Digital Transformation through Urban Planning Theories and Big Data


I remember economics classes in my brief time at college, primarily how none of what I was learning in these classes seemed to have an effect on my 18 year old mind,  because I just couldn't relate. Fast forward 17 years and I'm an Enterprise Architect. E.A. is an interesting practice, some practices qualify the profession into several domains; TOGAF for example categorizes domains of architecture into four: Business, Data, Application, and Technology (when studying for the test, I remember mnemonically remembering this as "bdat"). Economics is an important part of an effective E.A. practitioner, but what else can branches of economics offer? Urban planning has a lot of parallels and has it's roots in engineering, the Industrial Revolution.

A quick preface on "is EA a dying profession?" due to converging futurist proposals that these domains are fusing into 'just modern business' practices (just because cells form into an organ, doesn't mean you stop practicing cell biology). You may be noting that the title doesn't have the word Enterprise Architect in it, or E.A.; the fact is the 'enterprise architect' moniker is slowly being re-branded into Digital Transformation, Center of Excellence, or something else. For the purposes of this article we'll consider the practice of E.A., regardless of what it's called, because the practice lives on. A prevailing trend is value-add E.A., and there is inspiration and patterns to be found in unlikely places.

Futurists may consider this just another step toward the 'singularity', but we have to take the steps to get there, if we want to get there. 



Most architects I've met focus more on the DAT: Data, Application, and Technology and most EA groups are separated into these domains that ultimately, if large enough, split off into further domains like Security architecture or Information architecture based on organizational applicability. But I've more rarely ran into Business Architecture as a domain group, or even in an EA organizational structure. The science of business is economics, and large enterprises commonly keep economists on staff for this reason alone, a seer of sorts, reading the runes of The New Yorks Times and S&P 500.

In reality, as anyone that has taken an economics class before can attest, economics is formally a social science. As a singularity of business and technology becomes a corporate culture phenomenon, resulting in the combination of social sciences with the results of applied natural and formal sciences: technology. it may be easier to apply economic theories to enterprise architecture; if anything in order to communicate effectively to leadership. One area of correlation for pattern study may be the prevalent theories and laws in urban planning.


Inspiration From Simulation

I'm a big fan of video games, and it was a significant motivation for my own interest in technology and computers. I was watching my wife play the city building game Banished by Shining Rock Software, a one-person gaming studio by Luke Hodorowicz. Banished  has sold over 2 million copies with around 70,000 concurrent users every day. "Its gameplay can be compared with economic theory on sustainability and optimization" (Wikipedia). I asked my wife about the game to understand it better, the UI was a bit hard for me to understand and I was never able to get into it, but it was always a really interesting looking game. The games premise is that you manage a group of banished medieval age people, rebuilding a town and leading them through challenges like disease, famine, and cold.

Cross discipline correlation isn't a new concept, it's been used by human society since the dawn of time to create new solutions, and is now a prime principle for innovation. But seeing this represented so familiarly in a video game, which has to be built on strict mechanics of programming, was a spark of inspiration for myself.

A quick introduction to city-building or civilization-building simulation games. Games like Civilization and ultimately Banished are categorized as simulations as their mechanics are meant to simulate human history, culture, and advancements. The pitch is that players have a chance to rewrite global history in Civilization on a macro scale from stone-age to space flight: i.e. make Mongolia a space age superpower that took over Asia or in most cases a randomly created map. But to make this work, the forces that move this along need to be codified from human history and behavior. Now there are some caveats: Civilization is on a macro scale, with a lot of subjective interpretations of impacts and forces. Long historical sweeping cultural changes like religion are hard to use for predictive models as there may not be enough records for quantification. Some simulations include more variables, and become more relevant as models; take for example the game City Skylines. which has 360,000 concurrent players a day, being used by the Swedish government to actually model, plan, and build a real life city district for 12,000 new homes and 35,000 work spaces.

Banished works on a smaller subset of features. The player builds houses, markets, farms, and lumber mills to sustain and grow their community while providing safety for survival. Each step in building a town requires certain capabilities:

  1. Building a home for your banished settlers for shelter (a corporation)
  2. They need food however, so it's time to build a gatherers hut (a business unit)
  3. But there isn't anywhere to keep extra resources (capital), build a stockpile (expendable capital).
  4. Winter is coming, you need wood for fire, build a lumberjacks hut for wood (a new business unit).
  5. You need to transport said wood to the houses far away without long transport times, certain warehouses need to be half way for transport (a new department).

My wife described how she builds her cities by reading the landscape (market) appropriately, and plan accordingly. She organically has, through many hours of play, found more efficient ways to build a town. Are there historical patterns of human urban growth that has correlation to Enterprise Architecture? Are we taking enough advantage of correlations in other branches of science?



Evidence, OPPORTUNITY, and Applicability

What I believe is the evidence of multiple correlations, and possible opportunities for enterprise architects to use cross-disciplinary sciences such as urban planning to help more appropriately guide their organizations forward. Complex architectures are oftentimes boiled down in a boardroom into simple easily digestible summaries that can be simply communicated through an organization; architects consistently find themselves in this scenario, why not use some of the analogies and metaphors in a more scientific manner, in practice. 

Banished is a very well made simulation, the mechanics are believable, this being a simulation. Most everything is modeled on real life, tools require mining, smelting, wood, and craftsmen; they take time to produce, they need users to use them, and they degrade over time. Simulation games like this however, are a clear example of "the three-body problem", which is covered more later. If the AI in Civilization is left to their own devices, they won't recreate the same world we see today. Simulation games are lacking the amount of quantifiable variables and forces to simulate at a higher accuracy, or more accurately these studios aren't giant enterprises with billions in capital to simulate that deep and wide; video games are a business after all.

Historically urban planning is an organic result of human beings evolving systems through trial and error; not dissimilar to how technology systems work in every company and enterprise world-wide. Even prior to the modern science of urban planning, communities in ancient times were very reactive, and today reactive enterprises are failing, where proactive enterprises prosper.

Urban planning can provide clues to the dis-functionality of an organization in chaos. 'Business as usual' is commonly used in corporate dialogue but also is prevalent in the science of urban planning. The parallels between urban planning theory and business has been written about on several occasions. There's a reason enterprise architects aren't usually present in "business as usual" corporations.

"If the degradation of natural and social capital has such important consequence the question arises why action is not taken more systematically to alleviate it. Cohen and Winn point to four types of market failure as possible explanations: First, while the benefits of natural or social capital depletion can usually be privatised, the costs are often externalised (i.e. they are borne not by the party responsible but by society in general). Second, natural capital is often undervalued by society since we are not fully aware of the real cost of the depletion of natural capital. Information asymmetry is a third reason—often the link between cause and effect is obscured, making it difficult for actors to make informed choices. Cohen and Winn close with the realization that contrary to economic theory many firms are not perfect optimisers. They postulate that firms often do not optimise resource allocation because they are caught in a "business as usual" mentality" Cohen, B. & Winn, M. I. 2007. Market imperfections, opportunity and sustainable entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing, 22(1): 29–49.

If there is a correlation of planning between the two, there is an untapped history of applicable predictive models for enterprise health and planning: human civilization and urban planning. Understanding the data and concepts are the first step, seeing patterns for usage in predicative modeling is the next. By understanding these patterns, they can be applied to various algorithms used in A.I. such as SVM, Naive Baye's classifications, decision trees etc. More importantly, the amount of data is immense, and we now have the power through cloud computing platforms to use, to an extent. This is a big reason why Big Data, Predictive Analytics, and IoT (a way to get more data) are exploding but are usually confined to a more contemporary period of time, and not implementing long term historical data and research.

There is a plethora of available scientifically proven patterns in a ton of research in the field of urban planning. We may not need to recreate the wheel, as the the science of urban planning has been around for decades, and with science; comes data, thanks science!

There’s gold in them thar hills!
— Mark Twain, The American Claimant

I believe that applying urban planning theories can be categorized into patterns of growth, scaling, and ultimately transformation in a complex enterprise ecosystem. Urban Planning as a science was developed due to the problems of industrial growth in cities, and the same concepts are applicable to the current era of change, the information age.

This looks eerily similar to an architecture strategy artifact.

This looks eerily similar to an architecture strategy artifact.

The modern origins of urban planning lie in the movement for urban reform that arose as a reaction against the disorder of the industrial city in the mid-19th century.

What I love about this is the emphasis on "disorder of the industrial city". As a practicing E.A., I've been in many enterprises that need E.A.'s to create order from disorder, in essence this may be the primary need of the Enterprise Architecture profession. I remember several businesses with more functional systems than actual business functions, giant monolithic death-stars of interdependent systems ultimately leeching the profitability of the enterprise through, well, disorder.

An excerpt from a presentation on Urban Planning in the early 1900s.

An excerpt from a presentation on Urban Planning in the early 1900s.

Certainly the conception of the modern E.A. arose from DODAF and organizations trying to tackle immensely complex problems at a higher level; queue the often maligned and misunderstood 'ivory tower' architect criticisms. And certainly the ever expanding complexity of the world through globalization and the internet may need EA's more than ever, a new Industrial Revolution. So what's hot in urban planning?

"In the late 20th century, the term sustainable development has come to represent an ideal outcome in the sum of all planning goals." - Wheeler, Stephen (2004). "Planning Sustainable and Livable Cities"

An interesting theory, sustainable development has many parallels with enterprise architecture.

"Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while at the same time sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The desirable end result is a state of society where living and conditions and resource use continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural systems." 

Now that's a lot to digest. But let's try a little bit of mad-libs to see if this fits E.A.

"Sustainable enterprise development is the organizing principle for meeting human resource and talent development goals while at the same time sustaining the capabilities of the enterprise to provide the capital and information services upon which the enterprise depend. The desirable end result is a state where working conditions and resource use continue to meet business development needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the enterprise systems."

The above strategy seems relatively sound, if not lacking the grandiose motivational verbiage in most enterprise strategies, and a little Koch'esque in repetition. So if this sounds right for an enterprise, and comes from urban planning theories. Can more urban planning theories be applied to enterprise architecture or digital transformation?


Planning Theory

(1) an enhanced emphasis on the specification of goals and targets;
(2) an emphasis on quantitative analysis and predication of the environment
(3) a concern to identify and evaluate alternative policy options; and
(4) the evaluation of means against ends.
— Syncoptic Planning, Lane 2005

Planning theory is the body of scientific concepts, definitions, behavioral relationships, and assumptions that define a body of knowledge of urban planning. There are eight procedural theories of planning that remain the principal theories of planning procedure today:

  1. the rational-comprehensive approach
  2. the incremental approach
  3. the trans-active approach
  4. the communicative approach
  5. the advocacy approach
  6. the equity approach
  7. the radical approach
  8. the humanist or phenomenological approach.

And there is a LOT of science relating to these procedural theories, a good article that summarizes them all is here. There is a large untapped reservoir of knowledge going back decades built on objective science and not subjective factors or trendy buzzwords.

An interesting article on Planning Theory editorializes this a bit, although it may come off a little 'old guard' mainly due to the verbiage 'lay beliefs':

It seems unfortunate that today’s practitioners and social scientists are re-learning the perils of dismissing lay beliefs and knowledge, rather than using them as the frames for new policy in the intractable environmental disputes of today. 

Down the Rabbit Hole & Further Thought

As you can see the rabbit hole goes deep, "Theres gold in dem hills". There is a lot of applicable knowledge that can be gained from other disciplines and sciences. Urban planning theory is just one branch of a larger science, there are countless other opportunities to draw inspiration or new patterns from. The tools to apply this knowledge are available today, and Data Scientists are in hot demand. What other theories and sciences may be analogous?

  • Three Body Problem: Classically this is an example of Chaos Theory; great minds like Isaac Newton tried to figure out the math of the rotations and gravitational pulls of the Moon, Sun, and Earth. However there are so many forces at work, it can be impossible to predict and model mathematically, it can be modeled temporarily; e.g. Space Flight. This is a good analogy for shallower applications of Big Data trends today.
  • Chaos Theory: "Life, uh, finds a way", essentially the reality of most practicing EA's mindsets: if we can quantify it, we can architect it, and create roadmaps and strategies to execute. Chaos Theory essentially says that we cannot accurately apply mathematics without ALL the variables: a good analogy is meteorology, or weather forecasting, as there are so many forces at play in weather that accurate long term predictions are nearly impossible to predict; and thus form a straw-man argument in Global Warming. In a way most any practicing enterprise architect is a practicing 'chaologist'. To further go down the rabbit hole, here's a link a Chaos Theory paper on road traffic. Applying chaos theory to business is the reason companies like Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Google are so successful and admired; creating correlations for opportunity with data that hadn't existed before the internet.

There are still many questions to ask:

  • What other sciences can be delved into to provide Enterprise Architects with further tools? 
  • Can Enterprise Architecture evolve with business climates and trending perspectives by using Big Data and other sciences?
  • At what point does an E.A. become an in-house Technology Economist or are these roles already evident in C level technology leaders? Has this already occurred? The most common past positions that most CTOs hold are architects. 
  • Does the current trend of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) allow for deep cross discipline analysis and architecture? Are the tools just not there to help E.A.'s keep up?


Some references:

  1. "How Planners Use Planning Theory". Retrieved April 24,2015.
  2.  Wheeler, Stephen (2004). "Planning Sustainable and Livable Cities", Routledge; 3rd edition.
  3.  James, Paul; Holden, Meg; Lewin, Mary; Neilson, Lyndsay; Oakley, Christine; Truter, Art; Wilmoth, David (2013). "Managing Metropolises by Negotiating Mega-Urban Growth". In Harald Mieg and Klaus Töpfer. Institutional and Social Innovation for Sustainable Urban Development. Routledge.
Jesse Myer