Complexity, Cognition, Urban Planning and Design

TU Delft

Pr. J.A. Scott Kelso will speak at the 2nd Delft International Conference “Complexity, Cognition, Urban Planning and Design” — 10-12 October 2013

Title: Cities as Coordinative Structures


From the works of Portugali, Haken and others, cities, unlike termite architecture, are a constantly evolving function of both planning and self-organizing processes, a (perhaps not so subtle) blend of the natural and the artificial, form and function, the symbolic and the dynamical, the individual and the collective. How do we understand their interplay? How do complex systems like cities adapt and change? What is it that actually changes? What is the nature of change and which, if any, dynamical mechanisms determine stability, sustainability, flexibility and change? How is control possible? In this talk I will introduce some key concepts and findings from coordination dynamics (CD), a theoretical and empirical framework aimed at understanding the (directed) self-organization of coordinated patterns of behavior in complex systems [1,2]. In CD agency may be seen to arise from and in turn modify spontaneous, self-organizing processes. The result is what we call a coordinative structure. Coordinative structures are softly assembled; all the parts are weakly interacting. Perturbing one part may produce a remote effect somewhere else without disrupting integrity of function. The dynamics of coordinative structures is plastic, not fixed; change may be sudden or gradual, and persist or not. Pathways of change can be shown to depend on a distance metric between intended and pre-existing patterns. The (essentially nonlinear) dynamics determines not only whether new patterns are formed but also their sustainability, i.e., which patterns persist following smooth or abrupt change, a kind of (city?) memory [3]. It seems possible that some of these notions may be useful to urban planners and designers. The aim here is to put them on a solid empirical and theoretical foundation which comes from the study of a variety of different systems at neural, behavioral and social levels [4].


1. Kelso, J.A.S. & Haken, H. (1995). New laws to be expected in the organism: Synergetics of brain and behavior. In M. Murphy & L. O’Neill (Eds.) What is Life? The Next 50 Years. Cambridge University Press, pp. 137-160.

2. Kelso, J.A.S. (2012) Multistability and metastability: Understanding dynamic coordination in the brain. Phil. Trans. Royal Society B, 367, 906-918.

3. Kostrubiec, V., Zanone, P.-G., Fuchs, A., & Kelso, J.A.S. (2012) Beyond the blank slate:Routes to learning new coordination patterns depend on the intrinsic dynamics of the learner —experimental evidence and theoretical model. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 212 doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00222

4. Kelso, J.A.S., Dumas, G., & Tognoli, E. (2013) Outline of a general theory of behavior and brain coordination. Neural Networks, 37, 120-131. (25th Commemorative Issue)