödel shows we need to con­tin­u­ous­ly cre­ate new con­cepts to main­tain the use­ful­ness of pri­or ones due to the rela­tion­ship between observed real­i­ty and men­tal con­cepts. Good news for design­ers! Our work is nev­er done. It is also an inter­est­ing way to think about cul­ture evolv­ing by the build­ing of increas­ing­ly com­plex net­works of pri­or con­cepts into new ones. Next, Boyd brings in Heisen­berg to explain why there is uncer­tain­ty involved when mak­ing obser­va­tions of reality:

… the mag­ni­tude of the uncer­tain­ty val­ues rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed.

Loca­tion 3304

… uncer­tain­ty val­ues not only rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed but also the degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der per­ceived by that observer.

Loca­tion 3308 – Heisen­berg shows that the more we become intwined with observed real­i­ty the more uncer­tain­ty increas­es. This is of note because as we design new things and we intro­duce them into the envi­ron­ment, unex­pect­ed things start to hap­pen. But also, we as design­ers our­selves are part of the envi­ron­ment. The more we are part of the same con­text we are design­ing for, the less able we will be to see things as they tru­ly are. Final­ly, for the third move by which Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the cre­ation of new con­cepts, we arrive at the sec­ond law of thermodynamics:

High entropy implies a low poten­tial for doing work, a low capac­i­ty for tak­ing action or a high degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der. Low entropy implies just the opposite.

Loca­tion 3312 – closed sys­tems are those that don’t com­mu­ni­cate with their envi­ron­ment. A suc­cess­ful design prac­tice should be an open sys­tem, lest it suc­cumb to entropy:

From this law it fol­lows that entropy must increase in any closed system 

… when­ev­er we attempt to do work or take action inside such a sys­tem – a con­cept and its match-up with real­i­ty – we should antic­i­pate an increase in entropy hence an increase in con­fu­sion and disorder.

Loca­tion 3317 – it’s impor­tant to note that Boy­d’s ideas are equal­ly applic­a­ble to design plans, design prac­tices, design out­comes, any sys­tem involved in design, real­ly. Con­fused? Not to wor­ry, Boyd boils it down in the next and final section:

Accord­ing to Gödel we can­not – in gen­er­al – deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy, hence the char­ac­ter or nature, of an abstract sys­tem with­in itself. Accord­ing to Heisen­berg and the Sec­ond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncer­tain­ty and gen­er­ate disorder.

Loca­tion 3320 – the bit below is a pret­ty good sum­ma­ry of why “big design up front” does not work:

any inward-ori­ent­ed and con­tin­ued effort to improve the match-up of con­cept with observed real­i­ty will only increase the degree of mismatch.

Loca­tion 3329 – when­ev­er we encounter chaos the instinct is to stick to our guns, but it is prob­a­bly wis­er to take a step back and recon­sid­er our assumptions:

we find that the uncer­tain­ty and dis­or­der gen­er­at­ed by an inward-ori­ent­ed sys­tem talk­ing to itself can be off­set by going out­side and cre­at­ing a new system.

Loca­tion 3330 – cre­ativ­i­ty or explo­rative design under pres­sure can seem like a waste of time but once we have gone through the exer­cise in hind sight we always find it more use­ful than thought before:

Sim­ply stat­ed, uncer­tain­ty and relat­ed dis­or­der can be dimin­ished by the direct arti­fice of cre­at­ing a high­er and broad­er more gen­er­al con­cept to rep­re­sent reality.

Loca­tion 3340

I believe we have uncov­ered a Dialec­tic Engine that per­mits the con­struc­tion of deci­sion mod­els need­ed by indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties for deter­min­ing and mon­i­tor­ing actions in an effort to improve their capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action.

Loca­tion 3341

the goal seek­ing effort itself appears to be the oth­er side of a con­trol mech­a­nism that seems also to dri­ve and reg­u­late the alter­nat­ing cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation toward high­er and broad­er lev­els of elaboration.

Loca­tion 3347 – chaos is a fact of life, and as such we should wel­come it because it is as much a source of vital­i­ty as it is a threat:

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, then, an entropy increase per­mits both the destruc­tion or unstruc­tur­ing of a closed sys­tem and the cre­ation of a new sys­tem to nul­li­fy the march toward ran­dom­ness and death.

Loca­tion 3350 – one of Boy­d’s final lines is a fine descrip­tion of what I think design should aspire to: 

The result is a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of men­tal con­cepts matched to a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of observed reality.

Mashing up the real-time city and urban games

Yes­ter­day evening I was at the Club of Ams­ter­dam. They host events cen­tred around pre­ferred futures. I was invit­ed to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here. 

I had ten min­utes to get my point across. To be hon­est, I think I failed rather dis­mal­ly. Some of the ideas I includ­ed were still quite fresh and unfin­ished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heav­i­ly on ref­er­enc­ing other’s work, pre­sum­ing peo­ple would be famil­iar with them. A mis­cal­cu­la­tion on my part.

In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Car­la Hoek­endijk for invit­ing me. I had a good time and enjoyed the oth­er presenter’s talks. The dis­cus­sion after­wards too was a lot of things, but dull cer­tain­ly isn’t among them.

What fol­lows is a write-up of what I more or less said dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion, plus ref­er­ences to the sources I used, which will hope­ful­ly make things clear­er than they were dur­ing the evening itself.2


(This is where I did the usu­al intro­duc­tion of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are won­der­ing, the title of this talk is slight­ly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writ­ing the actu­al talk. Had I been able to choose a title after­wards, it would’ve been some­thing like “Growth” or “A New Biol­o­gy of Urban Play”…)


This gen­tle­man is Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck. He is said to be the first to for­mu­late a coher­ent the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion. His ideas cen­tred around inher­i­tance of acquired traits. So for instance, a black­smiths who works hard his whole life will prob­a­bly get real­ly strong arms. In the Lamar­ck­ist view, his off­spring will inher­it these strong arms from him. Dar­win­ism rules supreme in evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, so it is no sur­prise that this the­o­ry is out of favour nowa­days. What I find inter­est­ing is the fact that out­side of the nat­ur­al domain, Lamar­ck­ism is still applic­a­ble, most notably in cul­ture. Cul­tur­al organ­isms can pass on traits they acquired in their life­time to their off­spring. Fur­ther­more, there is a code­pen­den­cy between cul­ture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say cul­ture is a trick humans use to get around the lim­its of Dar­win­ism (slow, tri­al-and-error based incre­men­tal improve­ments) in order to achieve Lamar­ck­ism.3


You can think of cities as cul­tur­al meta-organ­isms. They’re a great exam­ple of nat­ur­al-cul­tur­al co-evo­lu­tion. We use cities as huge infor­ma­tion stor­age and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Ham­burg cir­ca 1800. In his book Emer­gence, Steven Berlin John­son com­pares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illus­trate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-orga­niz­ing cities that emerge from the bot­tom up. They grow, pat­terns are cre­at­ed from low-lev­el inter­ac­tions, things like neigh­bour­hoods.4


Games are this oth­er thing nature has come up with to speed up evo­lu­tion. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambi­gu­i­ty of Play by Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith to get a sense of all the dif­fer­ent view­points on the mat­ter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is con­vey­ing view­points of the world in a pro­ce­dur­al way (a.k.a. ‘pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Per­sua­sive Games). They pro­vide peo­ple with a way to explore a sys­tem from the inside out. They give rise to ‘sys­temic lit­er­a­cy’.5 The image is from Ani­mal Cross­ing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out cer­tain issues that exist with con­sumerism and pri­vate home ownership.


Mov­ing on, I’d like to dis­cuss two trends that I see hap­pen­ing right now. I’ll build on those to for­mu­late my future vision.


So trend num­ber one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are con­tin­u­ous­ly pump­ing up the amount of sen­sors, actu­a­tors and proces­sors. The behav­iour of peo­ple is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tight­en­ing feed­back loop. This will inevitably change the behav­iour of humans as well as the city. So cities are head­ed to a phase tran­si­tion, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neigh­bour­hood-sized chunks) to a new lev­el of evolv­abil­i­ty. Adam Green­field calls it net­work weath­er. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infra­struc­tures can help us change the user expe­ri­ence of the city with­out need­ing to change the hard stuff. The prob­lem is, though, that the major­i­ty of this stuff is next-to invis­i­ble, and there­fore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Sta­men Design’s awe­some project Cab­spot­ting, which (amongst oth­er things) con­sists of real-time track­ing and visu­al­iza­tion of the tra­jec­to­ries of taxis in the Bay Area.


Trend num­ber two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed inter­est in play­ing in pub­lic spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imag­ine and repur­pose the city in new ways (such as the park­our play­er pic­tured here). Con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly, urban games design­ers are flirt­ing with the notions of the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tion­al, most notably the idea of inner space shap­ing our expe­ri­ence of out­er space (psy­cho-geog­ra­phy) and the use of play­ful acts to sub­vert those spaces. Park­our and free run­ning can’t real­ly be called games, but things like SFZe­ro, The Soho Project and Cru­el 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.


So I see an oppor­tu­ni­ty here: To alle­vi­ate some of the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of the real-time city’s new soft infra­struc­tures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capac­i­ty of games to pro­vide insight into com­plex sys­tems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can hap­pen in situ.


Through play­ing these games, peo­ple will be bet­ter able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decen­tral­ized mind­set. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of pub­lic Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queens­land was visu­al­ized and over­laid on the building’s floor-plan.


Ulti­mate­ly though, I would love to enable peo­ple to not only “read” but also “write” pos­si­ble process­es for the real-time city. I see many advan­tages here. Fore one this could lead to sit­u­at­ed pro­ce­dur­al argu­ments: peo­ple could be enabled to pro­pose alter­na­tive ways of inter­act­ing with urban space. But even with­out this, just by mak­ing stuff, anoth­er way of learn­ing is acti­vat­ed, known as ‘analy­sis by syn­the­sis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made Star­L­ogo (of which you see a screen­shot here). And it works. Star­L­ogo enables chil­dren to make sense of com­plex sys­tems. A real-time urban game design toolk­it could to the same, with the added ben­e­fit of the games being jux­ta­posed with the cities they are about.


This jux­ta­po­si­tion might result in dynam­ics sim­i­lar to what we find in nature. Process­es from these new games might be spon­ta­neous­ly trans­ferred over to the city, and vice ver­sa. The image is of roots with out­growths on them which are caused by a bac­te­ria called Agrobac­teri­um. This bac­te­ria is well known for its abil­i­ty to trans­fer DNA between itself and plants. An exam­ple of nature cir­cum­vent­ing nat­ur­al selec­tion.7 A new sym­bio­sis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to sim­i­lar accel­er­a­tion of their evolutions.


(I fin­ished a lit­tle over time and had time for one ques­tion. Adri­aan Wor­m­goor of Fource­Labs asked whether I thought games would soon­er or lat­er become self-evolv­ing them­selves. My answer was “absolute­ly”. to get to ever high­er lev­els of com­plex­i­ty we’ll be forced to start grow­ing or rear­ing our games more than assem­bling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably head­ing towards ever high­er lev­els of evolvability.)

  1. Iskan­der Smit has post­ed a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re inter­est­ed, the slide deck as a whole is also avail­able on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamar­ck, and the idea of nature and cul­ture co-evolv­ing in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Con­trol. The black­smith exam­ple is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down plan­ning and zon­ing, as Jane Jacobs makes painful­ly clear in her book The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. []
  5. Eric Zim­mer­man talked at length about the need for sys­temic lit­er­a­cy at Play­ful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at anoth­er blog post by Adam Green­field titled Read­ing, writ­ing, texts, lit­er­a­cy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kel­ly writes in Out of Con­trol, evo­lu­tion with sym­bio­sis includ­ed is less like a tree and more like a thick­et. []

Cities, systems, literacy, games

If you were asked to improve your own neigh­bour­hood, what would you change? And how would you go about com­mu­ni­cat­ing those changes? 

Cities are sys­tems, or rather, many sys­tems that inter­con­nect. Like build­ings, they can be thought of as hav­ing lay­ers, each chang­ing at its own pace. If those lay­ers are loose­ly cou­pled, the city — like the build­ing — can adapt.

Recent­ly, new urban layers/systems have start­ed to emerge. They are made up of rapid­ly pro­lif­er­at­ing com­put­ing pow­er, car­ried by peo­ple and embed­ded in the envi­ron­ment, used to access vast amounts of data.

At the same time, games have giv­en rise to a new form of lit­er­a­cysys­temic lit­er­a­cy. How­ev­er, to date, play­ers have most­ly inhab­it­ed the sys­tems that make up games. They can read them. Writ­ing, on the oth­er hand, is anoth­er mat­ter. True sys­temic lit­er­a­cy means being able to change the sys­tems you inhabit.

True read/write sys­temic lit­er­a­cy can be used to craft games, yes. But it can also be used to see that many oth­er prob­lems and chal­lenges in dai­ly life are sys­temic ones. 

To be sure, the real-time city will con­front its inhab­i­tants with many new prob­lems. It is of the essence that the peo­ple shap­ing these new sys­tems have a deep con­cern for their fel­low humans. But it is also at least as impor­tant that peo­ple are taught the knowl­edge and skills — and giv­en the tools — to change stuff about their sur­round­ings as they see fit.

The won­der­ful thing is, we can shape sys­tems, using the ‘new’ streets as a plat­form that trans­fer this knowl­edge and these skills to peo­ple. We can cre­ate ‘seri­ousurban games that facil­i­tate spec­u­la­tive mod­el­ling, so that peo­ple can improve their liv­ing envi­ron­ment, or at least express what they would change about it, in a play­ful way.