Organization and intelligence

1. Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force
is the same principle as the control of a few men:
it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

2. Fighting with a large army under your command
is nowise different from fighting with a small one:
it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.
– From The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The problem of social cooperation is how to order many individuals into large-scale patterns, and thus acquire the benefits of these larger patterns. The military arts were the first to face this problem, war being a field where inferiority carries severe consequences, and lessons are learned quickly. The solution was known in the time of Sun Tzu: the superior army was the one that could act as a single force, applying a single decision multiplied by however many men were at the command of this army. More men were always better, but past a certain scale it became unmanageable for a commander to yell out orders to everyone and maintain command. In order to resolve this the military men invented hierarchy, a command structure through which the commander’s orders would be distributed so that a group of any size could act as a single force.

For most of history success in war came from achieving and maintaining organization, lines of command from a center to the individuals that compose an army such that the commander could deploy the army in the most effective pattern he could think of. Discipline and complete obedience to orders was required, even if the situation as it appeared to the lowly grunt was in total contradiction to the orders he had been signaled. As far as he knew, the commander had a larger picture of the war and the orders ought to work out correctly. But the flaw in organization is that as an organization becomes larger, as the layers of hierarchy increase, the commander becomes more remote and more isolated from his army. The lines of communication become inefficient, the orders become irrelevant, and many men die stupidly.

Nevertheless, for centuries the sheer overwhelming force of numbers more than made up for the losses due to bad orders. The principle of organization triumphed. Reformers started looking for plans to organize industries, entire nations (the command economy of the Soviet Union), and of course, cities. The C.I.A.M. Athens Conference resulted in the publication in 1942, by Le Corbusier, of the Athens Charter, the document upon which the plans to organize modern cities, and be rid of the spontaneous historic city, were founded.

Between the time of the Athens Conference and the publication of the Athens Charter, the military concept of large-scale organization was completely discredited.

In June 1940 the German army invaded France. The two armies were evenly matched in men and weapons, France even having a advantage in tanks. Within one month the French army organization collapsed and millions of men surrendered without having put up much of a fight, resulting in many decades of American jokes about French surrender. In reality the two armies were far from evenly matched; the German generals had discovered a mean to overcome the weakness in the principle of organization, that it relied on a central, single commander. Their model of cooperation has been called Blitzkrieg, the lightning war, and its intent was to reduce the delay in receiving and sending the “signs and signals” of command by removing them. German commanders out in the field were given broad directives and trusted to figure out on their own how to fulfill them, with glory and medals as reward for success. The French had instead refined organization and bureaucracy into a precise art. Within days of breaching into France, autonomous German tank divisions destroyed the lines of communication of the French army and paralyzed the front-line units. It became impossible for it to act as a single force, never mind stopping an invasion.

The German system of directive command was in fact the universal principle of emergence applied to military action. Instead of building a hierarchy of orders to communicate the will of a central commander, the armies were organized in parallel, directed to respond to their observed context, a context which was itself produced by other units of the same army. Instead of deploying the intelligence of a single commander holed up in an office in Berlin, the German system linked the intelligence of all of its officers into a more effective super-intelligence that could see all of the battlefield simultaneously. The collapse of the French army was therefore inevitable. It was a case of one against many.

As already mentioned, war teaches quickly, and the allies eventually adopted a similar operations model to fight the war to victory. German operations theorists went on to design the structure of NATO’s European defense, a war that we fortunately never witnessed. Urban planners did not have to learn this lesson, and they opted to organize cities to ruin.


The network structure is often, incorrectly, called a “bottom-up” organization. My opinion is that this label makes no sense. There is no up or down in a network. There is neither bottom nor top. Those are descriptions that apply to hierarchies only. In a network actions happen horizontally, in parallel. Large-scale patterns are made up of links between those local actions, as seen in the figure above. Human intelligence, for example, cannot be explained as a collection of cells. It is the patterns formed by the links between these cells that is intelligent, and it is these patterns that allow us humans to be several orders of magnitude more complex than individual cells.

The paralysis inflicted on the French army organization was in parts self-inflicted. Longer chains of command involved delays in transmitting information (reports from the field), analyzing the information, planning a reaction and ordering the new deployment. The bigger the army became, the more paralysis it suffered. This organization was in much the same situation as the dinosaur who did not feel a hit on his tail because the nerves were too far from his brain. The bigger it became, the more exposed it was to a paralysis-focused attack.

It should not come as a surprise that what caused the death of cities is also self-inflicted paralysis. But the case of cities is much more tragic. The German operations model was novel and innovative, a radical improvement in military art. Cities, however, had always been emergent. They were the product of a spontaneous order, a phenomenon that was barely understood at the height of rationalist planning. What science did understand was organization. Since it was accepted as the pinnacle of science, no rational thinker could reject the new urban planning. The planners did not notice the hints: what they were organizing had not been a creation of anyone.

In a complex emergent system, the number of unique patterns scales up with the size of the system. (What some emergence commentators call “more is different,” another expression that makes no sense.) While an organization attempts to create a large-scale pattern to outmatch smaller patterns, a complex system is made up of both small and large patterns, in proportion to a power law, either nested together or juxtaposed randomly (a fractal). If an emergent system is intelligent, it will structure itself into patterns that no one had expected.

For centuries people had been accustomed to such patterns as the street of similar shopkeepers. Many streets in European cities bear the name of a particular trade, such as baker’s street or threadneedle street. But when cities passed a critical scale during the industrial revolution, a whole new pattern emerged: the central business district. An entire city within the city became the center of commerce, not simply specific streets next to residences. Although it appeared unexpectedly during the 19th century (the Haussmannian renovation of the Opera district of Paris was meant to create a neighborhood for the upper classes, but it became a business center immediately and has remained so ever since), a central business district came to be what a major city was all about. When planners set out to organize a modern city, they planned it around the CBD as the central feature. They did this by drawing a square on the map and applying a different set of rules to this square. Within a few years, their CBDs began dying. The small scale patterns nested within them had been zoned out.

In retrospect it was inevitable for an attempt at organization to severely interfere with urban processes, the principle of organization being a step down in complexity from the principle of emergence. Organization had a sinister advantage: it gave the planners the illusion that they could predict what the city was going to become. An emergent system cannot be predicted with precision. The very basis of its intelligence is that it has not yet been decided what it is going to do. Embracing an emergent system means accepting that patterns will appear that are beyond our comprehension. (In Wolfram’s terminology, the system is computationally equivalent to our own intelligence.)

By trusting their front line officers to run the war for themselves, the German general staff took a leap of faith that paid off decisively and confronted every opposing military with their crippling inferiority. I suspect the first modern city to give up on the principle of organization will trigger a similar revolution.


2 responses to “Organization and intelligence

  1. A fascinating and appropriate analogy. The question now becomes: what constraints to provide to cities? I think that some modern planning is certainly necessary, the type espoused by Sitte: take care of the big details (where not to build, about how dense, and major transit infrastructure) then let the inhabitants figure out the rest.

    I think this is doable, but it would take two major innovations. First a total revamp of the legal code to greatly reduce the time it takes to resolve minor disputes and manipulate land deeds and second, removing the automobile as a major presence in urban areas. The constraints that engineers would seek to impose on the design to allow for the automobile would entirely remove any trace of control that locals would try to exert over their surroundings (I know, I’m a transportation engineer).

  2. interesting reading. i’m no engineer/architect/urban planner, but it seems to me that because cities are made up by people, the urban planning can’t really restrain the random/chaotic actions.

    on the other hand, it seems to me too that a city needs some level of planning, if not to help the efficiency of a city (e.g. in terms of movement, communication)

    also, nowadays urban planning seems to move a lot of money and interests around, deciding how much certain properties will be worth by basis of a construction of a hospital etc..

    i don’t really have a point here, just trying to figure things out 🙂

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