Emergent patterns in nature and society


How to solve traffic jams

This blog started on July 22, 2010. It was supposed to be a research diary where I was keeping stuff I got exited about at the beginning of my PhD and that I’d like to pick up for future projects, future ideas and cool research. It was a communication channel between present and future Juan to keep things on track, to avoid forgetting what keep us studying with hunger for more knowledge, avid to better understand the world.

Such interest is almost extinct. It’s not the world itself. It keeps rotating on the same axis with days of fairly 24 hours and years of roughly 365 days: 4 seasons, moon phases and beautiful sunrise and sunsets every now and then. Regime shifts are still an amazing area of research. It’s just me having trouble to see it properly.

I had a similar experience when studying my undergrad in Ecology. Being bored to death with a program I didn’t enjoy the most part, without having the choice of changing subject, and even if I had the choice, without having the certainty of getting stimulating education otherwise. It’s like being stuck in a traffic jam. Few events made me fall in love again with “ecology” – or whatever you want to call it. One was my course on ecological economics with Juan Camilo Cárdenas, reading a woman called Elinor Ostrom, about collective action dilemmas, rational and irrational behaviour back in 2003. The second was spending some time (2004) in Providence Island in the Caribbean, working with lobster fishermen who despite their efforts and good intentions to sustain the fishery were failing at reaching their own goals. Sustainability -another of this words that sounds like a violin out of tune- wasn’t about politics, good intentions or snobbism; it was about understanding complex systems, or better, reality that behaves in counter-intuitive ways and often surprises you. Third, was my course on dynamic modeling with Daniel Castillo, where I got the tools to build my first model about the public transport system in my home town Bogotá, a city with 8 million inhabitants and eternal traffic jams. Last but not less, my course on BioComplexity with Brigitte Baptiste where I got introduced to Gregory Bateson, Maturana & Varela, and finally Panarchy: a conceptual world where things seemed to make more sense that any other book I read before as ecology student. Charged with such sources of inspiration I went back to the island decided to figure out why the fishermen couldn’t get what they wanted: I studied resilience surrogates of a social-ecological system. I modeled biological dynamics of lobster, combined them with data from experimental economics to figure out why the bloody cooperation levels were not enough and which institutions worked the best. And with a bunch of courses taken on the branches of anthropology that try to understand the relationship human – nature; I jumped onto the cultural dynamics that determined evolution of knowledge, why is it eroded through drug smuggling and why people make rules to break the rules. It was a different kind of traffic jam.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” (from an interview with a Providence fisherman in Castillo, 2005).

While most of people of my university was happy to get rid of thesis in 6 months, they found hard to understand why and how did I enjoy a year and a half of struggling with a model, doing sensitivity analysis and validation tests, reading books, transcribing interviews with hurricane noise in the background and doing qualitative analysis by hand. Perhaps they didn’t took into consideration that it was a perfect excuse for me to spend most of my time in a local café “working” with what seemed to me more like a game, a puzzle. I easily forget how much I did enjoyed the struggle. Sometimes I get friendly reminders, emails from people I’ve never meet asking for the pdf. With a little bit of embarrassment I always sent the 8 chapters book with lots of redaction mistakes and weak statistics. The last one was from the director of the national fisheries management office in Uruguay. His follow up suggestion was to make an english version easy to access and reference. I’m aware of that since 2006 when I didn’t speak english at all; although my english has improved, the paper is still on the traffic jam.

Traffic jams. It’s one of those topics that come back and forth. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m bogotano and if you know what I’m talking about, you understand that I’ve spend a significant amount of my life time just waiting in a bus. A teenager who goes back and forth to school can easily spend 3-4 hours per day, without crossing half of the city. Or perhaps it is because of my fascination about swarm dynamics and complex systems where emergent patterns occur without the existence of a commander, an architect, or god. It’s one of those systems where self-organization is just there in front of your eyes. I come from a city where there is soooooo many cars that there is institutions that try to set an incentives scheme to see if self-organziation reduce congestion. One example is Pico y Placa: depending on your car number, you cannot use it one or two days per week. People hated it at the beginning, then love spending half time as it used to be going from office to work after a hard day of work. People even take turns and drive around friends and colleagues. All illegal, or I mean, semi-public transport solutions at the local scale of the neighborhood that is not registered in the official “system” but definitely shape its functioning. Other rules include the closing of major avenues only for bicycles on sundays, one day without car per year (only public transport allowed), now there is pico y placa even for taxis… you name it. Here are some previous thoughts about traffic jams that Juan of the past put together for present Juan: http://wp.me/p10aGd-23

The video at the top was this moment of the day that -not exactly, but somehow- felt like a déjà vu. Have you seen it? I love the part when he asks who organize the bread supply of London […] No, no one is in charge … it basically organize it itself!! Then Eliasson walk us through the traffic system in Stockholm, his home town; a city that feels like home to me, where I’m spending now my fifth winter. Decent coffee is not hard to find. In November the darkness involves you, keeping you away from distraction and helping to focus on the reading and writing while the flame of the candles dance in front of you. Stockholm: a little town not even a forth of my city. But believe it or not, I spent 30min in a bus this morning in a trip that usually takes 15min walking. I was trying to avoid getting too wet with the rain given that I was teaching today. Some of my students were late. Traffic jams. The rest of the video goes into the argument that for solving complex (social) problems one have to set the right incentives, don’t plan the details too much and people will figure it out by themselves, even without realizing it. I have to express some disagreement. I know people in countries like Sweden like the feeling of silver bullet solutions. But getting the right incentives is harder than you think, and almost impossible to predict. For an elaborated argument read the Logic of Failure. It often implies lots of experimentation, the rightness fades rapidly as other incentives and strategies come into place. You don’t believe me? Go to Bogotá, there is adaptations for good and bad. What I did like was the way he introduces in 6min the role of emergent properties and self-organization.

I haven’t write much this year, neither the blog nor the research. I came back today to my research diary not to leave stuff for future Juan, but looking for the messages past Juan left for me. Where is the passion, the beauty, the hope, the sources of inspiration? I’m in a traffic jam, stuck and in late. Set the right incentives and things will self organize, they will adapt. Sure.

Dear reader. I know there is not many of you out there. I just wanted to thank you for the company on this research journey. I’m sorry for the lack of activity. This year has happen a lot on regime shifts, from a boom on papers on early warnings, breaking records of Greenland summer melting, to the first studies that distinguish social contagion from homophily in social networks. The later is perhaps as important as the Higgs boson to physics. You’re always welcome to pass by, dive into my thoughts, discuss and engage with ideas if you like. However, this post is a reminder that this blog is for myself, very selfish, perhaps politically incorrect since it’s publicly available online. The reason why is not on paper is because I wouldn’t be able to search and tag content at the speed of my finger typing. I use you to force myself to write better in English. This is also the tool that helps me keeping +20 literature reviews of different regime shifts going on at the same time. But the prime motivation is not loosing myself, to remind me where I’m going to when I get trapped on a traffic jam. Leave traces of my dreams so I make them happen when I get the skills to do it. Leave traces of what excites me, what makes me interested so I don’t forget the reasons why I shouldn’t give up.  I’m here because I want to do research. I’m here because once I believed that by  better understanding how systems work I could help the fisherman getting out the trap, even though I don’t know how to fish. I’m here to do research: a dialogue, challenging the assumptions, an orgy of ideas, reinventing the narrative, understanding the world. Even thought we both know that knowledge is imperfect, as it is love, friendship, freedom, peace, democracy… Constantly looking for the dreams, the unreachable perfection is what make us human, make us alive. Research.

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