The intention of this article is to present questions that would provoke every policy or decision-maker or an inventor or a designer, or every thinking person. These are my points of view, those could be used to explore to improve situations governing our cities, planet, our societies, our environment, and our ambiguous future. As most of our methods and systems have failed or at times create more challenges than the ones we already have I feel these approaches would be thought starters to understand and find solutions in a non-typical way.

Let’s start with some basics of what is entropy and how can we use this knowledge to create change. Entropy has been associated with chaos, disorder, or disturbance, but it is much more than only chaos or disturbance (another topic for another time). The reason a deck of cards doesn’t reorganise itself when you drop it is because it’s naturally easier for it to remain unordered. Think about the energy that it takes to arrange cards by value and suit (scale it to our cities, society, and the planet, and one understands the gravity of our situation). It takes a lot of energy to reduce entropy or maintain equilibrium. A simple example to describe entropy is that it makes a hot cup of tea go cold, but unfortunately, there is no freeway to getting this lost heat (energy) back and reuse it. Energy is transferred from the hot cup to the surrounding air, the table on which the cup is kept and to your hands, in this process the energy of the hot cup is lost to the surrounding system, thus increasing the entropy of the surrounding system.

Energy is the ability to do work (or to cause change). Energy plays a crucial role in ordering and maintaining complex systems. Energy plays an essential role in cultural systems such as a city’s inward flow of food and resources amidst its outward flow of products and wastes; energy is a key ingredient in today’s economy, technology, and civilisation.

Technological advancement is a prime feature of cultural evolution occurring on Earth today. Technology decreases entropy locally by artificially manufacturing complex products, at the cost of expending energy and increased entropy in the larger environment of raw materials used to make those goods. Throughout the past few centuries, people chose shorter travel times, lower transportation costs, and heavier shipping loads; steam-powered iron ships replaced wind-powered boats, while jumbo jets have superseded them all. Likewise, horses and mules were eliminated by steam and eventually by gasoline engines. Typewriters, slide rules, air-conditioners, refrigerators, and computers among many other innovative inventions, were selected under the pressure of customer demand and commercial profit, often replaced initially by luxuries that eventually became necessities.

Either way, energy remains the driver, and with accelerated pace — a clear trend shows that engineering improvement and customer selection over generations of products made machines more intricate and efficient, yet more complex. The bottom line is that more energy is expended to drive those newer improvements. However, all of this progress, which has decidedly bettered the quality of human life as measured by health, education, and welfare, inevitably came — and continues to come — at the expense of greatly increased demand for more energy — to what end we cannot be certain. It is a vicious circle!

Two aspects to keep in mind one, energy is always conserved but it is transferred and the second, in any process entropy always increases. To reduce entropy we need to expend energy, that too continuously, so the question is, do we have an unlimited supply of energy and the answer, of course, is no. It takes very little intelligence to understand why we need to conserve energy and reduce complexity. Let me broaden the meaning of energy; it is not only the electrical or the mechanical or thermal or potential energy but energy available in the form of human effort, time, or money.

So how do we reduce complexity and entropy? Can the new advancements be designed with complexity and entropy reduction as their primary criteria? What should design be looking at as a guiding light? Shouldn’t we move away from form follows function to purpose and harmony? Shouldn’t systems design be our priority? Are our priorities set right? So what are the sources of low entropy from where we can draw energy? Can they be planted in our existing systems? How can we tap into free sources of low entropies? What’s making our entropies increase? How can we barter the currency of low entropy for carrying out our life? What would be our future currency? What would stock markets trade? Could there be readily available complexity and entropy metrics, before any planning or design exercise starts! Can’t we slow down, at least in some aspects of life?

Shouldn’t we be applying our limited energies to things that result in the betterment of society, or humanity, or the planet? Let’s think, at least!

(This Perspective was originally published on May 19, 2021 by Shekhar Badve on LinkedIn)