Depth and Altitude in the Planet of Cities

Turtles Up and Turtles Down

Marilyn Hamilton
August 13th, 2012
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Planet of Cities

More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities. If for no other reason than to contemplate a statistical tipping point of the evolution of the human species shifting from rural-centred to urban-centred, we should consider what an integral perspective can bring to considering some implications of a planet of cities.


The world already has 400 cities with populations greater than one million1. In 2007 already 100 cities produced 38% of the world’s wealth2. I anticipate that in the next 20 years 20% of the world’s cities will produce 80% of its wealth.


So both the relationships of human affairs defined in traditional family-focused, ethno-centric terms (which emerged in the rural environments of human evolution) and the prosperity of the world defined in modernist wealth-producing terms (which emerged with the rise of the urban environment) are impacted by the rise of the city’s role in global affairs.


It is almost certain then that the rise of the importance of the city is not only an indicator of an evolutionary shift of human capacities, but that it is a human system worthy of deep contemplation and serious research. That is the domain of interest for this Integral City by-line (and September 2012 webinar series on the “Future of the Human Hive” 3).


One of the interesting implications of this rising impact of cities on the world is that our planetary wellbeing is emerging from the decisions of city officials and managers who are located in all sizes of cities located on all the continents of the world. Yet many city officials and managers operate with consciousness that is egocentric in relation to their personal and/or political intentions, or ethnocentric in response to their neighbourhood constituencies, without the context of being informed by the larger interests of the city as a whole (i.e. being city-centric), let alone being informed by the needs of the world (i.e. being world-centric).


Turtles Up


As I write I am flying over Houston at 6 miles high. Below I see an expanse of infrastructure that spans the flat plains through the lakes, rivers, canals and waterways to the seashore. All modes of transport connect the artefacts of human systems, fanning outward from the dense core of the city centre to more open, less populated territory and secondary byways that converge on nodes that are suburbs, smaller cities and even smaller towns. Every level of human complexity is visible through these patterns of built city.


And as I travel south along the Caribbean coastline I am mesmerized by the stretch of inland waterways and in the midst of Texan oilfields, I am shocked to see the turbines of windmills revolving in the flat sand washed coastal flats.


From 6 miles over Houston I am reminded that this is the control centre for rocketing humans 239,000 miles4 beyond my earthbound altitude – carrying our species to the moon and back.


Thus the view below me represents the city at its most sophisticated emergence – the manifestation of Turtles Up from the smallest human system of the individual, to all its myriad collectives, all the way to the moon!! (See Figure 1 for the Holarchy of City Holons)

Figure 1: Holarchy of City Holons

Turtles Down

Just last week, I sat in a diner in Victoria, BC talking to a local city councillor. I was seeking her professionally informed (she is a geographer), politically astute (she is a second term elected official), sustainably sensitive (she is champion of a city that is becoming a green, learning, carbon neutral urban leader) and culturally mixed (she is a Canadian citizen transplanted from the UK) advice for the webinar series. I asked her to help form and translate our intention to “Co-Create the Future of the Human Hive”.


Much to my surprise she paused as I explained the design of our prototype for a new operating system for the city. We start with a “motherboard” for our planet of cities: Mother Earth. Then we add Integral Intelligence to understand the city as the most complex system humans have yet created. Next we explore Logic Processors for learning, informing, connecting feedback looping, navigating and decision making. Finally we add an Evolutionary Power Pak to amplify our energy and spiritual source.


The councillor paused with a quizzical silence and then said, “Interesting … it’s not often that I get to think about the city from a higher altitude – or take the time to step out of the day-to-day demands that flood my desk, phone, blackberry, iPad or email.  I think I’d like to participate!”


What better accolade could I receive than an expression of interest from someone who represents the audience Integral City was created to speak to?


And what a gift for the councillor to remind me that “altitude counts”. When we look at the city right in front of our noses, it is too close for comfort to see many patterns outside the interactions we have with our partners and closest friends. Rarely do we have or take the time even to contemplate our inner life or the motivations behind our impulses to act.


When we gain 100 feet of altitude we can see the dignity and disaster patterns of our family and friends, colleagues at work and in the daily retail transactions we undertake. How often do we pause to ask how we make meaning together of these interactions?


When we shift to 1000 feet of altitude we can see the organizations we work in and how the teams form, storm, norm and perform. We notice how psychologies of person and groups interact to perform roles and achieve goals.


At 10,000 feet we can see how sectors coalesce from like-organizations to take on a particular function, often with a shared standard of performance (e.g. food distribution or education).


At 20,000 feet we can see how multiple sectors serve the city as a whole, like the matrix of organs in our bodies serving specialized functions for the survival of life.


At 30,000 feet (almost 6 miles and especially at night) we can see the mobility in transportation, technology and communication arteries that connect the environment, the ecology and living human systems. In daylight, from this altitude we even have a view not only of the present state of the city but with many glimpses of its history as well (as embodied in its historical architecture, street layouts and commercial centres).

Planet of Paradoxes

When thinking about the city councillors and managers I know, I realize that paradoxically they must develop inner personal depth to gain outer city altitude. Without developing their own personal capacities to appreciate all of the city’s capacities that have emerged out of the Traditional, Modern, Post-Modern and now Integral worldviews, city councillors/managers do not have the contexts to lead the city to solutions about its intractable problems.


For along with the era of the “Planet of Cities” we have also entered the era of intractable, interconnected seemingly insoluble paradoxes like: homelessness and urban sprawl; overpopulation and water scarcity; energy demands and carbon footprints; green economies and greenhouse gases; transportation gridlock and food security; healthcare systems and cultural divides; education needs and environmental degradation.


None of these tensions can be solved by a single individual, group, organization, sector or even city (or nation). It is only by working together that we can create the conditions for innovation, emergence and resilience that will lead our individual cities to sustainable wellbeing and our planet of cities to long term planetary evolution.


Thus the capacities of our city councillors/managers need to become minimally city-centric and even more preferably, world-centric.

Turtles Up and Turtles Down

Outer altitude enables us to appreciate the city as a nest of holons interconnected in multiple ways (see Figure 1). The city is the individual human system writ large at many fractals and in all quadrants. It is a social holon where individual “I’s” are members of many “We’s”.


As our species has passed such a critical threshold, to now be living predominantly in cities, it is time to mature another threshold - namely our capacities to function both as individuals and collectives with city-centric views that transcend and embrace our ego-centric and ethno-centric views.


As the integral movement matures, it seems natural for us to create four quadrant, all level (AQAL) support systems for city councillors/managers. Integral City is calling forth a brain trust to that includes expertise from geographers, ecologists, biologists, city operations, information technology, communications, education and adult learning, healthcare, civil society, business/commerce, community engagement, financial capital, environmental resilience, cultural wisdom and global/local economics. Such a brain trust will create habitats for our elected officials (and their government bureaucracies) that enable them to gain altitude in viewing the city by interacting with all parts of it in the context of its eco-region and global connections. We will also catalyze interconnections for city councillors/managers with other cities so that colleagues from different urban developments can gain some distance and integration (literally from the altitude that comes from flying over cities and figuratively by using integral lenses to see the city).


In doing so we will create the life conditions that will empower our councillors to make better informed decisions, create new possibilities for citizen engagement and co-create the life conditions to evolve city-centric governance on our Planet of Cities.






Hamilton, M. (2008). Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive. Gabriola Island BC: New Society Publishers.


Hamilton, M., Beck, C., Fisher, V., & Marx Hubbard, B. (2011). Grok Talk Walk Rock: Choreography for 4 Generations in the Human Hive;


Presentation Slides. World Future Society 2011. Vancouver, Canada: World Future Society.


Integral City Meshworks Website:





City 2.0 Conference: Co-Creating the Future of the Human Hive


Geoffrey West says companies die, whereas cities persist. What is the secret of city persistence? Is it a good feature that supports human development and prosperity or is it an impediment that slows down evolution?


The City 2.0 Conference convenes a series of web-based conversations with evolutionary practitioners, thought leaders, policy makers and citi-zens to explore the tensions, transactions and transformations that contribute to Integral City's future purpose, people, priorities and prosperity.


This webinar conference convenes the brain trust with the intelligences to co-create the future of the Human Hive.


Why is it critical to do this now? City life, challenged by global and local security, sustainability and resilience needs Leaders to work on the system, with the system, and as the system. The city is home to more than 50% of humanity and its old operating system is fragmented by traditional reductionism, modern management and post-modern social safety nets. The Human Hive deserves an integral operating system that is globally attuned but locally adapted.


City voices from citi-zens, civil society, civic management and conscious capital developers express worldviews at the ego-ethno-world-kosmo-centric stages of development. These dissonances create conflicts within and across the city silos of education, health, business, civil society and governance.


The City 2.0 Conference invites the voices of experts to share leading edge insights that align us ; meshes diverse thought leaders into transdisciplinary dialogues that engage us; enables policy makers to learn from transectoral conversation cafes that renew us ; and facilitates citi-zen response-ability that activates us.


This online conference connects the many views and voices of the city. It opens the door for transdisciplinary inquiry and action through the lenses of: evolution, large scale psychology, leadership, conscious capitalism, sustainability, resilience, education, health care, community, civic governance, eco-regional ecology, spirituality, city design, cultural change, women, generations, creativity and economics.



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Did someone just mention LENR? And what does human civilization look like under this technology? This Integral city post looks to be playing out the integral pathology thats in every sector( Integral _____). The solution comes down heavily to management and getting people in power that are integral. Its like trying to get a turd to get a golden shine. If we are serious about our problem/tensions then our energy source is fundamental. And LENR is a great hope. And a movement away from cities would take place. I would like to see a dialog about what human civilization looks like with abundant powerful ( NASA is designing planes to use it!!) non polluting energy.

Magnetic trains travelling at 10,000 miles per hour!!!! Robots to do anything. Local 3D industrial printing. Local molecular printing( medicines). Slave labor of all levels is gone. Population problem is a non problem. Cleaning up the mess would be our main purpose. We will have new problems. Nano and genetic. But we will have a new industrial revolution 2.0 under LENR and the like. This is happening now. Instead of a resource management solution, lets see that the next evolution is a POST RESOURCE BASED CIVILIZATION. Got this vision? So far integral doesn't. Its still stuck in very subtle GAIA thinking. The next unfoldment will be galactic thinking (and I hope integrally).

Hmmmm I'm not sure I understand your point - maybe we are using different definitions for "resource based".  Perhaps you think I am only into earth-based renewable and unrenewable resources???

But actually I think about universe-based sources of energy - and that's not subtle Gaia (new age) thinking - that's imagining Kosmocentric (and off earth located) resources.  Which I'd say plants figured out how to do long ago. Never mind nano - but maybe genetic when we learn how to eat sunshine??

>>>>I imagine a "collapse" / rectification. Continued globalization can't continue - without access to continued cheap oil, for example - and nor can cities as we know them persist if we live within our energy means as I imagine we'll soon have to. Marilyn assumes a fundamentally business-as-usual scenario in the lower-right quadrant. <<<<<

Globalization could continue, just in a modified form from a PBE (petroleum based economy) to one based on highly diversified energy solutions. I agree, that a tipping point, a collapse of sorts, chaos, and then reorganization is certainly a scenario in play, but I think other scenarios are likely as well.

Now that cold fusion is being scientifically understood as "LENR" and it's no longer being disparaged by the mainstream old guard as voodoo science, I think there's a lot of room for optimism that a highly diversified energy grid could emerge, and that would be a major game changer.

I think that could become the technological equivalent of a kundalini awakening. It could have a profound impact on how humans evolve in all quadrants.

Oh yes, I imagine collapse scenarios - usually you can't talk about them in polite company. But too many multi-quadrant thinkers have proposed a major take-down of the human species (Lovelock, Diamond, Howard Bloom, even Clare Graves).

I don't suppose any such guarantees that we will blissfully continue to evolve in only one direction - that will depend on how the human species adapts to the life conditions we find ourselves in.

But evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris points out that LIfe has learned from the kind of chaotic crisis we seem to be fast moving into. So I am optimistic that we will discover, recover, intelligences we didn't know resided as potentials in us.

Maybe cold fusion?? don't know enuf about it - but solar based energy - the kind that's accessed off earth seems highly likely to me.

And certainly a diversified energy grid - Bucky Fuller mapped one out long ago and Monbiot has been raging against the intransigence of the power base (pardon the pun) invested in our current monolithic grid.

Glad that you can see the glimmers of optimism - cause it is a high dose of that attitude that will kick butt and see us through (if we can do all this aligned with the principles of LIfe and the Universe).

We are a very young species - so let's give us the benefit that we will finally wake up and grow up ... tbd

Marilyn assumes that the movement toward cities and the productivity of cities will continue unabated. But cities are partly at least an expression of globalization. And globalization's days are numbered it seems to me, because the economic bubble is bursting (just started) and we have very serious resource limitations - we're extracting more limited resource from a finite world than are being replaced.

I imagine a "collapse" / rectification. Continued globalization can't continue - without access to continued cheap oil, for example - and nor can cities as we know them persist if we live within our energy means as I imagine we'll soon have to. Marilyn assumes a fundamentally business-as-usual scenario in the lower-right quadrant.

I think the lower right\s gonna give us a fright!

Actually Marilyn doesn't assume busines as usual at all. But it's kind of hard to convey in one short article??

If we don't align ourselves with life-giving principles we will turn out to be a short-lived unsuccessful species that has not much to show on the Tree of Life. And Stephen Gould will sit up in his grave and say " I told you so".

But it is precisely the dissonances in our highly unstable system that can be the triggers to our next evolutionary step as a species.

Call me unrealistic - but I think we have just as much chance of making the shift as not. Even Bill Rees (author of the ecological footprint) whom I just interviewed for the City 2.0 Conference - says that the only way we are not doomed is to use the qualities that make us distinctively human - and that's kinda what I thought curious, perpetual learning systems like the consciously-aware integral tribes of our species might be attracted to learn? Also tbd (no guarantees of course)