How to make living systems
On the Fundamental Process to Generate Living Systems, based on Christopher Alexander's Nature of Order
This post became part of a series on Christopher Alexander’s "Nature of Order".
On structural aliveness: Torii ⛩, Chuppahs, Sofre Aghd, the Golden Gate Bridge & making the world more alive
How to make living systems // On the Fundamental Process to Generate Living Systems ← this post
Brasilia: life amidst modernism // Finding life in the spaces in between
I ended up down a rabbit hole in Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order, Book 2 and I need to write about it. I think it’s nothing less than a unifying theory for everything I see working in the world and everything I see failing. It will likely shape my future writing so I thought it would make sense to spend a little time on it. I’m calling it the “Fundamental Process to Generate Living Systems.”
Whereas earlier posts on Nature of Order have focused on the static elements (e.g., why does one thing look more full of life than another), this “Fundamental Process” is more about the dynamic aspects - how did something full of life come to be that way in the first place?
Alexander’s argument is that when you see things that are full of life, they are a result of the process they used to get there.
That’s the key insight so let me repeat it: The process used to generate a system is the key to making it full of life. It’s not the genius of an individual or group of people, it’s not one amazing diagram on a piece of paper with a brilliant “aha” moment - if we see something that is full of life, it’s because it followed a specific process. And this same process was used to generate all things we see full of life: from your body, to the flower outside your room, to a beautiful rug, to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, to Yosemite National Park, to the forest near your town.
Everything full of life follows and followed the same process to become the way it is.
The process is in fact so straightforward that I worry laying it out - it seems very simple. And yet, we don’t actually use this process for most of our modern world!
So in this post I’ll first explain the Fundamental Process with a few examples and anti-examples. Then I’ll explain what’s holding us back. Let’s dive in!
[Note: this post will use some Christopher Alexander terms from Nature of Order that I’ve written about previously: (1) how things in the world have different “degrees of life”; (2) how “the wholeness” of a thing is composed of “centers”; (3) how “centers” can be strengthened through the “fundamental properties”. If this is new to you, I recommend reading this post’s top-section summarizing all the background.]
The Fundamental Process to Generate Living Systems
Everything living comes about from the same process. And what is the process?
Living structures comes from the generative process of adapting and strengthening the wholeness by finding latent centers and strengthening them.
In other words: living things come from a generative process of development that strengthens life through gradual improvements made with an eye to strengthening the “wholeness” overall via the “fundamental properties” - i.e., not through random improvements.
I imagine this sounds very abstract. So let me provide a quick example and then I’ll expand on the process.
Here is what a town looks like when it is developed through the Fundamental Process. This town was not developed overnight - it underwent a “gradual unfolding”, strengthening its centers little by little. Every part of this town’s wholeness was strengthened piecemeal - as one piece was placed, it created new latent centers that could be strengthened afterwards. Over the course of many years and many such changes, the town below came into being.
Compare this town with the image below. This is what something looks like without the fundamental process. This image from Le Corbusier did not involve any generative processes- it was designed on a piece of paper and then made without any subsequent strengthening of its (already meagre) wholeness. As a result, it has no life.
Okay, now that you know where we’re headed, here are the series of steps to the Fundamental Process:
“At any given moment in a process, we have a certain partially evolved state of a structure. This state is described by the wholeness: the system of centers, and their relative nesting and degrees of life.”
There are the steps to strengthen the wholeness:
“We pay attention as profoundly as possible to this WHOLENESS - its global, large scale order, both actual and latent. We try to identify the sense in which this structure is weakest as a whole, weakest in its coherence as a whole, most deeply lacking in feeling. We look for the latent centers in the whole. These are not those centers which are robust and exist strongly already; rather, they are centers which are dimly present in a weak form, but which seem to us to contribute to or cause the current absence of life in the whole.
We then choose one of these latent centers to work on. It may be a large center, or middle sized, or small.
We use one or more of the fifteen structure-preserving transformations, singly or in combination, to differentiate and strengthen the structure in its wholeness.”
“As a result of the differentiation which occurs, new centers are born. The extent of the fifteen properties which accompany creation of new centers will also take place. In particular we shall have increased the strength of certain larger centers; we shall also have increased the strength of parallel centers; and we shall also have increased the strength of smaller centers. As a whole, the structure will now, as a result of this differentiation, be stronger and have more coherence and definition as a living structure.
We test to make sure that this is actually so, and that the presumed increase of life has actually taken place. We also test that what we have done is the simplest differentiation possible, to accomplish this goal in respect of the center that is under development.
When complete, we go back to the beginning of the cycle, and apply the same process again.”
Let me get into some examples to make this more concrete.
Examples of the Fundamental Process
The Fundamental Process isn’t just for cities or buildings - it’s for everything. That’s what makes it so powerful.
Here is a frog embryo developing from one cell into over the first 84 hours. What you can see below is all a result of the Fundamental Process:
The embryo starts as a ball of cells. The ball splits down the middle. An axis is introduced. The wholeness of each stage is consistent with the wholeness in the previous stage. The centers which exist in the wholeness at each stage – both large centers dominating the big patterns, and small ones locally – are largely left intact by the next transformation. The next transformation introduces new structure, usually in the form of new asymmetrically placed local symmetries which induce new layers of structure – hence a new differentiation – but rarely or never disperse the underlying deep structure of the old, even when it changes things.
This pattern of generative process giving shape to life, holds across all of nature – from the formation of minerals, to plants, to planets, to galaxies... Below are a few more examples.
Here is algae: you can see how the algae develops strengthening its centers and creating new ones that then enhance the overall wholeness. At each point it’s still “algae” - its growth at time period (x+1) is always consistent with time period (x) - the growth all happens according to "the fundamental properties” (e.g., local symmetry, boundaries, layers of scale, alternative repetitions).
And you can see how generative processes also works in the inorganic world - here is a wave where throughout all points in its development process it still retains its “waveness” - each change in the wave builds upon the prior stage of the wave’s growth; it’s a generative process.
While nature naturally uses this generative process to become alive, for humans it’s a choice. While Alexander argues that this generative process was more second nature in traditional societies, for us modern humans, this process is more uncommon. It’s something we’ve mostly forgotten how to do. However, good examples are still around us if we look.
Here is a great example of the Fundamental Process as shown in the development of Piazza San Marco (aka Saint Mark’s Square) in Venice. What you see below is how the piazza developed over the course of its first 500 years.
This is the generative process in action: at each stage there was a given wholeness in the piazza (first column) → latent centers were then present based on this wholeness (second column) → new buildings & modifications (aka new centers) were placed to strengthen the existing wholeness (third column). This was then repeated many times over hundreds of years…
This might seem mundane but it’s not how much of the world operates today. The way this piazza became what it is because it continuously improved over time; the reason this piazza is so alive is because of the process it underwent in its development. It was not designed as what we see today from the start - and it was not locked in time as a historic place. It improved over successive generations.
Why the Fundamental Process Works
The main reason that the Fundamental Process works is that it “allows you to get each layer of structure from the previously established layers of structure. Complex, generate structure cannot be arrived at in any other way.”
In any building or system, there will be many hundreds, thousands, millions of mistakes... Additionally, many of these mistakes will happen as a result of interactions with other parts of the system which means they are almost impossible to predict in advance. However, a generative process of development will continuously find ways of self-correcting the system.
In traditional society, the evolving building was always in some degree allowed to go where it wished to go, or where it needed to go. Traditional society allowed its objects and buildings to be unpredictable in their details, and therefore genuinely allowed them to unfold. But in the more typical, more heavily mechanical production of our modern society – and especially in the structure-destroying cases I have referred to – the end-product is fixed too early and too rigidly. For a variety of reasons – legal, financial, and procedural – under modern conditions the thing is fixed too exactly, too far ahead, and has far too little freedom to unfold. Because of social and legal norms introduced in the second half of the 20th century, the end-product was more and more often required to be exactly like the blueprints - the plan, the master plan, the drawings, or the design- and no longer allowed to deviate from them. It thereby shut off, nearly altogether, the possibility that useful testing or adaptation could occur. But when adaptation and feedback are working, the result must be un predictable. There must be tacit recognition that the end-result is not yet known.
This means not only that the end-result of a building project must be unpredictable during design. That is obvious. But to be effective in creating living structure, it cannot help also being unpredictable during construction.
Needless to say, this is not how most of the world works today.
Today all around me there is a lack of generative processes. There is a calcification of structure and a sclerotization of process. Things are not allowed to change and improve. The wholeness cannot be made stronger - instead, we are stuck with the ideas of imaginary futures. Instead of a process view, we have a static view:
Why is process view essential? Because, the ideals of “design,” the corporate boardroom drawing of the imaginary future, the developer’s slick watercolor perspective of the future end-state, control our perception of what must be done - [yet] they bear no relation to the actual nature, or problems, or possibilities of a living environment. And they are socially backward, since they necessarily diminish people’s involvement in the continuous creation of their world.
In other words, dead structures come from the lack of the generative process and from designs that are just based on imagination instead of strengthening the wholeness of the real world. When a system can’t adapt or strengthen through feedback, then it starts to die.
All around us, we have stopped providing paths for the much of the world to change and become more alive. This is why so much in the modern world feels without life. This is the reason so many modern buildings, cities feel so antiseptic. The generative process matters.
Note, however, that this is not just construction and change for change sake. It’s about changes that strengthen the wholeness and builds on existing centers.
Take this example from downtown Algiers. What you see first is an evolved wholeness from many hundreds of years of building. Below it, however, you see the results from not respecting the wholeness and destroying latent structures. Construction for construction’s sake is also corrosive.
Challenges in applying the Fundamental Process
If the answer to increasing the aliveness of the world is the Fundamental Process, what is holding us back? Here are a few things:
The Fundamental Process is nuanced. I often see arguments of YIMBY vs. NIMBY - but the Fundamental Process is so much more complex than this - it’s about building but doing so in a way that embraces and builds upon the wholeness. Not changing anything isn’t the way. Changing things willy-nilly just for growth’s sake, is also not the way.
We’ve lost the language of “wholeness.” Since we no longer can see how the world around us can be more alive, we end up with sterile environments where even when we do build, we do so most often without regard for the existing centers. The concept that a building or city can be “more alive” is considered absurd by many/most people and as such, it becomes something we don’t seek to improve.
Our world is addicted to “planning” - the idea that instead of having a very clear, final outcome we should follow a generative processes where we will, purposefully, not understand the end-state, is anathema to most people. “Oh you don’t have a long-term plan” is seen as a flaw instead of a feature of the generative system. (NB: I wrote a new post on how to address this here.)
The Fundamental Process is not easily adapted to large-scale projects or fast growth. E.g., we can build a mall with 100 shops or 1,000 houses, a city with 1,000 skyscrapers at one go in a reductive way. If I have to build at scale in a generative way, it will take much longer than most people are willing to wait. I believe this is something that could be solved with modern technology but since we don’t aspire to an alternate path, it’s an under-developed expertise…
Pre-planned, highly-legible, non-living structures and systems are much easier for administration purposes. Taking the example above of Algiers, by destroying the complexity of an old city, it reduces the complexity and makes it much easier to supervise as a government. (This is the argument from “Seeing like a State.”)
Modern rules & regulations don’t allow for easy adaptation or modifications. Changes are often costly to do, processes take a long time to navigate, and the bureaucracies often make it impossible to do anything generative. As a result, even if you wanted to build via a generative process, you wouldn’t be able to do so within the administrative constraints.
Remote ownership often makes a generative process impossible. If people don’t own or have rights to modify their living environment, then the generative process can never even get started.
All of these issues combine to make the Fundamental Process - a process followed by all of nature and by most human civilizations until a few centuries ago – basically impossible to follow in modern society.
This problem is so severe that – if it were not absurd– one might almost imagine that modern society has been created, intentionally, to make living process hard to implement, to drive it from the door.
Once we recognize the Fundamental Process, we can see its existence and absence everywhere around us. While most of the examples above are for cities and buildings, I believe the process extends to companies, society, teams, products and more… At it’s essence the Fundamental Process is as simple as this: consistently improve the world around you building upon the wholeness that exists.
How can we incorporate this into our world? On the one hand the barriers to having more generative processes feel insurmountable. On the other hand, even with these barriers, we are surrounded by opportunities for change… but only if we look and pursue them: where are the latent centers in our lives and surroundings? Where can we strengthen the “wholeness”?
We can make improve the world around us every day. Embracing generative processes is the way.
Alexander spends hundreds of pages explaining this theory. He calls it “the Fundamental Differentiating Property” and it’s actually these same words but in 10 steps which I find overly-complex. If you want to see his exact terminology, I put it in this Google doc.
Thanks for this article. It’s important to keep these ideas moving forward.
The thing I’m struggling with is how to apply Alexander’s ideas to a temporal process, such as a workflow. Applying Alexander’s eleven step process, for me, seems to shift the focus to my working plan *document* rather than to the process itself. His actual temporal process for making seems to be more in line with design thinking, ie. Empathize (see the wholeness) —> ideate —> test —> build.
I find kaizen to be a philosophy compatible with Alexander’s theories, but I think kaizen lacks the component of “vision.” I also find a lot of heuristics such as “two minute rule” or “a place for everything and everything in its place” have potential for a Pattern Language of temporal processes, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.
Good stuff. I love Christopher Alexander, but he is not always the best explainer of his own ideas. Now I can link people here, to help them get the gist of this important idea. Very useful! Thank you.