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Embodiment of defiance… or foolhardy design? Paul Silva, CC BY

Defeating terrorism through design: Think souks, not office buildings

To fight terrorist networks, we need to understand them and learn from them. Obviously that doesn’t mean training to become terrorists ourselves. But we can learn from the way many terrorist organizations operate – via highly networked, decentralized connections. This kind of setup has a lot in common with the networked way in which many of us will live and work in the decades ahead.

Since the wake-up call of 9/11, terrorism has come to characterize many of the military conflicts in the 21st century. Today’s terrorist networks demonstrate a highly resilient way of organizing diverse and often distantly located people toward a common goal. This system of organization helps explain why, as journalist Steven Brill argues, we are not much safer now than we were before 9/11, even after spending US$1 trillion on homeland security. As studies of guerrilla warfare have shown, centralized, hierarchical, top-down systems, like our current Department of Defense, have a hard time defeating a decentralized, nonhierarchical, networked ones, like the Islamic State group.

Centralized, hierarchical systems may appear stronger, with more power and efficiency on their side. But networked, nonhierarchical ones have much greater capacity to take a hit and to keep functioning, as the sizable literature on ecosystem resilience has repeatedly shown. Networked systems even have an “antifragile” quality, as scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb has argued, with an ability to bounce back even stronger after a shock. All of which suggests we need to fight terrorist networks in networked ways of our own.

I am an architect and urban designer by training and so I leave it to policymakers and defense strategists to contemplate what this means militarily. I want to focus on what I know: the target side of the equation. How can we reduce the targets of terrorism, getting rid of concentrations of people of a particular type to reduce the likelihood of a devastating strike? How can we rethink our cities and our buildings so that instead of trying to fortify our architectural bull’s-eyes, we eliminate them with a denser weave of diverse activities across a metropolitan area?

Designing away targets, not fortifying them

The idea of doing away with the targets of large concentrations of people doing the same type of activity may seem like a restraint of Americans’ freedom, a violation of the First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble” in whatever kind of conglomeration we choose. But it’s really a call for us to assemble in new ways, aided by digital technology, so we can do so with peace of mind.

In some ways, the 9/11 terrorists were sending us an unintended message: Concentrating the military command in the Pentagon, or financial and governmental organizations in the World Trade Center towers, makes them – and all of us commuting to workplaces like this every day – more vulnerable.

Taleb captures this idea in the title of one of his book chapters: “The Souk and the Office Building.” The modern office building may seem efficient by gathering so many people in an organization together. Such structures, though, remain vulnerable to what Taleb calls “fat tails,” in which distant events have inordinate effects on their operation – think of a power failure that can incapacitate an entire corporate headquarters.

Office towers also have what I describe as a fracture-critical nature; they’re subject to catastrophic failure when hit by an unanticipated force like a commandeered airplane.

A souk, with many access points and a diffuse layout. Bhakti Dharma, CC BY

Taleb contrasts the familiar U.S. urban landscape with the Arab bazaar or souk. Comprising a network of small shops along covered streets, without any center or clear boundaries, there are multiple ways in and out. Souks might seem more vulnerable to attack, given their accessibility. Such complex webs of human activity, however, are also highly resilient – not just economically because of their diversity of small businesses, but also militarily because of their distributed nature.

In the heavily damaged souk in Aleppo, Syria, one businessman still opens his shop to serve coffee to patrolling soldiers, an act of resistance as well as a sign of resilience. Can you imagine an accounting department on a bombed-out skyscraper’s 43rd floor, for instance, opening for business after an attack?

It’s significant that an Arab urban form, the souk, may serve as one of the best defenses against a type of attack emanating from the Arab world. Unlike most shopping malls that stand like isolated targets in the midst of parking lots, souks typically cover existing streets and turn them into pedestrian precincts, as Milan, Italy, did long ago with its Galleria and as Las Vegas did more recently with Fremont Street. The mall and the city become an integral whole.

We’re already living with digital souks

Souks may seem far removed from modern life, just as office buildings seem to epitomize it. But that’s begun to change with the rise of a sharing, collaborative or on-demand economy. Many people now work anywhere that has a high-bandwidth internet connection. We shop anytime for goods and services that are delivered to our doors. We meet anyplace some good food or coffee allows us to linger.

We have, in other words, already created a kind of digital version of the souk, with service platforms providing people access to experiences as diverse as those encountered by the customers in Arab markets. Such platform companies have great resilience because of their accessible, distributed character and their ability to compete successfully against gatekeeper organizations. Look at how quickly Uber has overtaken taxi companies and Airbnb traditional hoteliers by leveraging excess capacity to meet people’s needs at a lower cost. These companies also exist everywhere and nowhere, not concentrated in an office building or a hotel, but spread across a city or region, in individual apartments and cars.

Hey! Here’s where we keep our top brass! La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA

Our greatest weakness comes from the old thinking that still pervades not just our military, but also our public policies and development assumptions. We continue to zone our cities as if the sharing economy didn’t exist, build our roads as if driverless cars won’t happen, and pursue economic development strategies as if the platform revolution doesn’t matter. And, despite the message that terrorists have sent us, we continue to maintain and construct targets for their attacks: The Pentagon remains a bull’s-eye from the air, as do the office towers recently built around the World Trade Center site. Such buildings may embody defiance and feel like proof of our resilience; really they only show how little we’ve learned from our enemies. A physically strengthened or more highly defended target is still a target.

The fight against terrorism requires that we start thinking in new ways about how to live and work in a 21st-century economy. Just as we need to acknowledge and embrace the distributed, on-demand nature of how many people will create and exchange goods and services in the near future, we also need to start imagining a more distributed and diverse built environment in line with that economy and in defense against those who might want to attack us.

America began as a nation of small shopkeepers and small communities scattered across the land. While the movement of people chasing economic opportunities to metropolitan areas seems unstoppable, we need to inhabit our cities and suburbs in much more networked ways. While this will take at least a generation to accomplish, we can already see it in trends like the home office, flextime, and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. These should become the norm, even as we reduce, as much as possible, the number of big, symbolic structures that only tempt terrorists – foreign or domestic. We need to think souks, not office buildings.

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