Consultants love the phrase "complex adaptive systems." In the jargon, it ranks right up there with "systems view" and "change management". Like most jargon, it becomes cliche when overused, but it's overuse comes from its essential core of truth. Understanding the qualities of complex adaptive systems is crucial to managing the successive waves of change that sweep through business, non-profits, governments and society with each new technological upgrade.
"And this has what to do with New York City?"
At the Providence & Beyond transit cafe last year I sat at a table that discussed issues related to cycling in the city. Philip Marshall from Roger Williams University talked about cycling in New York, and how the tensions between cyclists and drivers were so much less because the standard of attention is so much higher. This rekindled a notion I've been toying with for some time about how pedestrian traffic in New York is a non-stop complex adaptive system worthy of our consideration and study.
Now, many months later, I ask the question, "How is it that millions of people can move at that New York City pace without more collisions?" It's a network that senses and reacts quickly, of course. But there's something more - a simple set of standards and a high expectation of compliance.
More after the jump.
If you're unfamiliar with the experience, a busy or even not so busy day in Manhattan sees something around 3 million people occupy 23 square miles, with most of them packed into the middle. These people walk at a very quick pace, and they very rarely collide. It's a live action dance improvisation on a truly massive scale.
When I was a child my father would take me with him to New York where he worked. I quickly learned the basics of walking in the city: walk fast and don't get in anybody's way. I was really impressed with how fast New Yorkers did things - how fast they walked, how fast they talked and how fast they accomplished the moment-to-moment transactions of urban life. But most important, I learned that failure to execute an appropriate and timely action brought shame and scorn upon the transgressors. They had branded themselves as "out-of-towners".
Even though we had taken the train from Connecticut, we were considered New Yorkers because we acted like New Yorkers.
The Three Standards
As I spent more time in New York, I would watch the traffic patterns from the windows of buildings, sometimes for hours. And, of course, I walked the city from Harlem to the ferry. Clearly, I've spent more time researching the subject than may be good for my sanity. But I finally got down to what I think is the core of the New Yorker's code of transit conduct - The Three Standards.
- Keep Moving
- Don't Prevent Other Movement
- When 1 and 2 conflict, follow The Rules.
These standards enable the mad but successful weaving of people, cars and bicycles in the street and sidewalks of New York because, unlike rules, they are flexible enough to apply to almost every shade of nuance one might encounter "in the field". That said, having The Rules as a backup supports large amount of successful, extra-legal action that does no harm and adds great efficiency to the system.
Rules are too rigid for these situations. But a set of standards that guide behavior allow for thousands of interlocking temporary complex adaptive mini-system to execute an intricate weave spur-of-the-moment. We're talking about tens of thousands of people making an endless series of split-second decisions based on the rate and trajectory of dozens of separate, self-directed objects each with its own set of goals.
They do this at a terrific rate, and yet they almost never collide. David Weinberger - Fry favorite, co-author of Cluetrain and one of the uber-nerds at Harvard's Berkman Center - refers to this as "tacit governance", a soft governance of standards (norms, he calls them) without explicit rules.
A Simple Example
The simplest example is the single pedestrian approaching a red light. Does she cross against the red or not? Standard 1 says keep moving, but will that motion violate Standard 2 by preventing other motion like, say, a taxi cab going 45 mph? If so, then the pedestrian follows The Rules, but only until the cab has past. If there is a safe window of opportunity, the pedestrian crosses against the red and is considered to have followed The Standards even though she broke the rules.
As we add more elements to this example, the The Standards' flexibility allows for virtually any situation. Perpendicular pedestrian traffic, for example, would have priority as they 'have the light'. Their continuing motion, supported by Standard 3, is more important than our single pedestrian who must still make a separate calculation about crossing 'against the light'. Thus, she would yield to let the crossing pedestrians 'make the light', then approach the intersection and consider her next move.
The Expectation of Compliance
New Yorkers make these decisions almost without thinking because The Standards are so much a part of their everyday life. According to Weinberger, tacit governance only exists when compliance is nearly universal and non-compliance is dealt with organically. In New York, a simple "Go back to Jersey" usually gets the point across.
This expectation of compliance - that another pedestrian will recognize the priority of your motion and allow you to continue - is the heart of the system. There isn't time to consider whether or not all the other moving entities are aware of The Standards.
You act as if they do. If the don't, you tell 'em all about it.