Quan­tum ur­ban­ism: let it roll coun­ter­in­tu­itively

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - R Swami­nathan

Noth­ing is what it seems to be and it’s fine. That’s the way the world has al­ways been and it’s time that we take off our blink­ers and al­low the com­plex­ity and chaos to seep into our thought pro­cesses

Only that ex­cep­tional lo­gi­cian and philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein could have brought forth the lim­i­ta­tions of hu­man in­tel­lect in such a pithy and mat­ter of fact man­ner: the lim­its of my lan­guage are the lim­its of my world. ‘What is quan­tum ur­ban­ism?’ is a ques­tion that has the same qual­ity as Wittgen­stein’s deep read­ing of the hu­man con­di­tion. in ex­plor­ing that ques­tion, we will get into a rab­bit hole of where every twist will re­veal a turn that can both be a twist and a turn and ex­ist as both till you de­cide what you want it to be. a twist or a turn. it might ap­pear as one mat­ter hat­ter of a coun­ter­in­tu­itive dou­ble twist more suited for bizarre theme parks than daily life. Yet, this is the heart of quan­tum ur­ban­ism. To un­der­stand and ap­ply it to make sense of our daily lives will need us to dis­card con­ven­tional logic in the way we know it. in the way, we have been taught in schools, col­leges and univer­si­ties as sys­tems think­ing. in the way, it in­forms every as­pect of our sense mak­ing with sens­ing con­ceived as a process of iden­ti­fy­ing its con­stituent parts and way it con­nects with each other. in the way, it turns into com­mon­sense.

Quan­tum ur­ban­ism is not es­o­teric. nor is it rocket sci­ence, a fre­quently used counter-ex­am­ple to con­vey the sim­plic­ity of things. The anal­ogy is used here not so much as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sym­bol of sim­plic­ity as it’s a lit­eral re­pu­di­a­tion of a clas­si­cal world­view of a nat­u­ral world that could be dis­cerned through uni­ver­sal laws. This brings us to the first point. rocket sci­ence is clas­si­cal new­to­nian physics, the best man­i­fes­ta­tion of the english­man’s third law that every ac­tion has an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion. That law is true. so are a set of phys­i­cal laws that make the nat­u­ral world dis­cernible

and un­der­stand­able to us in ab­so­lute and uni­ver­sal terms. it’s true that grav­ity, force, mass and mo­men­tum have a spe­cific re­la­tion­ship that can be math­e­mat­i­cally com­puted. It’s true that th­ese phys­i­cal laws al­low the char­ac­ter­is­tics of each el­e­ment of the nat­u­ral world to be con­verted into spe­cific nu­mer­i­cal val­ues and dec­i­mal points. it’s also true that this abil­ity to de­con­struct the nat­u­ral world into con­stituent el­e­ments rep­re­sented as num­bers pow­ers the logic of sys­tems think­ing and sys­tems.

This is clas­si­cal sci­ence in a nut­shell as it is clas­si­cal ur­ban­ism. Both rep­re­sent the com­mand­ing heights of sys­tems think­ing. If the cor­ner­stone of sci­en­tificity in clas­si­cal sci­ence is con­sis­tent repli­ca­bil­ity in lab­o­ra­tory con­di­tions as any high school chem­istry or physics ex­per­i­ment would heartily at­test to, the cor­ner­stone of ur­ban­ity in clas­si­cal ur­ban­ism is con­sis­tent pre­dictabil­ity in stan­dard city con­di­tions as any pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem worth its salt would read­ily agree to. The im­mutabil­ity of the phys­i­cal laws of clas­si­cal sci­ence and the un­chang­ing sys­temic norms of clas­si­cal ur­ban­ism comes with one big fine print.

This brings us to the se­cond point. Th­ese phys­i­cal laws and sys­temic norms are ap­pli­ca­ble to a world of a cer­tain size. in the case of clas­si­cal sci­ence, th­ese laws hold true till an atomic world of pro­tons, neu­trons and elec­trons. once the probe goes deeper into the arena of sub­atomic par­ti­cles, a world of neu­tri­nos, positrons and higgs Bo­son, for­get be­ing im­mutable, th­ese laws are not even ap­pli­ca­ble. en­ter the quan­tum uni­verse.

a uni­verse is an apt de­scrip­tor as sci­en­tists are dis­cov­er­ing that the forces pow­er­ing the con­traindica­tive and coun­ter­in­tu­itive dy­nam­ics be­tween the sub­atomic par­ti­cles are also the same forces, the mys­te­ri­ous dark mat­ter be­ing a

prom­i­nent one, that have pow­ered our uni­verse for 13.82 bil­lion years right from the mo­ment of Big Bang. Quan­tum the­ory is the rab­bit hole that helps you en­ter the uni­verse and get­ting lost is a cer­tainty. if clas­si­cal sci­ence was a world of phys­i­cal cer­tain­ties and im­mutabil­i­ties, of bi­na­ries, of clear-as­day­light ob­jec­tiv­i­ties, and pitch darkas-night sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, the quan­tum uni­verse is a per­pet­u­ally grey mist of du­al­i­ties, pos­si­bil­i­ties and ten­den­cies. in this world a pho­ton, which we get ex­posed to every day as light from the hot sun to the cool moon, is both a par­ti­cle and a wave. The light par­ti­cle can choose, yes choose, to be in that prob­a­bilis­tic dual state be­hav­ing as if it were in two places at the same time. Its fi­nal state of a par­ti­cle or a wave is de­ter­mined at the mo­ment of ob­ser­va­tion, as if the very act of ob­ser­va­tion and the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the ob­server some­how de­ter­mines its char­ac­ter. every­thing in the quan­tum world is about com­plex­ity, chaos, mul­ti­ple states and dy­namic emer­gent pos­si­bil­i­ties.

if this sounds fas­ci­nat­ingly im­pos­si­ble, the short re­join­der to it is it isn’t. and if this sound in­fu­ri­at­ingly sub­jec­tive, the short re­join­der to it is it is. For those who are in­ter­ested in slip­ping hap­pily fur­ther into the rab­bit hole, i would strongly rec­om­mend read­ing about the dou­ble slit ex­per­i­ment, which split a pho­ton par­ti­cle into two and proved its du­al­ity. in the same breath, i would also point in the di­rec­tion of the thought ex­per­i­ment de­signed by aus­trian physi­cist er­win schrödinger called ‘schrödinger’s cat’, a sce­nario where the cat is both si­mul­ta­ne­ously dead and alive, which led to two im­por­tant con­cepts of quan­tum su­per­po­si­tion and en­tan­gle­ment.

The con­sis­tent pre­dictabil­ity of sys­temic norms in the case of clas­si­cal ur­ban­ism holds true till a world of the small­est ad­min­is­tra­tive unit, a lo­cal­ity or a neigh­bour­hood. once the in­ter­ro­ga­tion goes deeper into the sub-ad­min­is­tra­tive world of small in­for­mal groups or the in­vis­i­ble peo­ple pop­u­lat­ing the gaps be­tween ad­min­is­tra­tive units, the uni­verse of quan­tum ur­ban­ism, the sys­temic norms are no long pre­dictable or repli­ca­ble. in fact, they are not even ap­pli­ca­ble. in this world an in­di­vid­ual, like a sub­atomic par­ti­cle, is al­ways in a dual state with the emer­gent pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing in two places at the same time with his or her fi­nal po­si­tion de­ter­mined by the mo­ment of ob­ser­va­tion, with the very act of ob­ser­va­tion and the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the ob­server de­ter­min­ing the fi­nal state. This du­al­ity is of two dis­tinct kinds, one primeval like the 13.82 bil­lion-year-old an­cient uni­verse and one con­tem­po­rary and mod­ern like the god par­ti­cle aka higgs Bo­son.

an il­lus­tra­tion will make this con­crete. When a rag­picker from an ex­tremely marginalised dalit com­mu­nity is hid­ing away from pry­ing eyes and rum­mag­ing through a rub­bish heap, the act of ob­serv­ing him or her de­ter­mines his or her end state: an un­clean vagabond or a small en­tre­pre­neur look­ing for daily op­por­tu­nity. it’s a du­al­ity with primeval roots. When a highly ed­u­cated home­maker uses open source dig­i­tal plat­forms, down­loads blue­prints about hand-held vac­uum clean­ers and prints them on home 3d print­ers and sells them, the act of ob­serv­ing her de­ter­mines her end state: a home­maker who uses her free time to do some en­tre­pre­neur­ial ac­tiv­i­ties or an en­tre­pre­neur who uses her free time to carry out some ac­tiv­i­ties re­lated to the man­age­ment of a home.

This brings us to the third point of en­tan­gle­ment and su­per­po­si­tion. Just as clas­si­cal sci­ence and its un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of repli­ca­bil­ity pow­ers the mod­ern world, so does clas­si­cal

When a rag­picker from an ex­tremely marginalised dalit com­mu­nity is hid­ing away from pry­ing eyes and rum­mag­ing through a rub­bish heap, the act of ob­serv­ing him or her de­ter­mines his or her end state: an un­clean vagabond or a small en­tre­pre­neur look­ing for daily op­por­tu­nity.

ur­ban­ism and its un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of pre­dictabil­ity that pow­ers the mod­ern city. That point can­not be over­stated: the ex­tremely ef­fi­cient and pre­dictable sub­ur­ban train net­work of Mum­bai is a sys­tem by all def­i­ni­tions.

The point is about the ex­pand­ing quan­tum worlds within our cities where peo­ple are con­tin­u­ously en­tan­gled with each other de­spite the sys­tem and by de­fault out­side of it cre­at­ing nu­mer­ous su­per­po­si­tions where every state in a mul­ti­plic­ity of states has equal prob­a­bil­ity of be­ing the end state of a per­son. such quan­tum worlds are ex­pand­ing. many are in­vis­i­ble and marginalised, like rag­pick­ers, sev­eral are choos­ing to se­lec­tively con­nect and dis­con­nect with the sys­tem, like the en­trepreneurhome­maker, and a few are con­sciously de­cid­ing to stay away from it as much as pos­si­ble, like the ur­ban farmer who sell his or­ganic pro­duce over a dig­i­tal plat­form. all of us can feel it. all of us can also see it. it’s also some­thing that doesn’t need data or re­search to prove it, both be­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a sys­tems over­hang. The fact is that sys­tems and sys­tem think­ing is col­laps­ing sim­ply be­cause they don’t have the lan­guage, gram­mar and id­iom to un­der­stand and ac­com­mo­date the sheer coun­ter­in­tu­itive na­ture of quan­tum ur­ban­ism. With­out the se­man­tic ar­chi­tec­ture, cities will in­creas­ingly have smaller and smaller is­lands of sys­tems, cov­ered by a large swathe of quan­tum worlds of var­i­ous kinds which would not be served sim­ply be­cause sys­tems think­ing just can­not com­pre­hend it and hence would not know how to en­gage with it.

if sys­tems think­ing has run its course, and that does seem to be case, the ques­tion of al­ter­na­tives arise. This brings us to the fourth and last point for this part of the se­ries. The point is about strik­ing the right bal­ance be­tween clas­si­cal ur­ban­ism and quan­tum ur­ban­ism. This is where ur­ban­ists and peo­ple as­so­ci­ated with cities can draw in­spi­ra­tion from the world of sci­ence where a bal­ance, even if an un­easy one, has been es­tab­lished be­tween the clas­si­cal world and the quan­tum world. Quan­tum ur­ban­ism is a com­pletely new way of look­ing at an ur­ban world that is be­com­ing ex­tremely com­plex and chaotic. it’s also a way to un­der­stand, an­a­lyse and cater to the sub-ad­min­is­tra­tive forces and dy­nam­ics of in­ter­ac­tion, en­gage­ment, ne­go­ti­a­tion and con­tes­ta­tion that are bind­ing peo­ple to­day in seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory ways: it’s nec­es­sary to keep in mind that the word ‘con­tra­dic­tory’ is used as de­fined by sys­tems think­ing. Us­ing the frame of quan­tum ur­ban­ism to de­fine old prob­lems in in­no­va­tive ways brings to the fore emer­gent pos­si­bil­i­ties of cre­at­ing new ar­chi­tec­tures of gov­er­nance and man­age­ment of ur­ban re­sources that can bring about dis­trib­uted and dis­ag­gre­gated mod­els of peo­ple en­gage­ment that puts sus­tain­abil­ity, re­silience, lo­cal own­er­ship and demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion at the cen­tre of the pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion and con­sump­tion of every kind of pub­lic and pri­vate goods. Quan­tum ur­ban­ism will also di­rectly im­pact and change our ways of life, liv­ing and do­ing busi­ness at a fun­da­men­tal level, and we will dis­cover how in the re­main­ing parts of the se­ries.

Quan­tum ur­ban­ism is a com­pletely new way of look­ing at an ur­ban world that is be­com­ing ex­tremely com­plex and chaotic. It’s also a way to un­der­stand, an­a­lyse and cater to the sub­ad­min­is­tra­tive forces and dy­nam­ics of in­ter­ac­tion, en­gage­ment, ne­go­ti­a­tion and con­tes­ta­tion that are bind­ing peo­ple to­day in seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory ways.

Next: Quan­tum ur­ban­ism in ac­tion: Trans­form­ing jobs into work & why it’s good for us and the earth

Swami­nathan is vis­it­ing re­search fel­low at Upp­sala Uni­ver­sity Swe­den where he is part the project ‘Fu­ture Ur­ban­ism’. He is also re­search di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for So­cial Im­pact and Phi­lan­thropy, Ashoka Uni­ver­sity.

Gn Pho­tos

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