From Emergence, by Steven Johnson
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in an event called the “North House Salon” (see previous entry: Passport Control to Pimlico). These salons are organised by Dr Sarah Caddick, neuroscience advisor to Lord David Sainsbury (ex-Minister for Science and Innovation in the UK government) and the Gatsby Foundation, and bring together various “expert groups” with select groups of neuroscientists. It was an absolute privilege to share a conversation with some of the UK’s leading scientists—for a start, it’s always fascinating to see another discipline at work, and we were also fortunate that they were all great communicators as well as great researchers.
This particular event was a collaboration with one of my old bosses at Arup, Dr Chris Luebkeman, Director of Arup's Global Foresight, and it concerned the potential correlations between our emerging understanding of the brain, and our understanding of cities. (Perhaps we should also say our emerging understanding of cities?) The event was dubbed "The Urban Nervous System"...
As Chris put it in his intro, we do have an increasingly shared vocabulary and way of thinking emerging about the systems of the brain and the systems of cities. This may partly be due to biomimicry shaping design discourse, partly the vogue for “smart cities” strategies, and partly because of recent advances in “brain science” (note: neuroscience is to some extent now seen as part of a continuum including behavioural psychology, behavioural economics, neurology, developmental biology and others. I'll be using the term "brain science" as short-hand for all that. At one point, we tried to discuss the limits of neuroscience. We didn’t get very far.)
Team Neuroscience (not that we lined up as teams, of course) consisted of Doctors Peter Latham (UCL), Semir Zeki (UCL), Daniel Wolpert (Cambridge University), Troy Margrie (National Institute for Medical Research/UCL), Dmitri Kullmann (UCL), Steve Wilson (UCL) the aforementioned Sarah Caddick, and Geoffrey West (Santa Fe Institute). (Note that Geoffrey is not a neuroscientist but a physicist, and could probably swap sides at half-time, should he want to, at least to some extent; again, boundaries were intriguingly eroding.)
On Team Urbanist we had Mark Bidgood and Duncan Wilson (both Arup), Robin Daniels (Living PlanIT), and me. Actually, the “teams” really were non-existent; the presentations were mixed up, as was the conversation—in a good way. (Unfortunately, as you can see, the gender (im)balance was not good, although that's partly because a few people couldn’t make it, sadly.)
The format was papers sent beforehand (I sent this, this and this), and on the evening, three-minute presentations from all participants—some slides, some not—followed by drinks reception and talking, followed by dinner and more talking, followed by pub for a few of us. (Sidenote: I think all the scientists used Macbook Airs or iPads. Make of that what you will.)
So how did the conversation start? The presentations in order …