Engaging with visions of mobilities within the landscape of risk

When describing the commercial port land of Felixstowe (fig. I) as a ‘nerve ganglion of capitalism’ in 2006, a proto-nostalgic horizon ‘blighted by cargo ships’, Mark Fisher was describing a vision of the natural’s collision course with the monetary in words that ooze forth from the ascetic expanse he walked us through, right up to the journey’s reposeful end point, the burial ground at Sutton Hoo (fig. II). Here, in this space, palpable is the sense that the increasingly unseen in today’s world is seen so lucidly that upon listening closer, Beowulf’s verses may come rushing forth upon the Deben mists to play amongst the ancient mounds and time-worn grasses.

Figures I (top) & II (bottom): Felixstowe container port (top) the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, a point of arrival and nerve ganglion of capitalism responsible for the distribution of material commodities across the land along established networks of commerce. By contrast, the ‘sunlit planetary quality of serenity’ offered at Sutton Hoo (bottom) engages with a vision of departure, two different points within a geography that speaks to themes of migration, mobility, and the conflict of boundary in space and time. (sources: Institution of Civil Engineers (top) & thesuffolkcoast.co.uk (bottom)).

In a space as innately human as this, the purpose of the city, the urban, and what it means to exist in it becomes overwritten in the victorious verse and rhythm of nature and the environment, yet there is an eeriness inherent in this vision. A sense of disconnection and immobility that is increasingly disassociated with the ever-expanding urban centres across the world. This is a sense that many might argue is, itself, becoming increasingly overwritten through development and, possibly more directly, through proliferating networks of digital visualisation and communication.

More of us are living in urban settings and more of us are moving to them, what drives this flight to the city, the deeper motivations can only be described as, much like the conditions of the British weather, myriad. What this mobilisation and migration looks like is relatively more straight forward to describe: a need for access to resources through labour, coupled with a space in which to live and be at home, to rest. Mirrored perfectly in Fisher’s visions from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo, a seamless cross section of the Anthropocene. Capturing the stillness afforded by a space so radically different to the city, where the scale of achievement, to simply occupy a space with as much concrete matter as is condensed into the wondrous square miles of London, Birmingham, and Manchester, amongst many others, by comparison to that which does not occupy the vastness of Suffolk is astonishing. Historically, progress for those who have settled in these cityscapes has, in many senses, been assured, simply through an increased likelihood of encountering streams of revenue and capital, or so goes the utopian visions of the upwardly mobile Mondeo Men and Worcester Women.

Loosely this might be described as the enabling of capital progress, however these connections, patterns and trends underpinning, however loosely, such stereotypical visions of city living have become much more distant for most within the current global climate. A crude utilisation of Tobler’s first law of geography would, when coupled with Mark Fisher’s nerve ganglion metaphor, lead us to deduce that those closest to capital, to the contemporary capital markets of the city, are not as readily likely to benefit from this proximity as they might once have. This sense of capital mobility associated with the city is now fundamentally more precarious and is visually very different from that seen in the past, offering the first glimpse of the landscape of risk.

Of course, this form of mobility is not completely linear as the city has long also been associated with a flux of capital mobility represented by a great, and growing, disparity between those operating at the top of the metropolitan hierarchy, in gleaming beglassed monoliths, and those looking up at them from the mosaic of avenues and streets below. This structural and spatial inequality of the cityscape is as symbolic of the urban as it is of the human condition it embodies, where products of value are exchanged for labour and where, as David Harvey explained in Social Justice and The City, ‘capitalism annihilates space to ensure its own reproduction.’ Historically facilitated by barbaric internal mechanisms in the West, from blockbusting and redlining amongst a spectrum of variable living standards that extend from unthinkable to the decadent, urbanisation and urban expansion reassembling the natural spaces in the pursuit of capital will naturally enhance and further facilitate the growth of inequity and thus, further strengthen the boundaries of the risk landscape.

This does come down to a fundamental connection between capital and risk, where risk is largely framed in the context of ‘asset loss’ but the landscape in which it is most acutely observed, where capital value is most apparent, the city, is where it is, and will continue to be, predominant. Harvey concludes his vision on the engagement with political process as fundamental to traversing the forms of inequality and injustice generated and facilitated through ties to this form of ‘development’. Consequent of the unprecedented recent times we have lived in, and now continue to live through, together, the public inquisitions regarding the moral constitution of those responsible for overseeing political processes challenges any desire for engagement. Age old theoretical undercoats of societal constitution and modernity begin to peel away under the searing heat of growing public discontent whilst those at the very zenith continue to profit financially.

The risk landscape is one fraught with conflict and is perpetually in crisis. However, were this crisis to be wholly one of capital, it would affect everyone. Capital and inequity are one facet of the greater conflict the risk landscape has with the environment at large, as even when this crisis is framed in the context of equity, it finds equilibrium in the continuation of the trend that, depending on where you are categorised within the social hierarchy of the city, you will continue to be worse off from here on out and no amount of ‘levelling up’ will bring about a truly positive change to this course. We are beginning to feel this at home, on a personal scale now through a volatile geopolitical landscape, but that doesn’t mean that labour is any less abundant. The boundaries of the risk landscape will continue to expand beyond this and find a continuing but ultimately existential conflict with the natural environment, generating an accelerated form of risk that is much more linear in outcome. The general message related to this is clear: ‘Adaptation of current modes and systems to emergent environmental risk is needed, with further mitigation required to prevent the acceleration of this risk

The modern human age is liquid, where change and continuity are seen to different degrees and operate at various tempos across time. Were I to define which of the processes discussed throughout this missive are representative of change and continuity, I would posit that the ultimate defining factor of both lie in the hands of nature and not my own. Whilst social categories become redefined through mechanisms closely tied to the city, overwriting of old landscape structures through the proliferation of the urban over time generates a legacy of risk through reparation and over expansion. In appropriating space that is not in the interest of that which inhabits that space, be it the development of floodplains to accommodate homes, the utilisation, or lack, of land due to pollution from past industry, processes of land reclamation, we are clutching at straws. Yet, capital is generated and claimed with little interest for the longevity or safety of those inhabiting these new spaces, asserting a dynamic of equitability for whom exactly?

It is in this dissection of value, it’s definition and by whom (or what), that the vision of the risk landscape becomes truly material. How these values shift, and to what benefit, must continue to be explored if we are to make a sustainable vision of the city into a liveable environment, equitable for all who will call it home. If our mobility within this exploration could be versed in the cognitive, as Mark Fisher did for us, then we are becoming more aware of the trends that connect the naturally seen and unseen with the landscape of risk. Supporting us in the delineation of what is really of and for us against that which appears to be, revealing what it is to be truly of and for the natural.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr. Thomas O’Shea. Dr O’Shea is a postdoctoral research associate with the University of Bristol School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. The primary focus of his research is on developing understanding of the human-water interface with specific interests in the application of social theory, urban and hybrid geographies towards shaping narratives and strategies of sustainability.

This blog is the final blog in the Migration, Mobilities and the Environment blog series, in conjunction with Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Grey Britain: Misery, urbanism & neuroaesthetics

View of London from the Sky Garden (source: skygarden.london).
“We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions. We thrash about and are a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” – E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012).


In a previous article I have discussed the use of simple patterns to interpret the complexity of nature and the human interface with it. Here, I will illustrate this concept on a larger canvas, discussing this interface, between nature and social systems, more thoroughly. This final article, in the series on inter-disciplinary work I have written for the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, is partially motivated by my personal interest in the cycle of urbanism, the associated architecture and concepts. It is also motivated by a project I followed closely during a past flirtation with living and working in London and the comparable changes I see happening around me in Bristol, where I currently live and work.
Billboard #1 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).

‘London is Changing’ was an arts project undertaken by Dr. Rebecca Ross at Central St. Martins in 2015. It highlighted the effects of economic policy in the capital by displaying the stories of individuals relocating in, out and within the capital, out of choice and necessity, on billboards around the city. On one level, this project introduced me to the plight of individuals whose movements are determined by expropriation, economic policy or various other processes largely beyond their control. On another level, it gave me an insight into the emotional response this change in environment can invoke in those undertaking such change.

Indeed, as modern society has ridden the wave of an economy of concentrated wealth creation the transient notion of moving somewhere new for education or employment has become a perceived norm. Yet, there is a polarising undercurrent to this wave, in which generations of individuals face the prospect of never being able to afford to permanently root themselves to the environment, where the terms ‘gentrification’ and ‘displacement’ have come to define the nature of settlement and where our demand, and in some cases, expectation, of a ‘home’ is placing an unsustainable strain on ourselves, materials, space and the environment at large. Be it due to social, economic or environmental causes, these trends are effectively driving people further from their familiar habitat and immediate social connections, which leads to social destabilisation – a key contributing factor of societal vulnerability.

Billboard #2 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).
The inter-environmental patterns of displacement and resettlement are as intriguing as they are worrying. Similarly, a concept related to this physical displacement, the notion of intra-environmental displacement is one which can set the foundations of an unstable social system. This is to say, an emotional displacement characterised by a detachment created through rapid physical change of the surrounding environment, one that can enhance the disconnection between people and their environment and, in some cases; other people. Notionally linked to gentrification, urban renewal or regeneration is part of the cycle of urbanisation and whilst it does not immediately or physically displace a person from the environment, it’s effects are becoming more documented and this is to a largely negative fanfare.
Drawing on the personal experience of having worked and socialised with residents of the recently regenerated Heygate, Aylesbury, the (old) south Kilburn Estates in London and coupling this with my academic work and interest, I have given great consideration to the phenomena of intra-environmental connection and disconnection. Indeed, the initial results of my own research with flooding and social systems is conspecific with the kind of systematic social change discussed in this article, differing only in temporal scale, whereby enhanced social interaction has the potential to negate the detrimental effects of uninvited change, be it rapid onset as is the case with a flood inundation or prolonged onset via environmental redevelopment, to the structure of the social system. Observing the changes currently taking place in Bristol, at Temple Quarter and along the southern bank of the Avon, I feel urgency in the need to communicate the detrimental potential of poor foresight, as well as the positive potential of implementing new approaches, in urban development and renewal of any kind.

The Biophilic Hypothesis, P2P Urbanism & Neuroasthetics

Biophilia is a term that was first introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973’s ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness’ to describe a “passionate love of life and all that is alive”. One only needs to pause for a moment to consider this term in relation to current global affairs to concur with the author in his estimation that it is distinctly lacking from the zeitgeist of our time.
Biologist and foremost proponent of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson later utilised the term to describe “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Wilson has suggested that this urge, to affiliate and connect with one another, other species and the natural environment at large is a biological necessity in the continuation of our species. Furthermore, Wilson has also suggested that a true or complete biophilic environment would be one that provides an appropriate habitat and home whilst also naturally connecting the human to the environment via the promotion of natural social and environmental connections. The biophilic principle has acted as the inspiration and catalyst for a divergence in thinking related to modern urban theory.

The structure of life I have described in buildings is deeply and inextricably connected with the human person and with the innermost nature of human feeling

 – Christopher Alexander, Nature of Order (1963).
Nikos Salingaros and Christopher Alexander, leading design theorists, polymaths and ardent critics of modern architectural design, have suggested in their works that a historic shift in urban architectural design accompanying post-world war II urbanisation, based on a supposed ideal concept of order over function or form, has become a pseudo-standard leading to a widespread loss of environmental identity at the human scale within the built environment initially through sprawl and latterly grand-scale, monoculture.
This loss of identity occurs through a number of routes, aesthetically via design or use of distally sourced materials, unclear structural purpose via desired use of the structure superseding local need or location via dramatic replacement of a visually recognisable building of historic or social importance. Salingaros and Alexander have suggested that this loss of identity lends itself to a loss of societal orientation and has partially or fully led to the proliferation of all things from social polarisation to the increasing rates of mental ill health in urbanised areas.
Drawing influence from Wilson’s concept of concilience, Salingaros has proposed many alternative solutions for the reconciliation of urban development at the human scale, solutions which are based on rigour with a view to addressing future human needs and ambitions. One of the most ambitious and rigorous of these solutions is P2P Urbanism.
P2P Urbanism is a process of open-source urban intervention carried out cooperatively across a spectrum of people and agencies with vested interest in the evolution of their urban environment, not just architects and city planners. It is primarily based on the application of analogous techniques of file sharing and open-source software with design patterns generated by Christopher Alexander. The idea underpinning P2P being that it is a reflection of the human elements available for input and so, theoretically, will reflect the very needs and ambitions of those engaging with the process. Thus, with greater engagement, across a broad spectrum of human groups and agencies, P2P can potentially address the need for reconnection of the urban environment at a human scale whilst offering progressive alternatives to urban sprawl and monoculture through Alexander’s designs; a potentially true reflection of us in the environment within which we reside. With Bristol’s burgeoning IT-centric industry, the potential a concept like P2P has to illicit a desirable trend of urbanisation, one which fosters a reconnection between people and place, is great.
Jinu Kitchely states, in her 2015 article on Fractals in Architecture, that “architecture as an art form enjoys the privilege of spatiality in addressing human perception and sense.” A complete biophilic environment would be one which fully addresses human perception and sense, “architects who have responded to this instinctive need, by going beyond structural constraints and catered to the emotional needs of the user, have historically achieved much more than the creation of mere shelters.” An obvious source of inspiration for the biophilic environment is nature, with many architects and designers “probing vehemently into the nature of natural forms and organisms to identify and understand the great concepts of the master designer.”
A key concept of the biophilic principle, as applied to architectural design, is the incorporation of nature’s morphology iteratively in the urban re-shaping process. I have previously spoken about how complexity arises from fractal systems, the basic quality of fractal geometry being that it is iteratively-defined – it must be described in terms of steps involving the result of previous steps. Over infinity, fractal generation is recursive and so, in theory is infinitely complex. Benoit Mandelbrot stated in his seminal book ‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature’ that the physical manifestation of this theory, of objects substituting themselves for copies of themselves, can be seen all around us and is the basic process that underpins all living things. Christopher Alexander’s analogue for this is that of a bone’s form which, evenly distributes structural stress across its surface, emerges as a result of a biological program telling cells to add bone mass where stress is likely to be greatest and so is an example of physical and structural feedback shaping the object.
Analysis from Richard Taylor’s research suggests that eye patterns traced from observations of Jackson Pollock’s paintings (left) elicit a significant physiological response in the posterior of the human brain that reduces stress through pattern recognition (right) (source: blogs.uoregon.edu).
Professor of Physics, Psychology and Art at the University of Oregon, Richard Taylor has created an interdisciplinary team that investigates the physiological response of humans when they observe these fractal patterns. Termed fractal expressionism, using work produced by Pollock and Escher, Taylor’s team has found that the format in which people examine these patterns can elicit a positive physiological response, one which reduces stress as the fractal structure of the human visual cortex resonates with the fractal image identified. From the discovery of fire by early humans to the evolution of contemporary artistic concepts, neural and physiological sense and response to natural, iterative patterns of the world around us has been influential in directing the evolution of the human brain and its emotive response system. From this understanding, it seems logical to assume that the structures we build in the environment around us possess the potential to have an impact on this system too.

Connection & disconnection



Images of the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, London taken in 2014 pre-demolition, post-expropriation. (source: top middle by Tom O’Shea. Bottom: LDNGRAFITTI.co.uk
Now, as this colloquy reaches a coda it feels important to illustrate some examples of successes and failures in respect of that which is written above. The images directly above, taken of the Heygate Estate in London once all residents had been removed from the large estate complex; some forcibly others under enforced willingness – as their lifelong homes were subject to a compulsory re-purchase at 40% of their actual value. The images depict discontent and anger, indeed more damning than the enormous displacement of a strong community under duress, is that the majority of flats and houses built on the land of the Heygate have been sold to overseas investors for a price vastly above what the old flats were purchased for. It is clear that this style of urbanisation is one which fosters a disconnection between people and place.
The iconic Trellick Tower, Westbourne Park, London. Considered an eyesore in its early days and symbol of failure for the utopian architectural ideals of the ‘streets in the sky’ movement of the 60’s. The brutalist structure is now credited as a glowing success of how distinct architectural style can connect a community (source: architectsjournal.co.uk).
Just one and a half miles away from the Heygate is Trellick tower. Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist 70’s masterpiece, designed as a positive response to the ‘architecture of doom’ employed by the Nazi’s during WWII. The tower employed biophilic facets of utilitarian materials and purpose to create an iconic aesthetic that emphasised robust and reliable living spaces for residents with community as a centrepiece. In the years since its completion, the tower has had a fair share of criticism but has since emerged as an iconic element of the London skyline, an aesthetic centre-point of the city’s urban fabric and one which is now seen as a triumph of biophilic ideals. Much like Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Bofil’s La Murilla Roja, Trellick made the needs of the human scale a priority, with form and function evolving from there. Chandigarh is consistently seen as the standard of how biophilic ideals can be applied to planned cities, Corbusier’s design for the city was based on the human body, and Bofil’s La Murilla, a community housing project in Alicante, looked to connect the residents with the cliffs into which it was built and the sea below, whilst providing a stimulating and iconic aesthetic to foster the sense of a unique community.
Images of La Murilla Roja (top) and The Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh (bottom) (source: Wikipedia).
These iconic buildings and cities contain unique community characteristics, and this is because they incorporate a consideration for just that. As British cities expand to cope with demand and greenfield sites are increasingly developed to provide affordable housing, the concepts discussed above, and examples highlighted throughout, must be considered with a view to sustainable progress. Trellick tower, Chandigarh and the like provide an iconic representation of a time and a place in our relationship with the built and natural environments, they can provide inspiration for what is possible.
Concepts like Salingaros’ P2P urbanism offer an inclusive approach for the future development of cities, currently or due to be, undergoing great change; like Bristol. Ultimately, systematic social vulnerability is a complex convolvulus of interactions on a vast spectrum of scales, addressing it should be a priority and opening the avenues of investigation outlined above is one way to begin.
Sir Denys Lasdun, said of the architect’s job as being “Not to give a client not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognises it as something he wanted all the time.” By considering how to connect us with our urban environments more, through the conduit of nature and the biophilic, the author believes that the process of urbanisation can afford us with a sense of place far beyond our dreams and more importantly, one which we should have had all the time. Failing this, follow the advice of the billboard below and enjoy the gifts of nature before they are consumed by the belligerent grey beast of indifferent urbanisation.
Billboard #3 from London is Changing project (source: londonischanging.org).


This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Thomas O’Shea, a Ph.D. Researcher at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His interests span Complex Systems, Hydrodynamics, Risk and Resilience and Machine Learning.  Please direct any desired correspondence regarding the above to his university email at: t.oshea@bristol.ac.uk.
Thomas O’Shea
Read Thomas’ other blogs in this series:

Sweet love for planet Earth: An ode to bias and fallacy

1. Apocalypse, Albert Goodwin (1903.) At the culmination of 800 paintings, Apocalypse, was the first of Goodwin’s works in which he introduced experimental techniques that marked a distinct departure from the imitations of Turner found in most of his earlier works. [picture courtesy of the Tate online collection.]
Ask for what end the heav’nly bodies shine, 
Earth for whose use? Pride answers, “Tis for mine: 
For me kind Nature wakes her genial pow’r, 
Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev’ry flow’r; 
Annual for me, the grape, the rose renew 
The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew; 
For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings; 
For me, health gushes from a thousand springs; 
Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise; 
My foot-stool earth, my canopy the skies.” ’
2. A section of the fifth (V) verse in the first epistle of Alexander Pope’s unfinished Essay on Man, (1733-34.)

Alexander Pope, 18th Century moral poet, pioneer in the use of the heroic couplet, second most quoted writer in the Oxford dictionary of quotations behind Shakespeare and shameless copycat. Coleridge suggested this is what held Pope back from true mastery, but It is beyond question that the results of this imitation cultured some of the finest poetry of the era. Yet still, Pope, the bel esprit of the literary decadence that proliferated within 18th Century written prose and inspiration for the excellence of Byron, Tennyson and Blake, to name but a few; spent a large amount of his creative life imitating the style of Dryden, Chaucer, and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The notion that Pope (2), and Albert Goodwin (1), such precocious and natural talents, would invest so much time in mastering the artistic style of others is curious indeed, it too, provides a broad entry-point for a discussion on the roles of imitation, mimicry and mimesis in human growth, social and societal development.

You live & you learn

Having now formulated a suitable appeal to emotion, which very narrowly avoids the bandwagon, it is worth noting that imitation, and it’s cousins repetition and practice too, represent the way in which an infant might copy its parent’s behaviour, how a young artist may seek a suitably influential model as a teacher or a musician may seek to imitate sounds and transpose these as a compliment to their own polyphony, are a fundamental component in epistemology; the building of knowledge. This understanding has become increasingly important for my own research, whereby repetition and practice have not only become a primary process in developing my own knowledge but have also been important methodological heuristics for establishing imitation and mimicry as primary, collective responses for human survival during exigent situations.

These responses and the systems within which they exist are inherently complex. In developing a robust framework to analyse and evaluate them in relation to flood scenarios for my research (3 and 4) I have utilised the agent-based model to emulate the human response to hydrodynamic data. If you have ever dealt with a HR department, any form of customer service, submitted an academic paper for publishing or bore witness to the wonders of automated passport control then you will be privy to the sentiments of human complexity, as well as our growing dependence on automation to guide us through the orbiting complexity of general life. Raillery aside, these specific examples are rather attenuated situations on which to base broad assessments of human behaviour. The agent-based model itself, a chimera rooted in computational science, born from the slightly sinister cold-war (1953-62) era overlap between computer science, biology and physics and so by implication possessing the ability to model many facets of these disciplines, their related sub-disciplines and inter-disciplines; can provide a panoptic of the broader complexities of human systems and develop our understanding of them.

3 (above) & 4 (below). Examples of the agent-based model designed for my own research. The scenario shown is for human response to flooding in Carlisle. The population at risk (green ‘agents’) go about their daily routine until impact from the flood becomes apparent, at which point individuals can choose to go into evacuation mode (red ‘agents’.)

Academically, you may suggest that “these are bold claims!” (others certainly have!) tu quoque, I would retort “claims surely not beyond the horizons of your rationale or reasoning?” Diving deeper into the Carrollian involute of my research to underpin my quip (and readily expose myself to backfire bias) 12,000 simulations of the Carlisle flood case study with the aid of various choice-diffusion models to legitimise my computerised population’s decisions, have yielded a 66% preference for the population of Carlisle to interact with their neighbours and base their decision making on that of their social peers as opposed to following direct policy instruction. Broadly, this means that most of the computerised individuals respond to the flood by asking those around them what they are going to do, following their lead, imitating their evacuation decisions, mimicking their response to the flood.

Extrapolating beyond the confines of Carlisle, there are a great number of agent-based models that have explored the syncytia of human behaviours relative to systematic changes in their environment. Contra-academe and being a big fan of the veridical, I am happy to proclaim that my own model is a much wieldier alternative to the majority of those ‘big data’ models and so aims to demonstrate behavioural responses to events at a suitable point of balance between realism and interpretability. The agents represent individuals as close to reality as possible, they are defined by characteristics that define you, they and I – age, employment status etc. they are guided by self-interest and autonomously interact with a daily routine of choice that Joe public might undertake on an average day; they are (deep breath) meta-you, they and I as far as possibly mensurable, they do the same things, take the same missteps; even make the same mistakes* digitised and existent in an emulated environment replicant of ours.

(* not those kinds of mistakes.)

The cut worm forgives the plough

Veering this gnostic leviathan of an article away from the definite anecdotal and the convolvulus of complex system analysis, to what may well turn out to be a vast underestimation of reader credulity; the meat and water of this article has essentially been to provoke you into asking:

  • To what degree can choice, imitation, mimicry, influence be separated out from one another?
  • If the above is possible then how might they be measured?
  • How can these measurements be verified?
  • If verifiable then what implications do the outcomes carry?

Oliver Sachs suggested that mimicry and choice imply certain conscious intention, imitation is a pronounced psychological and physiological propensity universal to all human biology, all are traceable to instinct. In ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, Alan Turing suggested how the various patterns of nature, spots stripes etc. could be produced from a common uniform state using reaction-diffusion equations. These equations are an important part of the algebraic family that form fractal geometry (patterns!) and the very basis of the agent-based model is a simple pattern equation known as the cellular automaton. Indeed, if you were to feed a chunk of algebra, let’s say to represent the geometric dimensions of an arbitrary but healthy and fully-formed leaf, into a graphic computer program and press go, a recursive pattern will form, and that pattern would represent the algebraic dimensions of the leaf (5.) These kinds of patterns are considered complex, the automaton, despite its rather complicated name, is a mathematically simplified way to represent complex patterns on a computer.

5. From nature to Timothy Leary in 3 small steps.

The patterns of agent diffusion within agent-based models could then be inferred as being
inherently representative of nature, natural process guided simply by the rules that naturally define our daily existence as defined by the automata and the demographics assigned to the agents within the agent-based model. The implications of all this fluff is that agent-based models can provide a good analogue for just that, natural process in addition to acting as an analytical tool to determine factors that may deviate those processes, providing an insight into the possible effects of affecting these processes with attenuating circumstances such as intense urbanisation, varying political climates and resource shortages; all key in the progression of human vulnerability and risk.

In terms of verification, envisage the situation where a flood is impending. You are broadly aware of flood policy and in the immediacy of impending situation you become aware of your neighbours beginning to leave their own homes or locale. Do you ask them why? Do you follow them? If so, why? If not, why not? Whatever your answers to this heavily loaded scenario may be, they will doubtlessly be littered with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and this is fundamentally the obstacle policy faces in trying to ameliorate the fact that it is bound by more ‘ruban rouge’ than the Labour party directive on Brexit, is as apprehensible as the Voynich Manuscript and is as accessible as those two references compounded. Tools are required to test and visualise the compatibility interface between humans and policy before it is implemented. This will diversify and dilute it, making it more accessible; else it will forever be voided by its own hubris and lack of adequate testing. Whether the agent-based model can provide this panacea I am unsure, though one hopes.

An ode

So then, as this ode approaches the twilight of its purpose, having made it through the tour d’horizon of my research and personal interests, turgid with their own bias and logical fallacies (indicated at points, primarily to serve the author’s thirst for poetic liberty) I propose, a middle ground between pessimistic and optimistic bias, to the reader that you might embrace, and consider critically, the bias and fallacy that percolates through the world around you. In a world of climate change denial, where world leaders sharp-shoot their theses to inform decisions that affect us all and where it seems that technology and data has begun to determine our values and worth, it has never been more important to be self-aware and question the legitimacy of apathy for critique.

The ever-prescient Karl Popper suggested in his ‘conjectures and refutations’, that for science to be truly scientific a proposed theory must be refutable, as all theories have the potential to be ‘confirmed’ using the correct arrangement of words and data. It is only through refutation, or transcending the process of refutation, might we truly achieve progressive and beneficial answers to the questions upon which we base our theories. This being a process of empowerment and a sociological by-product of the positive freedom outlined by Erich Fromm. The freedom to progress collective understanding surely outweighs the freedom from fear of critical appraisal for having attempted to do so?  à chacun ses goûts, but consider this, in the final verse (7) of his Essay on Man, the final verse he ever wrote, Alexander Pope originally wrote that “One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.” By Popper’s standards, a lot of what ‘is’ today, shouldn’t be and this should ultimately leave us questioning the nature of our freedom, what exactly are we free to and free from? à chacun ses goûts?

‘All nature is but art, unknown to thee; 
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; 
All discord, harmony, not understood; 
All partial evil, universal good: 
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, 
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right?
7. A section of the tenth (X) verse in the first epistle of Alexander Pope’s unfinished Essay on Man, (with edited last line for dramatic effect (1733-34.))
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Thomas O’Shea, a 2nd year Ph.D. Researcher at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His interests span Complex Systems, Hydrodynamics, Risk and Resilience and Machine Learning.  Please direct any desired correspondence regarding the above to his university email at: t.oshea@bristol.ac.uk.
Thomas O’Shea

Read Thomas’ other blog in this series:

Dadaism in Disaster Risk Reduction: Reflections against method

Grey Britain: Misery, urbanism & neuroaesthetics

Dadaism in Disaster Risk Reduction: Reflections against method

Much like Romulus and Remus, we the academic community must take the gift bestowed unto us by the Lupa Capitolina of knowledge and enact progressive change in these uncertain and complex times.

Reflections and introductions: A volta

The volta is a poetic device, closely but not solely, associated with the Shakespearean sonnet, used to enact a dramatic change in thought or emotion. Concomitant with this theme is that March is a month with symbolic links to change and new life. The Romans famously preferred to initiate the most significant socio-political manoeuvres of the empire during the first month of their calendar, mensis Martius. A month that marked the oncoming of spring, the weakening of winter’s grip on the land and a time for new life.

The need for change

Having very recently attended the March UKADR conference, organised by the Cabot Institute here in Bristol, I did so with some hope and anticipation. Hope and anticipation for displays and discussions that conscientiously touched upon this volta, this need for change in how we study the dynamics of natural hazards. The conference itself was very agreeable, it had great sandwiches, with much stimulating discussion taking place and many displays of great skill and ingenuity having been demonstrated. Yet, despite a few instances where this need for change was indirectly touched upon by a handful of speakers and displays, I managed to go the entirety of the conference without getting what I really wanted, an explicit discussion, mention, susurration of the role of emergence in natural disaster and resilience.

Understanding the problem

My interest in this kind of science is essentially motivated by merit of my Ph.D. research, here at the School of Geographical Sciences in Bristol, broadly concentrating on modelling social influence on, and response to, natural perturbations in the physical environment, i.e. urban flooding scenarios. From the moment I began the preliminary work for this project, it has steadily transformed into a much more complex mise-en-abyme of human inter-social dynamics, of understanding how these dynamics determine the systems within which we exist, both social and physical, and then the broader dynamics of these systems when change is enacted from within and upon them externally. A discipline known broadly as Complex Physical and Adaptive Systems, of which a very close theoretical by-product is the concept of emergence.
An enormous preoccupation throughout my research to this point has been in developing ways to communicate the links between these outlying concepts and those that are ad unicum subsidium. Emergence itself is considered a rather left-field concept, essentially because you can’t physically observe it happening around you. Defined, broadly, as a descriptive term whereby “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, it can be used to describe a system which is characterised by traits beyond those of the individual parts that comprise that system, some examples include a market economy, termite mounds, a rainforest ecosystem, a city and the internet. Applying this concept to human systems affected by natural disasters, to interpret the dynamics therein, is quite simple but due to the vast inter-disciplinary nature of doing so is seen as being a bit of an academic taboo.
A schematic representing the nature of a complex system. Vulnerability, Risk and hazards would co-exist as a supervenient, complex hierarchy.
So then, I remind myself that I shouldn’t feel downhearted, I saw clear evidence that we, the academic community, are certainly asking the right questions now and more often than ever before;
  • “How do we translate new methods for vulnerability and risk assessment into practice?”
  • “Are huge bunches of data, fed through rigid equations and tried and tested methods, really all we need to reduce the impacts of vulnerability and exposure, or do we need to be more dynamic in our methods?”
  • “Are the methods employed in our research producing an output with which the affected communities in vulnerable areas can engage with? If not, then why not and how can this be improved?”

Moving forward

Upon reflection, this pleased me. These questions are an acknowledgement of the complex hazard systems which exist and indicate that we are clearly thinking about the links between ourselves, our personal environment and the natural environment at large. Furthermore, it is clear, from the themes within these questions, that academia is crawling its way towards accepted and mainstream interdisciplinary method and practice. I am pleased, though not satiated, as I witnessed a discussion in the penultimate conference session where “more data and community training” was suggested as a solution to ever-increasing annual losses attributable to natural disasters globally. I am inherently pessimistic, but I am as unconvinced by the idea of Huxleyesque, neo-Pavlovian disaster training for the global masses as I am unmotivated by the value of my research being placed in the amount of data it produces to inform such exercises!
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson (image is of The Sower, from The Wheat Fields series by Vincent Van Gough, June 1888 – source: Wikipedia.)
Thus, it is as we now enter the month of April, mensis Aprilis, a month that is truly symbolic of Spring and one which embodies a time where new seeds are sewn carefully in the fields, where thorough work can take place and the seeds may be tended after the long wait for the darkness and cold of winter to pass; that we must consider the work that needs to be done in eliciting progressive change. Consider this volta, allow the warmth of the April showers to give life to the fresh seeds of knowledge we sow and may Ēostre assist us in the efficient reaping of the new knowledge we need to answer the most pressing questions in this world. At least before the data is stuck in a biblical excel spreadsheet and used to inform global anti-tsunami foot drills, or some such!
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Thomas O’Shea, a 2nd year Ph.D. Researcher at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His interests span Complex Systems, Hydrodynamics, Risk and Resilience and Machine Learning.  Please direct any desired correspondence regarding the above to his university email at: t.oshea@bristol.ac.uk.
Thomas O’Shea