Intention is Fractal

A State of Mind

Intention is a state of mind that shapes how we relate to the world and to each other. We contemplate taking action based on the hope or desire that it will have a particular impact. The result we expect is tied to our beliefs, and our understanding of the world. An unfulfilled intention does not lead to action. Intention is fulfilled when action leads to the desired outcome.

Intention can be shared within groups to achieve a common goal. This is called ‘collective intentionality.’ It is the basis for human collaboration. There is no group mind, only individual minds that are aligned. [John Searle. Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. 1998.] Collective action is created when individuals:

  • Respond to the intentions and actions of others
  • Commit to the joint activity
  • Commit to supporting the efforts of others

When intention is expressed as hope for the future, it is a powerful generative force that animates a group and directs its desire for change. It gives the group a shared purpose.

Visualizing Intention

We can define intention as an outcome to be achieved. Each outcome, in turn, supports the achievement of others. Lower-level outcomes lead to higher-level outcomes. When these outcomes are represented as circles, and the circles are linked in a causal chain, the result is a tree structure like that shown below. Outcomes are connected through the chain to the ultimate node – the highest goal.

Outcome chain

Social systems are able to self-organize themselves in this way. Each of the outermost outcomes acts as an attractor for stakeholders to collaborate to achieve a shared result. Constellations of actors form around these outer nodes. By focusing on realizing an essential outcome, each collaboration acts in the service of the whole. As outcomes are realized, the system achieves its intentions from the bottom up, ultimately achieving its highest goal.

Intention is fractal

Fractal patterns like this are found everywhere in nature.

Biological Networks

Living systems are designed for efficiency, with branching networks that connect and sustain them. The human cardiovascular network is an example. It circulates nutrients, hormones and oxygen throughout the body, and collects waste. It regulates body temperature, maintains fluid balance, and fights infection. Blood vessels are located close to every point in the body, and collectively support all of the functions of life.

Capillary system

There are about 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the body. Capillaries – the smallest vessels – form a web so pervasive that no cell is more than 50 micrometers away – a distance comparable to the width of a human hair. The cardiovascular system is a space-filling fractal network. It branches again and again, down to the width of a capillary, about 8 micrometers in diameter. The network expands dynamically. As new living tissue grows, it chemically signals the need for new blood vessels to supply it. A nearby vessel then sprouts a new branch.

Cities: Planned and Organic

Cities likewise depend on material and energy flows, and they need to move people. Different patterns result when cities are planned, compared to when they evolve organically. In organic cities, the pattern is fractal. Michael Batty and Paul Longley described the difference in their book, Fractal Cities: A Geometry of Form and Function.

“Organically growing cities develop much more slowly than those which are planned. Cities which grow naturally are formed from a myriad of individual decisions at a much smaller scale than those which lead to planned growth which invariably embody the actions of somewhat larger agencies. Planned cities or their parts are usually more monumental, more focussed and more regular, reflecting the will of one upon the many or, at best, reflecting the will of the majority through their elected representatives.”

Cities embody social systems, and their form reflects how we organize ourselves.

Planned city

Organic city

Modern cities have been designed to serve the automobile. Nikos A. Salingaros – an urban theorist and mathematician at the University of Texas at San Antonio – described the consequences for urban structure [Nikos Salingaros. “Connecting the Fractal City,” in Principles of Urban Structure. 2005.]

“In most contemporary cities, the transportation network erases its lower levels in a misguided effort to become more ‘efficient.’ People demand instant access to an expressway, with homes and commercial sites right next to it. They want to skip the hierarchy of connections below the highest scale.”

Organic connections are destroyed at smaller scales.

“Urban typologies used throughout history up until the twentieth century lead automatically to a fractal structure. Traditional urban form follows the pedestrian transportation web. The predominantly pedestrian city was built over time – with continuous incremental additions – on a fractal model, without its builders being aware of it.”

In organic cities, networks are emergent, and they connect at every scale. Salingaros collaborated with Christopher Alexander and was an editor of The Nature of Order, a series of books he wrote on spatial patterns. The landmark book in this series,  A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, described how place comes alive at every scale – regions, cities, neighborhoods, gardens, buildings and interior rooms – when space takes a form that is based on life-affirming principles.

Nikos Salingaros is one of the founders of P2P Urbanism, a new urbanist movement aligned with the P2P Foundation. The Foundation is a global network founded by writer and activist Michel Bauwens to help create a peer-to-peer society and economy that is more humane and environmentally grounded.

In his introduction to Salingaros’s book P2P Urbanism, Bauwens describes the shift that is now taking place from centrally-planned to life-affirming cities, as part of a larger social transformation. He invokes the language of living systems.

“The school of thought and practice around bio-urbanism, inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros, is an example of a very important phase of society going through such a transformation, moving away from vertical and authoritarian starchitects who impose biopathic structures that are inimical to social life, to a new breed of urbanist facilitators. These new urban practitioners combine skills aimed at bringing in the participation of all stakeholders, and also bring to the table a set of scientifically validated choices, i.e. biophilic patterns that make for a livable environment.”

Social Systems

As we look for alternatives to command-and-control organizations, where change is imposed from the top, the question arises: How can we self-organize in human systems? The most natural way is based on  intention. To understand the cause-and-effect relationship between our desired goal and the outcomes required to achieve it; then to organize ourselves with the shared intention needed to create each of those outcomes.

Self-organizing social systems are fractal. They respect autonomy and give people agency. Activity is focused through shared purpose. The system works in synchrony, creating change organically from the bottom up. Systems everywhere self-organize based on local interactions between their component parts. In biological systems this is achieved through chemical signaling at the cellular level. In social systems it is realized through the use of language.

In a uniquely human way, we use dialogue to create collective intention.