While enjoying Ahmedabad’s disordered order during my evening walk, one urban element always makes me curious about the role played by feedback in system evolution; and that is the oxymoron we call footpath.
Footpaths came to our cities probably on a horseback; as, with horse-carts plying city roads, human beings required a safe elevated space to escape being trampled. When motorized transport arrived, human beings got pushed even further on the margin as most of the transportation corridor was dedicated to wheels instead of feet. Though not glorified in urban folklore, footpath is where we human beings really belong.
But, if you live in Ahmedabad, and have tried using a footpath, in less than hundred meters you will realize that it is the last place for you to be able to walk safely!
Footpaths of our city are rendered useless by obstructions, services installations, commercial encroachments or plants and trees overflowing out of houses. If Ahmedabad has any space left for its citizens to walk, it is surely not the footpath.
I do lament not having space for walking, but what has intrigued me more is the impact of this, virtually defunct urban element, on street-side parking. As I drive past streets full of cars parked on both sides of road, I enviously look at wasteful footpaths that serve no other purpose but help me improve my spatial cognition and driving dexterity.
But, when it is easy to notice problems caused by these impossible-to-walk-on footpaths, why are we still living with them? Why can’t such a simple problem get solved?
The answer to this question holds the key to system functioning and evolution, and that is destruction of feedback loop.
When we look at natural and human systems, they clearly differ from each other in one aspect, i.e. feedback response. While natural systems are feedback agnostic and have to wait for feedback to disrupt or destroy the system, a human system can dynamically accept feedback and modify itself without allowing the problem to destroy the system.
This feedback sensitivity allows our systems to evolve faster and become more and more efficient as time progresses. It is this ability to learn from the feedback that makes humans one of the most successful life-forms on earth.
Just as our systems are tuned to wisen-up by using feedback, they are also dumbed-down when feedback loop is broken. So, when a system becomes chaotic, it is a great indicator of something having gone wrong with the feedback loop. Look around the urban mess that we live in and the diagnosis is clear. Feedback loop is destroyed.
Feedback loop can break from either end in a human system i.e. when the user stops giving feedback or system-makers stop listening. What we see around is collapse at both ends snowballing by the day. Citizen apathy and administration numbness have turned simplest of our problems unsolvable.
Footpath is just a metaphor of what is happening to our nation. Communication between citizens and government has weakened, making the whole country look like a maze of problems. The most critical need of the hour is that both, state and citizen stop distrusting each other and start listening to each other.
If we get the feedback going, we will discover the amazing self-correcting quality of human systems. What looks like an irresolvable chaos can turn into order in no time.
As we live in information age, feedback loops are easiest to establish. With communication infrastructure already in place, the problem clearly is of apathy. If we shake this negativity, there is no problem that talking and listening can’t solve, including traffic-jamming footpaths!