Cognitive Density

The Grid is Infinite. The Circle is Limited.

Not one training scheme or curriculum in urban planning, architecture, or engineering fails to introduce the subject of limits. In this sense, defining a city as a structure is useful. Every building’s physics is known, but knowing the limit of these objects as mass, comes from understanding the space surrounding them and the connective tissue that gives each a purpose.

The origin of these purposes is traceable to total development and operations costs. Records link to known relationships with financial and regulatory bodies and the ends achieved. The end of a structure’s use is not that of the mass used. It stays. As a whole, this material requires evaluation to correct the use errors and accomplish new goals. More recently, responsiveness to new challenges such as net-zero emissions, renewable energy, and social change practices that eliminate racism add to a growing need for perfect information. Not possible, but worth the try. The urgency of now requires the continuous resolution toward these necessities, and it begins with limits.

This prompt takes on levels of cognitive comfort. I want writers to look at them all, from the bird’s lair to the earth as a lone nest amidst 100 a thousand million stars. The discussion then turns to the social understanding of urban spaces’ complexity as a source of hope. Whether a nest or the earth, confronting human existence’s bounded rationality is becoming one of its greatest treasures.

Use and Know How

The design that accepts change exposes the seen and unseen, the past and present as space. The methods to create objects ignite and strike at materials from nature, and we are made and re-made to handle them.

Each era’s “know-how” instructs the design practice to make connections in new ways, computers become phones that become tablets, and so on. Suddenly all things become visible in an illusion of three dimensions, often in shocking detail. We know that technology reveals the significance of choice. It creates events that acquire value. Most of all, digital technologies are specific to people’s economic ability and attention by time measured in increments of value. But, there is a basis for these changes. Since a hominoid solved its first problem, technology simultaneously explains a grand purpose and a dire warning.

The design of tangible structural objects signifies simple transitions between a person and space, such as a wall, a portal, or something far more complex like a city where hundreds of thousand pathways lead to change. From citadels to sprawling cities, all are the artifacts in situ that produce questions. A common example is asking if the object is beautiful or historical as one walks in the space before it.

In examining a neolithic tool, a bit of chipped stone, Elizabeth Kolbert in Sixth Extinction said it was beautiful, but her paleontologist friend said, “you cannot assume what you are trying to prove.” Our judgment of beauty today is just that. So it is now, not 30 millennia in the past. The quota of objects with a use dimension ranges in importance from one living cell’s molecular behavior in response to a virus to that stone tool or fully urbanized landscapes at the edge of a wilderness. Over thousands of years, the practice of injecting objects into use for practical and symbolic purposes remained the same until a fundamental difference began with digital technology and is leading to the density of cognition.

A moving object can detect a signal from a satellite to give me location-aware data. We choose to inject a dynamic, self-renewing relationship with multiple objects. Not only will they do our bidding and save the data of uses for me and many, many others and develop anticipation. This section on the making of density concludes that “a city” must be recognized in law and science as one object and judged as one. The city’s design is a purely human event, but its creation is like the moment a fruit hangs perfectly on a branch, ready to be eaten. Still, in the lifetime of an apple tree or the millennia of a city, the seed that lies imperceptibly alive within is the only thing needed to assure the perfection of each. Still, only the apple has it figured out.

Urban Apples and IoT

Meeting a need such as providing a fresh, juicy apple and assuring this offering’s sustainability is complex, perhaps more so in the 21st century than it has ever been.

An interesting way to confront the dilemmas of the intricate “do not harm” problem as it is bundled up in the idea of sustainability came to me in an MIT research paper published in the summer of 1994. It was by Alain Findeli and entitled Ethics, Aesthetic, and Design.1 It offers insights into an ethical and technical framework that discovers and stops practices that poison the seed and outlines why everyone has a right to the city.

“When does the human cost become too high to enable a better machine?”2

Type “internet of things” into a search engine, and the density of objects with data sharing and reporting capacity will erupt in long interconnected lists. The difficulty with this capacity to measure everything is known. We still live by the three rules of an old and failing system. In the simplest terms, these rules are: (1) nothing disappears, (2) everything spreads entropically, and (3) there is value in order. These rules lead to the following practice: We define a problem and then design an intervention to resolve the issues identified with “solutions” in continuous cycles leading to new problem definitions.

Less widely known are vastly improved methods for resolving a problem that comes to us from quantum physics rules. The practice involves problem finding/solving situations with methods that define processes like this: State#1 of a system’s condition leads to State#2 of that system in a changed state. Recognizing the difference between these states, the experience of the observer and the observed become reciprocal.

The physical realities of these two “states” produce three cognitive effects. First, there are distinct choices in selecting a dynamic concept of systems. Second, a radical change occurs in how to define needs (instead of problems and concerns), and third, the management of change by “regulators” replaces the “interventionist” model.

The dynamic conception of systems is a practical reality. The rise of dense urban locations capable of managing billions of environmental control decisions offers unimagined possibilities. A television ad boasted an ability to use over 5,000 “data points” per second in a passenger aircraft operation. Another describes building a “smarter planet” one machine at a time, from cars to toasters. The arc of human effort to invent and use machines to augment a task includes eliminating physical labor but not measuring well-being. As the exuberance of great wealth creates these systems, can a virtual system with management utility find equitable distribution methods for cognitive well-being? History says no, “this is my apple, not yours.”

The stone, bronze, and iron typography of “ages” and its artifacts (including the fossil record) offer a detailed framework readily available for analysis, and we should not be surprised that Getty Images has them all. The ability to measure existing conditions per microsecond in comparison to all of history is a confidence builder. Understanding a new “state” when it occurs between human and responsive objects yields abilities to regulate, manage, control, or eliminate harm in every endeavor. But, again, it comes to “when.”

Comfort Clocks

Right Twice

The Museum of Natural History in NYC illustrates a 24-hour clock where human presence is in the last few seconds. Within each developmental phase ahead, the design process used to deploy objects will include data on the “system condition” reported in the object’s formation and thereafter through ongoing use. That is new, very new, as it is timed in microseconds.

Today, every object brought into use, even for a few seconds, represents a change in global conditions and a common destiny — a difficult concept to absorb in our global culture of super individualism. The concept brandished by John Donne put it rightly:

“Every man’s death affected me, for I am involved in mankind, send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

To develop the importance of time, an appreciation of destruction is useful if focused on three prevailing structures.

  1. We live in nations that define relationships among centers of power that do not share values yet recognize intolerable disorder will not protect national interests.
  2. The human needs problem has urban solutions that reduce disorder, isolation, and increases communication on multiple aspects of the lifelong learning experience.
  3. Global financial regulators and their local institutions will be forced to solve the multinational corporation’s frightening lack of timely interdiction.

Given these system conditions, the general rule of resolving a conflict as soon as it occurs is not well-practiced. However, the role of a dense urban environment as “the timely regulator” or as an “early warning system” can produce the intellectual seeds of resiliency. It may be the only place we have that assures cognitive growth for the political will to succeed. I do not doubt that wealth can whisk itself away to a mountain paradise when presented with a complex social failure, but I know they are the worse off for that failure.

In the century ahead, the pathway to “no harm” to ourselves and Nature requires a level of political confidence in recognizing the social aspects of cognitive density as not yet experienced sufficiently to sustain well-being. Events both local yet increasingly regional and global attack our sense of comfort. Watching large sections of any economy suddenly collapse anywhere in the world may be absorbable today but well recognized as the first step toward unbearable.

Whether it is six feet or six thousand miles, urban life exposes a combination of comfort and closeness that quietly confronts imperfect knowledge every day. For example, a correlation in these charts from the Center for Disease Control is the higher the density of a State such as Massachusetts, the greater the vaccination coverage. The CED adjusts the data for cost per household, as this speaks in part to racial bias. However, cities are more likely to produce earlier warnings and higher levels of protection against infectious diseases.

Source CDC (here)

The first Covid-19 vaccine was given on 14 December 2020. More people will get protection in a shorter period of time per square meter, mile, hector, or any other physical area than anywhere else. Social networks are most useful when they are small but also part of larger networks that build consensus with an investment in new skills. The insatiable interest of economic analysts in the market outcomes produced by online social networks also suggests the consumer could be in charge, which could change everything.

Along with the physical intensity of an “eyes on the street” urban life, the societal view of progress maintains hundreds of small organizations interested in uprooting the causes of poverty and distress, uplifting the arts and education to reveal thousands of individual feats of courage and insight.

Effective social networks are also lateral and only function hierarchically during self-evaluations. A typical example is the network of community-based organizations where good ideas tend to condense toward the best ones because the frightening “urgency of now” is on their doorstep. On the positive side, it also reveals leaders people are willing to follow. What could be more clear than the protest phrase “no justice, no peace” or the strong clarity of the emerging paycheck to paycheck protest of “no job, no rent.”

Bounded Rationality

Networks organize people, discover and nurture existing skills, set pathways for new ones, and compete for resources. Baseline resources such as education and housing over the long term or “just in time” supplements prove capacity to build local institutions. A church group or a street gang will function similarly because of a social network core creativity. Beyond that, it is a judgment on the values and actions applied to the problems presented, in which case reason is often silent.

Throughout history, resolving incomplete knowledge or contradictory information continues to deepen. Information technologies serve this interest with intensity; however, a portion of it has become intolerable for many observers of the urban environment.3

The interconnections of two event management systems demand the inclusion of a missing metric that Herbert Simon (pictured above) described as “bounded rationality.”

  • Protect the public as a whole, or
  • Protect known stakes and assets

Filling the gap of never having enough information to make the right decisions can offer the opportunity to minimize the sense of risk drifting in an ever-widening range of “self-protection” behaviors. The following prompts offer a few examples.


The New England Journal of Medicine recently illustrated a missing metric regarding the history of insulin and its distribution in the United States. The industry distributes this medicine to six million people, yet nearly thirty million have the disease. Insulin (1921) remains unavailable as a generic medicine a century later – 2020. This failure of policy and practice affects millions of people.5 The author concludes with a question that should affect all public policy and every professional practice.4

When do marginal advancements in life-improving services fail to be efficacious when an equally reliable, lower-cost service is not produced or distributed?


In 2014 President Obama ordered a review of federal programs that supplied nearly half a billion dollars in military equipment to municipal police departments in 2013. In response to criticism of police’s armed response confronting social protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the question of violence came to cause. Was it a police riot? The tools to incite were not in the hands of protesters. The program organized by the defense department has produced and distributed $4.3 billion worth of equipment since 1997.6

The duality exposed here generates a question similar to that of insulin. Billions of dollars in war machinery go to local police agencies.

Why do we (the public body) deny the equivalent level of lower-cost service resources to improve public trust in the rule of law?

The issue embedded in prompts such as these is played out in urban areas, not the hillsides of a farming community or a lightly populated suburban ranch neighborhood. Whether vaccines and insulin or war machines and misinformation, many examples of wealth distribution contradict the idea that markets respond to benefit measures at a level comparable to profitability. In both cases, war machinery and insulin, the profit remains with replenishment, where the service of the high-paying few outweigh the needs of the many. Both are poverty makers.

In these cases, a public first policy is exposed first as urban. It is a population that feels everything a little sooner and more keenly. Taping this energy of experience, thought, and reflection could alter these two examples. The health science services practice can produce reasonable, affordable solutions, as illustrated by the Covid-19 vaccine. A more cynical response to creating markets for military equipment requires removing the old. Yet, the need for replenishment reflects a growing similarity between the rise of civil disorder and sustaining a permanent global war.

  1. Design Issues, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 49-68 The MIT Press, Stable URL: My gratitude for this goes to a former student, Rev. Terrence Curry, S.J., AIA, Ph.D.
  2. “When does the human cost become too high to enable a better machine”? Agent Mulder, X-Files Season One, Episode 2
  3. Herbert A. Simon: making decisions mathematically complements decision-making based on choices given the available information. Or as Mick Jagger sang, “you can’t  always get what you want” & “if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
  4. See 2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report HERE Total: 29.1 million people or 9.3% of the population have diabetes. Diagnosed:21.0 million people. Undiagnosed:8.1 million people (27.8% of people with diabetes are undiagnosed
  5. The NEHM has a “pay per view” silo model providing 24-hour access to interested nonprofessionals for a few dollars and $150 for a year online. Source:
  6. Source: Washington Post  Here

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