Cities and Innovation: A Zen Perspective

This article applies a perspective derived from Zen philosophy to issues of life and innovation within cities. Two major, holistic realms of urban existence are identified—the socio-economic and the ecological. These two spheres do not always coexist in a state of mutually sustainable balance and urban well-being.

Many urban populations are aging, leading to a smaller workforce, and they are threatened by heavy concentrations of environmental pollutants. This paper proposes an “uber-holistic” strategy, in which innovations in digital/smart technology can be used to integrate the existing spheres of urban living at a higher level of sustainable balance.

The Zen Perspective

Zen philosophy advocates a holistic approach to innovation and to decision-making in general. One should not only consider ideas from all possible systems, internal and external, that may affect a given business, technological or social problem. One should also adopt a holistic attitude towards the decision-making process. For as long as feasible, Zen philosophy argues against taking only one side or the other in debating possible solutions to a problem. (This admonition derives from the “non-duality” principle dating back to the sixth century AD in China. For more discussion about Zen philosophy, see: Gary W. Davis, “The Intensity Factor in Innovation: Principles from Zen Philosophy,”, October 16, 2013.) One should look for underlying similarities or convergences within apparently opposing ideas or positions. In the case of cities, for example, one should strive for both a more productive economy and a healthier, sustainable relationship with the natural environment.

The City in Two Spheres

Cities present an especially complex challenge to applying the holistic philosophy of Zen because urban living is holistic in many different but overlapping ways. For the purposes of this brief article, we will use a simplified model of two major, interactive “spheres” of urban existence. First, in the realm of nature, cities extract energy and other natural resources from the physical and biological environment. They deposit biological and chemical waste items back into this environment. In social terms, cities represent a second holistic phenomenon. Large numbers of people interact and transport themselves as economic consumers and producers across a relatively small, and often congested, geographic area.

These two spheres do not automatically merge together to create an overall balance or optimum in urban life. As humans, we tend to notice the social sphere of cities first. An approximate, livable balance here is generally achieved through economic forces of supply and demand (e.g., for food and transportation), sometimes supplemented by government redistribution or subsidy programs. The ecological sphere of urban life often goes unnoticed. By virtue of its own sprawling existence and dense, looming structures, the city is assumed to have “conquered” its natural environment. But this is not usually the case. High concentrations of people and economic consumption and production beget high concentrations of pollutants, not all of which can be safely absorbed into the surrounding natural environment—air, ground and water.

An Uber-Holistic, Cyber Strategy for the Sustainable City

In Zen terms, this oppositional dynamic that arises between the urban socio-economic and ecological spheres can be potentially resolved by adopting an “uber-holistic” perspective. We look for a solution that integrates these two spheres at a higher, organic level of balance and well-being. Here is one possible example of such a solution.

The world continues to urbanize. Over half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Many cities are facing an economic crisis as global population ages. (See, for instance, Langdon Morris, Foresight and Extreme Creativity: Strategy for the 21st Century, 2016.) Population aging is likely to reduce the relative size of the urban labor force. The latter impact may be offset if the urban workforce becomes more productive due to the ongoing exponential growth and innovation in information technology and associated unit cost decrease. Cities may then be able to support a proportionately larger nonworking population. By operating at a higher, cyber systems level, cities may be able to establish, in Zen holistic terms, a new organic balance that ameliorates both social and environmental stress.

First, the government and education/university sectors of the urban economy will probably have to boost their support of human capital investment in the workforce. The presence of government, university and corporate facilities within many cities (now aided by computer network connections) is also a key synergy for collaborative innovation. Will Wilkinson states that, “Packing people close together creates efficiencies of proximity and clusters of expertise that spur the innovation that drives growth” (“The Devil in the Diverse City,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2017). The global spread of innovation hubs has been especially prominent in East Asian cities in recent years.

Second, a more educated, productive, IT-empowered workforce should be able to help cities achieve a more energy-efficient and sustainable relationship with their natural environment. Ongoing innovations in the Internet of Things are creating “smart homes,” “smart workplaces” (e.g., internal lighting, heating, climate control, structural integrity) and thus smarter cities. Such a labor force is also more likely to support the use of cleaner and renewable, carbon-free energy sources. Architects and agricultural engineers in Linkoping, Sweden, have designed a building 17 stories tall that grows food for city residents (Becky Wilcox, “The Engineering Behind Modern Superstructures,”, March 10, 2017).

Caveat and Conclusion

It is important to stress that the uber-holistic urban scenario described above is by no means guaranteed. Positive trends in workforce productivity due to digital technology growth may be offset by unexpected changes in environmental or demographic factors. Global warming, for instance, may begin to accelerate at a rapid pace, leading to deterioration in the natural environment that becomes almost impossible to reverse. It may then be very difficult to integrate the socio-economic and ecological spheres of urban life in a mutually sustainable balance.

Achieving such a sustainable balance of well-being requires an innovative state of urban mind as much as it requires innovations in technology. The meditative practice side of Zen, of course, has a lot to say about enhancing and focusing one’s state of mind. The Daoist forefathers of Zen philosophy in ancient China taught the importance of living in harmony with nature. Urban residents of the 21st century need to understand that cities are ultimately as much a part of nature as forests, mountains and oceans.

By Gary W. Davis

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.