Non-Equilibrium Social Science and Policy


This great book edited by Jeffrey Johnson, Paul Ormerod, Bridget Rosewell, Andrzej Nowak, and Yi-Cheng Zhang brings together many contributions from an EU project which lead to several workshops and conferences about a new form of social science – out of equilibrium, far from equilibrium, in disequilibrium as the world always is. The book is open access and you can download it here.

Here is an explanation of what is contained within. Between 2011 and 2014 the European Non-Equilibrium Social Science Project (NESS) investigated the place of equilibrium in the social sciences and policy. Orthodox economics is based on an equilibrium view of how the economy functions and does not offer a complete description of how the world operates. However, mainstream economics is not an empty box. Its fundamental insight, that people respond to incentives, may be the only universal law of behaviour in the social sciences. Only economics has used equilibrium as a primary driver of system behaviour, but economics has become much more empirical at the microlevel over the past two decades. This is due to two factors: advances in statistical theory enabling better estimates of policy consequences at the microlevel, and the rise of behavioural economics which looks at how people, firms and governments really do behave in practice. In this context, this chapter briefly reviews the contributions of this book across the social sciences and ends with a discussion of the research themes that act as a roadmap for further research. These include: realistic models of agent behaviour; multilevel systems; policy informatics; narratives and decision making under uncertainty; and validation of agent-based complex systems models.

Here is my own chapter for your interest which is entitled Cities in Disequilibrium


Theoretical Filters


Science celebrates the goal of parsimony. Occam’s razor and all that. Indeed I wrote an editorial about this a few years ago in 2010 (click here). The idea rests on assumptions that our best theories are those that strip away that which is superfluous to our purpose and generates ideas that are as “… simple as possible but not too simple” as Einstein reportedly said. The trouble with cities and their planning is that we have a surfeit of theories and many seem plausible. One way of proceeding is to define their essence and in this editorial, I focus on how we might do this in many different ways. One way is to take out of any theory that which is obvious, that which is geometrically or physically determined prior to the events involved and James S. Coleman in 1964 called this The Method of Residues in his seminal text Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (New York: Free Press of Glencoe). In essence, he suggested that it is in the ‘residues’ – the residuals – where we will find enlightenment and only when the obvious has been removed will we be in a position to explore the non-obvious.  One way of progressing theory is to produce synthetic data, to look at idealised situations, and search for enlightenment in these. Virtual realities help in this but so do speculations about future cities. There are many suggestions and in this editorial, we suggest how these theoretical filters can enable us to get the best out of theory and to test what is best theory. Read on. You can also retrieve the editorial by clicking on the above image.

A City is Not a Tree: 50th Anniversary Edition


A really nice idea. Michael Mehaffy has put together a superb collection of comments on Chris Alexander’s famous 1965 paper “A City is Not a Tree”. The comments which are presented in slightly longer papers and shorter contributions are from those (like me) who were and continue to be much influenced by his writings. I can’t reproduce the copy here but urge you to take a look at it somehow – click here for link – it is a very nicely presented paperback book. I quote from the blurb:

‘With new commentaries by leading urban scholars including Mike Batty, Luis Bettencourt, Howard Davis, and Bill Hillier. In 1965, the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander published a landmark theoretical critique of modern urban design, and by extension, modern design in general. His critique was different from others of the day in that it was not based on a social or political argument, but on a structural analysis, rooted in then-emerging insights from the fields of mathematics and cognition. Here, published again on its fiftieth anniversary, is Alexander’s classic text, together with new interpretive commentaries and discussions by leading theorists and practitioners. This volume is destined to become an invaluable resource for a new generation of students and practitioners. “One of the classic references in the literature of the built environment and associated fields.”- Resource for Urban Design Information (”At a time of increasing concern over the adequacy of design methods, “A City is not a Tree” broke open and reoriented the debate.”- Charles Jencks and Karl Kropf “It pointed clearly to a change in the way we need to think about cities.” – Bill Hillier, Chairman of the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, University College London “Remains a landmark in our thinking about cities and design…It is a new beginning — for Alexander and for urbanism — to discover what the city really is.” – Luis Bettencourt, Santa Fe Institute’

Enjoy, and Read