In this blog, I propose that we can learn from Biochemistry when mapping actors and interactions in a smart-society context. A smart society is a complex organisation with many different players all interacting with each other in different ways and at different times. Sometimes these interactions are small and sometimes they are large. This made me realize there is a profound analogy with what I learned about our Human Metabolism.
Many professions have their own techniques and methods for mapping complex systems, whether it is a machine process, the logistics flow in a factory, or a weather system. For me, one of the most interesting methods for mapping complex systems is the metabolic pathways used for mapping all the processes taking place in our bodies and those of other living species.
As you can see it is a very complex diagram. It shows all the chemical reactions going on in a human body and how they link to each other. A linked series of chemical reactions within a cell is called a pathway, hence the term metabolic pathways.
For example, the highlighted section in the picture on top of this article (©Roche) shows the Krebs cycle, which is a key pathway in how all mammals convert sugar into energy. But, by taking a different route, it also shows how we metabolise sugar into fat. Note also that some chemicals appear in several different places. In some pathways, they may only have a small impact, in others a very large one.
I still remember seeing this poster for the first time when I was studying biochemistry at Antwerp University. It was a sort of eureka moment for me, making me eager to understand a system with this type of complexity. The map gives both a clear overview of what is going on in the body, and shows all the details down to the smallest of chemical reactions.
When I started looking at how smart societies function, I was reminded of that diagram. There are many players involved from large companies and organisations to tiny startups and individuals, and sometimes these small companies or individuals can have a big impact, just like how the small molecules – such as oxygen or ammonia – can play important roles in the functioning of the human body.
Also, the interactions between the players are as important as the players themselves. It’s not because a city has a Technical University and a business incubator that there will be a natural flow from idea to market. It’s only when these institutes (and more importantly the people within them) know how to interact with each other that the chance of success increases.
Additionally, it is important to know what the outcome of a chosen pathway will be. “If I do this, what will happen?” In the Krebs cycle, intermediary compounds can end up becoming part of fat, proteins or a variety of other functional molecules depending on which “exit” they take. If you go to www.biochemical-pathways.com (©Roche) and zoom out a few times, an overlay appears that gives you an excellent overview of how the regions in the map correspond to different types of “outcomes”. In a Smart Society, you also have different goals. Some people want to create a tech-startup, others are engaged in a neighbourhood project or want to build an artistic installation for a ‘smart museum’. Depending on the dominant pathways inside any given Smart Society, that society might be more favourable towards projects with certain types of ambition.
A balanced diet
Other things I like about the metabolic pathway model is that – in theory – no matter where you start, you can end up on the other side of the chart. Also, for our metabolism to work smoothly, you need the right balance of chemicals. Otherwise you can have issues: a person can get tired or sick.
The same is true for smart societies. With the right connections, you can go anywhere and achieve anything, but only if you have the right balance of players. Too many large organisations could stifle flexibility and adaptive power. Too many small ones might result in lack of overall direction. And just like people, the right balance for any smart society is different. To me, the favelas in Rio are an excellent example of a ‘smart society’. Everyone knows where to go and where not to, even with hardly any form of technical infrastructure. But to be clear, this type of smart society would need different inputs than say Berlin or London, even though they can still probably be broken down into the same type of actors. This could be entrepreneurs, NGOs, creatives, corporate entities, government bodies and – equally important – all the individuals that make up the smart society.
Importance of mapping
When you want to travel for A to B, you look on a map. Having a map of a smart society can help you identify who is doing what, where you can reach them and where they will take you or help you get to. In a geographical map, each place only exists in one spot, but in the metabolic pathway model, things can be at different places in the map. As a result, you have map that looks more at activity and purpose: who is relevant for this activity / purpose, where are they coming from and where will they lead you.
Mapping the ecosystem of a smart society would help us better understand it, along with all the roles and relationships between the different stakeholders. Then, when you wanted to interact with it, you simply look at the map to work out where you should be or who you need to talk to.
The metabolic pathways poster of a smart society
So, just as the metabolic pathway diagram is a standard representation of the human body, I believe it should also be possible to create a standardized map for all smart societies. This would allow us to map any smart city, community, or society onto the map to see where it is working and where not.
Screenshot of data visualization of ecosystem interactions as mapped by DataScouts. (www.datascouts.eu)
And while the metabolic pathway model offers one potential approach, there may be other alternative approaches that would work. For example, at the International Connecting Creative Ecosystems Conference I attended in Portugal, Ivor Davies gave a keynote speech (pdf slides) where he used the metaphor of archipelagos. From above, they look like separate islands, but when you look underwater you see that they are all connected.
If you know about other models or approaches you think would be a good framework for developing a standardized model for smart societies, or if you have insights that can deepen the correlation between smart societies and metabolic pathways, please comment or get in touch.
There is much more I could say about metabolic pathways and smart societies, but for this blog I just wanted to introduce the concepts and the correlation between them. I will come back to these topics in future posts, so stay tuned.