Sharon Wohl’s research considers how cities operate as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). CAS theory examines systems that are self-organized from the bottom-up, with emergent features arising from the relationships between system components. Through simple rules of interaction CAS are able to gradually move towards energetically ‘fit’ regimes. Sharon focuses upon how certain characteristics of urban form can support an urban environment’s capacity to self-organize, enabling emergent features to appear that, while unplanned, remain highly functional. The research is predicated on the notion that CAS processes operate across diverse domains: that they are ‘generalized’ or ‘universal’. The goal of the research is then to determine how such generalized principles might ‘play out’ within the urban fabric. The main thrust of the work involves unpacking how elements of the urban fabric might be considered as elements of a complex system. It then identifies how one might design such urban elements in a more deliberative manner, such that they hold a greater embedded capacity to respond to changing urban forces.
The research is predicated on the notion that, while such responses are both imbricated with, and stewarded by human actors, the specificities of the material characteristics themselves matter. As such, the research adopts a post-human ‘new materialist’ perspective. Here, some forms of ‘materially enabling’ environments hold greater intrinsic physical capacities (or affordances) to enact the kinds of dynamic processes observed in complex systems (and can, therefore, be designed with generating these affordances in mind). The work draws insights from related inquiries in the field of Evolutionary Economic Geography, arguing that, while emergent capacity is often explored in social, economic, or political terms, it is under-theorized in terms of the concrete physical sub-strata that can also act to ‘carry’ or ‘moor’ CAS dynamics. In broad terms, the potential ‘phase space’ of a physical environment can be expanded or contracted based upon the characteristics of material affordances that are present to be activated by users. By focusing on the enabling of ‘bottom-up’ agentic capacities, the work is potentially more democratic – and emancipatory – in nature.