Book Review: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Steven Johnson

Review by: Carrie Gartner, PhD

How do some areas of a city become known as restaurant row while others sprout art galleries? How has Florence maintained a single street devoted to silk sellers, even as the buildings along it have been torn down and replaced multiple times? How did New York City develop both a diamond district and a button district?

These are all questions Steven Johnson sets out to answer in his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. In this book, Johnson defines emergence as the “movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication.” Individual actors making street-level decisions will automatically and unknowingly organize those actions into a larger, complex whole—a pattern that often works better than one imposed from the top.

Johnson comes at this conclusion in a roundabout way—by studying everything from slime molds to ants, to computers to the internet itself. In these arenas, every decision happens on the micro level—whether it’s an ant or a byte—and patterns are created as a result of these individual actions. As he points out, “While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.”

Cities operate in much the same way. People travel through the city in set routes but if you see something interesting just off your route, you swerve. A new shop, a sidewalk café, an art installation. Pretty soon, traffic patterns change. That little bubble is incorporated into the larger whole. Then the next guy comes along and decides he’d like to take advantage of all the new traffic. So he decides to open a business just outside this area—usually because that’s where the rents are low and vacancies are high. And people swerve again. And then the next person comes along and she decides to open up a restaurant and more people swerve. And over time, you’ve created a busy urban street where there wasn’t anything before.

Who plans this? According to Johnson, No one–-and everyone. There is no leader. It’s nothing more than a series of small, independent decisions but together, they become a whole. You may as well ask, “Who planned the web?” Google may offer us a directory but that’s like referring to the phone book as an urban planning document.
So given this, what’s the best way to plan? And if cities are created from the ground up, what’s the role of the planner? Part of it is adapting to what’s happening organically, on the street level. Already, cities are thinking in terms of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities or Naturally Occurring Arts Districts–areas that come about naturally by building upon existing resources.

How will Johnson’s work impact those who work on the front lines of downtown marketing and development? Perhaps more than you’d think. How often do we hear from members, citizen groups, or city officials about the need to create a comprehensive downtown plan that will guide public and private development for decades to come? How many charrettes have we attended, dutifully placing stickers next to important projects? How much room do we have left on our shelves for yet another binder containing yet another downtown plan?

Perhaps Johnson’s work will remind us that things can happen without a plan—that the collective action of individuals can often be more effective than that of a single consultant, and that great things can be accomplished through small actions.

Click here to order Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.