The Civic Supermind

Collective intelligence and innovation in the space of cities

Throughout history, groups of people work together to creatively overcome complexity. From delivering meals in Mumbai (Dabbawalas) to finding nutritional food pairings (rice and beans, tomatoes and olive oil), from software design (Linux) to product design (OpenDesk), from technical optimization (the NASA Challenge Lab) to achieving technically impossible moonshots (NASA’s Apollo 11 mission).

Groups are organized in many different ways, and in some cases, exhibit a distinctive kind of intelligence. Democracies, markets, communities, and hierarchies are all examples of coordinated but autonomous action, and the term “supermind” refers to the collective intelligence that arises from these organization systems. Each kind of supermind has its own characteristics — transaction protocols, learning mechanisms, risk tolerance and distributions of benefit. Each supermind has its strengths and weaknesses. But almost invariably, superminds are more intelligent than individuals thinking alone. This is the central claim of a forthcoming book by Tom Malone, “Superminds: the surprising power of people and computers thinking together.”

Malone concludes his book in today’s digital context, asking how superminds will change as they merge with technology. Despite the looming shadow of artificial intelligence, Malone speculates that the greatest impact will actually be hyperconnectivity. Digital tools will not constitute a categorically new supermind, they will simply enable larger, more diverse, more empowered, more coordinated groups of people.

The city as a supermind

The city is, of course, a form of collective intelligence. Design is exploratory, social and adaptive — or at least it has been, for the long tail of human history. Vernacular architecture (or, “architecture without architects”) expresses the rich variety of space-as-culture-as-function. Humans build and inhabit, we find the best uses of resources, express our religious beliefs and traditions, or optimize transport, production and commerce, all in the space of the city.

“Architecture Without Architects” curated by Bernard Rudofsky for MoMA, 1965

Each type of supermind is present — democracies, markets, communities, hierarchies — all superimposed as an ecosystem. We vote on city ordinances, we buy property on the real estate market, we form common interest communities, and we organize into administrative hierarchies. As these superminds interact, they mutually define the collective process of city design and development.

How is this changing today? Echoing Malone’s final question, how are digital tools redefining the collective intelligence of cities?

Hyperconnected Cities Without Civics

The collective intelligence of cities has been well documented. There is, today, a layer above that, a global order of city-making, what Easterling calls “zones of extra-statecraft.” This takes many guises, from “new urbanism” to amenity-rich innovation districts to room-sharing platforms like Airbnb. Hyper-connectivity has created a global city, an urban innovation economy. We are mobile, networked, connected; I can fly to Marrakech and swipe a credit card. I can become an e-resident of Estonia.

At the dawn of hyperconnection — radio and television — Marshall McLuhan described a Global Village. His social theory is often misread as constructive discourse. In a comment that uncannily portends the echo chamber of social media, McLuhan himself described quite the opposite.

“The more you create village conditions, the more discontinuity and division and diversity. The Global Village absolutely insures maximal disagreement on all points. It never occurred to me that uniformity and tranquility were the properties of the global village. It has more spite and envy. The spaces and times are pulled out from between people. A world in which people encounter each other in depth all the time. The tribal-global village is far more divisive — full of fighting — than any nationalism ever was. Village is fission, not fusion, in depth all the time.” (from “The Hot and Cool Interview,” in Media Research)

In the midst of all this hyperconnectivity, we’ve somehow lost our notion of civics. At the very moment it is most important, we’ve let our civic imagination wither. Democracy has become an echo chamber of inflammatory party politics (and voting, a defeatist choice between the lesser of two evils). Communities, whether virtual or physical, are bound more by exclusion and rights to an amenity than they are by any real social ties (think WeWork). Markets are running away with intricate speculation and abstraction that accumulates wealth — until a shake like 2008, which sends everything tumbling down (only to be re-stacked with dogged determination). And hierarchies… well, do you like your job? Do you want to work on Capitol Hill?

Superminds are certainly still at work in cities, and they are indeed expanded by contemporary hyperconnectivity. But this is a remarkably bleak view of civics. Where is the joy of sharing delicious food pairings? Where is the sheer brilliance of building an entire operating system (and the collective exuberance that inspired Linux developers to work for free, as compared to Microsoft’s billions invested in developing comparable software). Where is the optimism of conquering the unknown, of sending a man to the moon?

The Civic Supermind

Cities are boiling with collective intelligence; they think, they create and they learn. Hyperconnection has, in some ways, caused dangerous imbalances — when markets are structured to aggregate profit, or when rationalist hierarchies optimize for efficiency — eclipsing the dynamics of inclusive, deliberative and exploratory civics. But superminds are inherently creative, efficient and intelligent, and they can be newly powerful at the scale and scope of global networks. They just need a motivating direction; a new civics. And that civic supermind is also emerging.

Kalkbreite Housing Cooperative, Zurich. Photo: Martin Stollenwerk

Cooperative housing projects are using community networks, design, and alternative value structures to address both environmental sustainability and the rising cost of housing in urban centers. They operate in a thoroughly digital context, with crowdfunding, network platforms, co-design tools and new legal schema. Kalkbreite, for example, is a visionary housing experiment and urban laboratory in Zurich. Meanwhile, in Berlin and New York, platforms by civic associations share best practice (for example, how to structure a community land trust) and ultimately facilitate new or better cooperative housing.

The Engagement Lab at Emerson College is pioneering new forms of digitally-enabled civic engagement, spanning boundaries of demographics and tech-literacy. Projects are sparking co-design, or enabling participation and pro-active visioning, rather than reactive voting.

Aerial photograph of Aarhus, taken by a drone as part of SmartDrones Aarhus

Civic innovation labs, like ITK in Denmark, are leveraging cutting edge technology from around the world, and a network of diverse local collaborators, to prototype, test and deploy urban technology that addresses local civic challenges and opportunities. An ongoing project, SmartDrones Aarhus, explores applications of drones in public space — for example, creating urban data or assisting first responders in disaster situations — in partnership with the police and fire departments. Crucially, the first prototype was an experiment; it required a bit of legal lenience, but ultimately demonstrated a clear value proposition.

To that end, Wulf Kaal is developing a concept of dynamic, adaptive regulation to allow this kind of experimentation, using such tools as contingent capital to preserve innovation incentives. If it works, it can grow; law and venture capital begin to blur. In parallel, Yochai Benkler has called for entirely new regimes of property rights based on radical openness and knowledge-sharing; innovation is placed in the commons, where it can grow and adapt at an unprecedented scale and scope.

Just as hyperconnectivity is changing markets, democracies, communities, it is also impacting urban space. Not only do cities themselves perform as superminds, but they are increasingly enmeshed in a broader network of global/local civic innovation. A new housing concept developed in Zurich can be adapted and tested in Boston, allowing wider opportunities for engagement, environmental data collection, unique financing or regulatory models. The civic supermind transcends single cities, while nonetheless engaging with civic issues; it is naturally learning from peer cities, and sharing knowledge and resources back to them. It is allowing urban technology to be scaled, transposed, locally adapted, iterated, and re-uploaded. If we are innovating together to improve the space and experience of cities, are we a categorically new supermind?