Plan Unintended Consequences

In 2010 the Surprise City Group was invited to disrupt the Australian Davos Connection Cities Summit.

Our manifesto:

A vision for the future of cities requires faith in the stability of the inherent and planned systems that underlie their development. As provocateurs we embrace the unintended byproducts of these systems. These we call artifacts and in elevating them we seek to define a method for designing the complexity and fluidity that are integral to the existence of cities.

We propose an anti-vision. Not a desire to predict the future or to imagine an idealised one, but instead to acknowledge the non-linear interaction of influences which generate our urban conditions and to develop a set of methodologies to operate within the instability of complex systems.

Our interest is in the emergent complex order of the city.

We focused on tactics for constructive disruption, working to four initial modes of operation: co-option, generating non-linear scenarios, extreme counter-factual tests and redefinition:

  1. Co-option mode. Take a proposal being made by one ADC group and lend it to another group. For example: Take the idea of bottom-up planning regulations and apply them to the disability access code.
  2. Non-linear mode. Take two proposals, each from a different ADC group and apply them to each other. For example: in the instance where “Designing the City” might propose that the aesthetic qualities of cities be foregrounded and “The Accessible City” might propose that private space be reduced, we would consider these in parallel conjugating the implications of foregrounding the aesthetic qualities of a city without private space.
  3. Extreme counter-factual mode. Take a known area of incremental change and examine implications of its application in the extreme. For example: take an issue such as the known health benefits of highly frequent low-level exercise and propose a law that forbids stasis of human movement, then conjugate the implications of this on cities.
  4. Redefinition mode, where a key consideration be refined totally. For example, infrastructure should no longer be simply mean built infrastructure, but all things infrastructural, thus allowing the term to incorporate geology, flora, fauna etc.

Detailed examples and scenarios were outlined in the text we made for the summit’s outcomes, but the real work of the group was our collaborations both before and during the summit, actively disrupting the usual thinking that creates the usual finite outcomes while ignoring the constantly emergent complexity of the city.

Our key recommendation:

Allow policy to be written in such a way that it places value on unintended consequences. Ideal visions are never fully implemented which is traditionally perceived as failure. That visions are never accurately delivered is not failure, but a result of the inherently interactive non-linear nature of the development of cities. To do this, a method of testing emergent conditions would need to be developed, such that emergence itself be not alone allowed to qualify something as valuable.

The Surprise City Group was Roland Snooks, Jan van Schaik, Esther Anatolitis, Andrew Burrow, Oliver Freeman, Simon Goodrich, Ash Keating, Ari Petrovs, Lou Weis and Robyn Williams.