Ecosystems: Building City Biota and Biospheres

PonyRide Space in Detroit

Nature speaks to us if we choose to listen deeply. Within nature lie clues to some of the most elegant designs that make up the world we live in. Whether we believe nature’s most beautiful designs are all apart of the orchestration of a brilliant watchmaker or not, we can all agree that nature provides blue prints to solving some of most complex problems. Biology has become worthy of mimicking, if not just a different perspective worthy of incorporating.

Many communities have made reference to cities as ecosystems when trying to understand and analyze how to grow or dramatically change a city. It is a descriptive parallel of their communities to illustrate the many different stakeholders, or species, that make up its collective in a sustainable (or lacking) way. It describes a city collective that co-exists amongst itself, providing value that is exchanged between its stakeholders just as species within a biological ecosystem does. Each city ecosystem varies in its size, composition, density, complexity, and diversity, making up its societal, industrial, and cultural identity.

This ecosystem reference and approach is valid, but much of it is incomplete. If we study biological ecosystems we understand that ecosystems are complex. Ecosystems are not a one-dimensional thing that can be described plainly in black and white but they are dynamic systems that are constantly evolving chromatics. The ecosystem reference we often use only refers to our communities on a city or regional level. We constantly reference how certain regions like New York and Silicon Valley differ in its ecosystem characteristics from Austin, Seattle, Tel Aviv, or even Detroit. We try to study and define the equation of what makes successful cities work and we try to replicate them amongst other cities in hopes that it will produce the same or better outputs. This is an inherently incomplete view and approach of city ecosystems if we study biology and understand that our city ecosystems do not just play a role regionally, isolated from others, but they play a role in a global ecosystem of networked cities.

In biology, regional ecosystems are defined as biota and they fit into a global sum of ecosystems called a biosphere. Each biota is unique to its region and is comprised of its own biodiversity of fauna and flora. Species migration and cross-pollination may occur between the different biota within the biosphere, but it requires the right exchange that still maintains sustainable biodiversity on both the biota and biosphere level.

In biology, biodiversity is the unique composition of life forms within an ecosystem. Biodiversity is a characteristic of a healthy ecosystem in that collective has an exchange of value amongst its specialized species. In rainforest ecosystems like the Amazon, there are tens of thousands of flora and fauna species, with thousands of species that are still undiscovered and undocumented. The more bio-diverse an ecosystem is, the healthier and more adaptable it is. Much of this can be liken to healthy city ecosystems that are able to generate economic, industrial, and cultural diversity. These heterogeneous and diverse cities are able to be adaptable to conditional variance in markets and industry just like bio-diverse biological ecosystems are able to sustain conditional variance in climate and seasons. City ecosystems that have “biodiversity” are not only able to be adaptable to change, but very often they are the makers of that change as the ecosystem and its species co-evolve together.

Disruptive technologies and new industrial categories are the result of convergence. It is the convergence of different technologies and industries that results in seminal combinatorial innovation. This type of change and innovation can only occur when a city ecosystem has sufficient diversity socially, economically, and culturally. Homogenous city ecosystems not only are less adaptable to conditional variance, but they do not have the diversity in industry (culturally and socially) that can produce the convergence that results in innovation.

When we look at the importance of biodiversity versus homogeny in city ecosystems the approach and view is commonly focused on the city level without being conscious of its role in the global network of cities. We live in world today that is more connected more than it ever has been. The access to information, global communication, and global commerce is evidence that we no longer live in world of hubs isolated from one another but we live in a time of networks that are interconnected around the world. When using the view and approach of cities as ecosystems, it is important to be conscious of the biota role a city plays in the biosphere of globally networked cities.

The achievement of biodiversity is not only significant on the city level but it must be achieved on a biosphere level as well. It is important for cities to not purely be focused on architecting communities on the biota level. Instead, cities must adopt a wide-lens approach and be mindful of how their city ecosystems add to the global network. Cities that are conscious of how their ecosystem creates “biodiversity” to the global network ensures that cities prevent redundancy on the biota level. Cities that are not mindful of how their biota make up biodiversity on a macro level end up pursuing the replication of other city ecosystems, and the result is regional homogeny. Cities that are mindful of its contribution to the biosphere’s biodiversity ultimately create their own healthy regional biodiversity in turn because it is focused on creating its unique ecosystem characteristics that also contribute to the network global sum.

Regions like Silicon Valley, NYC, LA, and London find their entrepreneurial ecosystems exchanging amongst each other often. Each one of these regions has uniquely different city ecosystems that make the exchange between the cities more worthwhile and valuable both on a biota level but also a biosphere level. Each one of these city biota have something that is uniquely valuable to that region that makes it a compelling export to other cities whether it is their strength in a particular resource (capital and financial), industry, skill-set, or attitude. Cities that try to replicate other city ecosystems are faced with the challenge of redundancy on a biosphere level and are often left to operate as a hub, isolated from the exchange that occurs from a global network of cities that make up the biosphere.

Cities ecosystems are their own living and breathing thing. They are made up of a unique composite of species that rely on the value exchange amongst one another that make up its unique DNA. If we are to build better cities that better serve its inhabitants, we must extend the view and understanding of ecosystems. We must understand that biodiversity is essential for an ecosystem to thrive. It is within this diversity of industry, culture, society, and economy that gives a city ecosystem its identity. It is also this diversity that determines how adaptable a city ecosystem is to change. Cities are more adaptable to change when resources are invested and allocated to parts in the ecosystem that expose the city ecosystem to conditional variance. This conditional variance occurs when city ecosystems are equipped to innovate new technologies and categories that continue to progress the ecosystem. This innovation occurs at the point of convergence of different industries and influences. Cities that take on bio-diverse properties are better suited to offer the right environment for this convergence to occur and are ultimately are more adaptable and sustainable compared to homogenous ecosystems that remain stagnant.

We must also understand what makes healthy ecosystems not only on the biota level but also how cities contribute to the global network that make up our city biosphere. If we understand the importance of “biodiversity” in a city ecosystem we must also be conscious of how we enable that biodiversity to occur on the biosphere level. We must widen our view of how this biodiversity applies not only to our cities but how we can create unique regional ecosystems that contribute to the biodiversity of a global network of cities. With such a view, it will better serve the sustainability and adaptability for both our city biota and biosphere and for all those who inhabit it.

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