Smart Cities: Transactive Memories

An article in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal titled The Rise of the Smart City talks about the ubiquitous use of sensors in modern cities to make them safer and more user friendly. To city officials this seems like a good thing, but many people have concerns.

Here in the Twin Cities, back in 2007, the I-35W Bridge collapsed during rush hour,  The bridge had a design flaw. Steel gusset plates holding the structure together were only half as  thick as they were supposed to be. On top of that, the bridge had suffered from years of neglect. And on top of that, it was rush hour 43 years after it's construction. The weight of all these factors resulted in a tragic collapse which would take the lives of 13 people and seriously injure 145 others. But what if the bridge had some way of communicating with city officials. What if it could have said "my steel gusset plates need repair" or "I can't handle the weight of this much traffic"? By making the city smarter, lives could have been saved.

A lot has changed in the city since the 35W bridge was designed back in the 60's. Minneapolis now has gunshot detectors, to increase police response time to shootings. Stores are starting to use smart shelves that keep track of purchases and inventory. The new bridge that replaced the original I-35W bridge now has sensors built in to it which can detect stresses like traffic vibration, erosion, and the effect of weather conditions. Now imagine these kind of sensors everywhere, recording the number of cars on the freeway, pollution levels in the air, business transactions, monitoring everything we do.
Any time I hear about a plan for a "smart city", I suspect it will involve tracking people. What will these sensors sense? Could they violate our privacy? - Richard Stallman

You don't really need to imagine it, its happening everywhere. This is the city of the future. The smart city, a place of many improvement but also a place of many troubling privacy concerns.

But that's not really what I wanted to write about. What really caught my attention was Totty's use of the term "Smart Cities," as if the cities we had been living in were dumb. Cities are not dumb. Thriving cities exhibit a collective intelligence that's really quite amazing if you think about it.

In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson refers to cities as sophisticated data storage and retrieval systems which emerge when people live together in large groups. Though most cities have some initial planning, it is the individual decisions of tens of thousands of people that ultimately give the city its shape. People tend to group together into neighborhoods, retail outlets tend to open near other retail outlets, manufacturers tends to set up shop near other manufacturers. The whole thing just sort of falls into a coherent structure and because this grid makes sense, the city becomes, not just a place where people live but a resource they can access to do the things they need to do.
Moreover, a lot of creative ideas seem to arise in cities too. Part of this is due to the high level of interaction a dense population provides. This makes it more likely that several pieces of a new idea floating around in different people's heads will come together in some new innovation, but also because ideas achieve greater traction in cities. The more people who witness and employ a new idea, the greater its retention in society - and availability to future generations. The wheel may have been created several times in rural isolation only to be lost with death of its inventor.

The phenomenon that is being described here is called transactive memory. According to Daniel Wegner, its is a mechanism by which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge. Johnson calls it "collective intelligence" an emergent property of population density, group interaction, and localized control.  Cities that are conducive to social interraction and are responsive to feedback  from their citizens are collectively intelligent  and thrive, those that do not are collectively dumb and die.

I believe the same could be said of churches.  Many seem to be designed to encourage passivity, and to be structurally resistant to change. This is something that needs to change or we will never be able to keep up with the shifting cultural landscape. We need to give our members more freedom, more responsibility, more authority and autonomy. We need to listen to their wants and needs, and make our resources available to them.

My former church, The Salvage Yard, has a different way of dealing with church membership. I think it is a good example. If you want to be a member of the church you must meet with an elder. During that time you talk about all of the normal things you'd expect, your understanding of the Gospel, your commitment to the church, etc. But you are also asked about ministry.

At The Salvage Yard, everyone is believed to have a role to play in God's Great Commission.  Finding out what God has called for you be is an important part of being a Christian, it 's also an important part of joining the church community.  The elder will listen to you, and pray for you, and connect you with like minded people if they can. Membership in the church is not a one time thing though. Every year there is a recommitment a "Re-Up" where you state your intentions actively participate in the life of the church for another year.  At that time your elder checks in with you, and asks how your ministry is going.  Your ministry might be saying hello to new people as they come in the door.  Maybe you play an instrument for worship. Maybe you teach a Bible study in your home.  Maybe you volunteer for The Sandwich Project (a local charity that feeds the homeless). The point is  - its spontaneous, self directed, activity is encouraged and supported. It doesn't need to be part of  the church, it doesn't need to fit a mission statement, it doesn't need the church's  permission (though it may or may not receive the church's endorsement).  All of this has made for an active, creative, and enthusiastic membership.

I want to explore the concept of Transactive Memory more in future blog posts. If you are interested keep an eye out for the key word  in the "Labels" section.

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