Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: Bionomics - The Biology w/in the Economics

Last reposting for the day, is the finale of my week long of blogging for the DMN's summer book club from back in 2010:

Bionomics: The Biology within the Economics - Optimization Not Maximization

This is at best only tangentially related to Joel Kotkin's book, but it is about the future...and about hope. As a demographer, Kotkin's hands inevitably are tied to the inherent fallibility of extrapolating present day statistics into an unknown future. Demographics do dictate markets, but only those at the present. It becomes foolish at some point to predict the future based on current values. It is a bit like those architectural "wouldn't it be neat if" competitions that invariably look like a Jetsons episode.

I would argue that we have a better capability of extrapolating the future from developing trends in industry and their emerging philosophical underpinnings. Something driving new thought in virtually all forward looking industries is that of biomimicry, which is the examination of natural systems put towards inspiring technological innovation. In a way, virtually all innovations are a product of mimicked nature. However, have you ever noticed how clumsy much of the industrial age is in comparison to the elegant simplicity of similar natural functions? Herman Daly might argue that the structural reason for this is the inability to properly value elements in the equation thereby producing very simple, if not proportionately crude products.

However, as we begin to grow out of our specialized professional silos, the 21st century will come to represent the biological age, cross-pollenating all industries with the wisdom of nature. 2050 is smack dab in the middle of it. For example, it can teach us how to produce fibers 5-times stronger than steel with minimal energy input or even fly with the grace and efficiency of a swallow. More tangibly, lessons in passive cooling of structure can be garnered by studying termite towers in the African desert or how to harness artificial photosynthesis to generate energy by taking full advantage of the cleanest power plant imaginable, the nuclear reactor located 93 million miles away.

I predict that the infusion of natural sciences will begin to pervade our daily lives as we remember the importance of a connection to nature and rediscover our humanity. The biological sciences can also teach us about our shifting values and the reasoning behind why they happen, about the oscillations of capitalistic economies as various fields are propelled by overlapping, parallel, and interconnected search and structure-building phases. A recessionary period is merely the repositioning or repurposing of our structures and institutions for a new age.

In Texas, many regard this recession as a relatively minor one. However, in the real estate and city building fields it has been brutal with several related fields over 50% unemployment locally. This is tangentially related to the housing crisis elsewhere because of frozen liquidity in lending to local developers, particularly those attempting to do anything different, i.e. innovate. What does biology have to do with real estate you might ask?

Like humans, there are many species that "own" and develop real estate, territory. Each is constantly shifting from search/expansion phase to a retrenching and structure building phase. The purpose of the expansion phase is to test the value of the "real estate" to the needs of the colony. Some areas prove more resilient than others do and the size of the territory reorganizes around those areas with continued purpose. Those areas are then qualitatively upgraded from "colony" to fully functioning complex, or city.

Like animals, we go through a collective psychological phase shift when we know our current model is no longer servicing us well. Rebuilding the old model proves futile, but the pain we collectively experience as recessions is the letting go of one model and its related institutions and the constructing of new ones. We are in the midst of a shift from the expansive role to one of structure building of new and improved institutions.

In City (re)building, as soon as the lenders figure out how to evaluate land potential properly, which is directly related to the key element of urbanity: connectivity and all of its various permutations, we can once again be off and running economically. My hope is that we can get to a world where growth means something more than just getting fatter. It means getting smarter, getting better, as a people and a City. Where it improves everything around it, does not diminish quality of life for others, the character of a neighborhood or the City, the environment, but rather is additive. Only then can we fully unleash the true power of capitalism, where growth is profitable economically, environmentally, aesthetically, and socially.

Imagine a form of wealth generation with auxiliary profits where buildings function as trees and produce their own energy, if not more. Or, where a factory acts like the soil where its processes result not just in intended product but also in clean, potable water as an output. By 2050, that is the kind of world I want to live in and we will all be the richer for it, in more ways than one.