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Keep the UN “at the edge of chaos” – including buildings

Published on 18 January 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Christopher LANGTON observed fifty years ago that innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos.” Steven JOHNSON has just developed the idea to some possibly practical implications.[1] I’m building a “thought experiment” (one of many thinking tools)[2] on the strength of his thoughts.

In a gaseous state, atoms meet, but seldom connect in stable fashion. No networks ensue. In a solid state, atoms are all lined up and only connect in a prescribed manner. No new networks ensue. In a liquid state, all sorts of temporary combinations can take place as the atoms or molecules slosh around until some become stable. The networks are liquid and changing. The new can emerge from the old. This is the “edge of chaos,” and here innovation may occur –experience tells us.

Vertically structured organizations mostly are “solid state” and hardly change, unless violently disrupted by earthquakes or wrecking balls.[3] Their degree of innovation is limited. This tendency is heightened if the institution happens to be “too big to fail”, i.e. cannot make mistakes, or is expected not to do any. By definition, any universal organization is “too big to fail.” Principles of coherence, consistency, and precedent enhance verticality.

In such structures, survival trumps evolution. People manning these structures develop vested interests in them as they climb the greasy pole within the structure. Irrevocable job security adds to the rigidity.[4] Over time, people and structures coevolve toward immobility.

Vertical and “too big to fail” institutions inhabit buildings reflecting their structure. These buildings exude and project immobility. Here is the UN Geneva example:


As an organization emerging from centralizing WWII, the UN is mostly structured in a vertical manner. It is universal, hence “too big to fail.” It being “member driven” does not help. The ongoing dissatisfaction with it may be connected (at least in part) with these structural features.

Meanwhile, fluid networks in international relations can be observed emerging as a pragmatic reaction to the perceived short-comings. In WTO, it is the Free Trade Agreements – the much despised “spaghetti bowl” grouping “coalitions of the willing.” After the Copenhagen debacle, UNFCCC is also moving toward “good enough” commitments of voluntary (hopefully significant) associations. Even the old network of the Commonwealth is showing signs of revival.[5] It is not nostalgia: rather it is the recognition that any fluid network among “like-minded” administrations has its uses.

The current efforts in respect of Syria are an example of “diplomacy at the edge of chaos” fluid networks emerging, collapsing, re-inventing themselves in a relentless tinkerer’s effort to achieve a solution that “works”. Such fluid networks tend to vanish, and are mostly anonymous or describe a process, e.g. the “Montreux Process.” Meanwhile, vertical structures look on, ready to endorse (and absorb) the result.

It is fascinating in this context to observe “fluid networks” also applying to buildings. Rather than in the stately Palais des Nations, contacts between Iran and key international players over nuclear issues took place at the Hotel Intercontinental. Of course, there are always contingencies blurring the picture, but I’d argue that the shape of the UN buildings, which reflect the verticality of the system, is not conducive to tinkering. Consequently, they are shunned.

“Physical architecture of our work environment can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas.” Experience has shown that some buildings are conducive, others make innovation difficult. MIT’s Building 20[6] – a temporary structure built during WWII without any expectation it would survive more than five years – proved resilient because it was a hotbed of innovation over the next decades. In 2007, Microsoft inaugurated its Building 99[7] – a research building designed with the assistance of the users. It aims to be an engineered version of MIT Building 20 (I don’t know whether they succeeded).


Walls can be transformed into impromptu wipe-of whiteboards

As the host country, Switzerland intends to renovate and upgrade the UN Geneva buildings. The bill is likely to hover around 1.3 billion CHF (it will be significantly more, I’m afraid). Energy conservation will surely be a core goal. A collateral effect, however, may be strengthening their current carapace. Once refashioned, sunk costs will dictate the use of such buildings despite possible deficiencies. The well-intentioned ambition of the Swiss government may unwittingly strengthen, rather than lessen the verticality of UN Geneva.

What is to be done? My suggestion would be to develop a “MIT Building 20” style construction, where housing fluid negotiating networks are the main goal. Transience is of the essence: ideally a negotiating group should be able to secure and adapt part of the building for its purposes within a few days.

Energy conservation? Roman cardinals were unable to agree on a Pope in Viterbo in 1271. After feeding the Cardinals black bread and water first, urban lore has it that, after two years of waiting, the populace simply took off the roof. They were successful in bringing about a decision.[8]

[1] Steven JOHNSON (2010): Where good ideas come from. The seven patters of innovation. Penguin, London.

[2] Daniel C. DENNETT (2013): Intuition pumps and othe tools for thinking. Norton, New York; The author characterized them: “ These handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus-holders permit us to think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions.” (pg. 2)

[3] Consulting firms are « wrecking balls » destroying frozen patterns. Don’t rely on them to construct anything new: they are exogenous to the system, and tend to introduce clear, rather than fluid structures one can learn to appreciate through use.

[4] Irrevocable job security evolved decades ago, when expatriation to serve in an universal structure implied severing ties with the country of origin. This is no longer the case.

[5] David HOWELL (2014) : Old links and new ties. Power and persuasion in an age of networks. I.B. Tauris, London.

[6] See Stewart BRAND (2010): How buildings learn: what happens after they are built. Penguin, London.

[8] https://bit.ly/1mdnpGD

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