On the purpose of a city

My favorite way to describe a city is as a complex living organism that fuels the unintentional collision of people, ideas, and stories. This conceptualization was most evident as I traveled around Mexico City, a fascinating mecca for food, culture, and intercultural exchange. Experiencing the active congregation and celebration of people and life in Mexico City has led me to reflect on my own life experiences in New Delhi, the metropolitan capital of India where my family moved when I was 13 to seek better economic opportunities. As a young boy at the time, I found myself inundated with a multitude of emotions - excitement, overwhelm, confusion, and most importantly, curiosity. In hindsight, I attribute that induced curiosity as the single biggest factor that has asymmetrically influenced the opportunities I have had in life, the choices I’ve made, and more broadly, what continues to fuel my current intrigue for cities and technology.

When I think about New Delhi, and for that matter every city I’ve called home thereafter, and how they have transformed my perception and understanding of the world in ways I could have never have imagined, I constantly find myself unpacking the notion of what a city exactly is and questioning what purpose do cities serve in today’s world. An emergent thread that I find myself to be pulling is the idea of in-built randomness within cities that erupts from the process of how cities come to be. Put another way, it’s the purposeful unpredictability as a trait of cities that make them so unique. My lived experiences in New Delhi, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Vancouver, and most recently Providence have convinced me that it is this purposeful unpredictability that creates opportunities to induce curiosity within a city and that remains one of the main purposes that cities serve today. When something is unpredictable, we have an incentive to try to predict it.

In that pursuit to tame the randomness, in the context of a city, we form social bonds, communities, and participate in cultural exchange to understand the other and the unknown. In doing so, we unintentionally contribute to shaping the narrative of the city, of the objects within its built environment, and give it meaning that makes a city worth living. It is also this pursuit of predictability through relationship-driven social living that contributes to preserving the in-built randomness within cities and, arguably, what differentiates them from other self-organized and networked communities, either physical or digital. I would argue that it is this in-built randomness within cities which forms the basis for the network effects, the hyper information exchange, access to opportunities and all other positives that we usually associate cities with. At first, this notion of purposeful unpredictability might seem simple, but preserving randomness in human-interactions has become ever more difficult in today’s hyper connected and tech enabled society.

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