Stewart Brand and the Pace Layer Model

Update: The full audio of the talk is now up on the Long Now blog.

I had the good fortune to see Stewart Brand speak the other night with futurist Paul Saffo as moderator at the The Interval, a bar/salon built by The Long Now Foundation. Brand edited the original Whole Earth Catalog (which Steve Jobs famously called, “Google in paperback form”), founded The Well which pre-dated (and set the tone for) internet newsgroups, and weaved his life in amongst Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Haight-Ashbury scene in the 1960s. I am a huge fan of Stewart’s philosophy and knew this would be a special talk. I was not disappointed.

Stewart Brand & the Pace Layer Model

“What does this even mean?”

So posted my neighbor in response to my Facebook posting of the diagram above.  I would describe it as a rubric to apply to the way change happens over time.  There is a natural order to systems where some elements move faster than others. This fractal pattern of fast & slow is repeated in all things, best described in Stewart’s book, Clock Of The Long Now

Consider, for example, a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the tree crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the tree crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather.

This model of thinking can be applied to all systems, natural and man made, and is useful to understand inter-dependencies. The model first came together in another book by Stewart, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

Pace Layering

Stewart noted that different layers in a building had different rates of change. The furniture (stuff) gets re-arranged freely while other layers such as the structure or skin are much less malleable. The most immutable is the site which is the plot of land upon which a building is standing, in cities bounded by streets and sight lines.

Huge skyscrapers dance to the choreography of (a city) street plan.

Besides rate of change, there are other properties of the layers of the model as you progress from the outside in,

Outer Inner
Fast Slow
Learn Remember
Propose Dispose
Absorb shock Integrate shock
Discontinuous Continuous
Innovation Constraint
Revolution Consistency
Gets Attention Has Power

The interplay between each layer in the model, the “slip zones” is where, as Stewart says, “all the action is.” The outer layers move more rapidly than the inner ones but each ring is not independent. There is tension of one upon the other so that something like fashion, which wiggles back and forth, revisiting and revising itself over time influences the other. As one ring moves, there is a viscosity between each layer and there is a tension that pulls and pushes neighboring layers so that changes in fashion lead to changes in commerce which then influences the infrastructure necessary to support that commerce and so on.

Pace Layering

When the tension becomes too great, we get “slippage” that must be absorbed to prevent the system from breaking apart. Like tectonic plates along a fault line, if one layer gets too out of sync with another, the shock from rapid movement of a layer causes ripple effects felt throughout the system. Healthy systems can incrementally absorb movements at their own speed. Those that cannot, because of inflexibility, crack and break as a result of the stress. If a government cannot adjust, it will ultimately be overthrown. If commercial pressures  in pursuit of ever greater profits outstrip the ethics of a culture, that too may break apart a system.

The 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco impacted the insurance industry that was not prepared to underwrite damage on such a large scale. This led directly to the financial panic of 1907. This is an example of a rapid movement in nature impacting commerce which required later adjustments to infrastructure and governance after the fact to address the new, post-earthquake reality.


Another way to visualize the Pace Layer model is by looking at the rings of Jupiter. Each ring moves at a different rate and the “shear” on the boundaries of each layer causes the turbulence seen above. Stewart calls these boundaries areas of “productive turbulence” rich in innovation and evolutionary change, similar to the tidal zones of the ocean side.

The intersection of change in these zones gives birth to our greatest ideas. The combination of the counter-culture movement of the Sixties with the convergence of technical advancements made available by the space race in Silicon Valley gave us the internet.

When the Pace Layer model is applied to our world today, Stewart argues that some forces such as technology have permeated each layer to the point where they act as “gravity” pulling layers along and keeping them in sync. The trend in wearable computing are very much in the fashion layer and demands and constraints there are driving commerce to keep up. New infrastructure is required to support new devices such as Apple’s iWatch (think beacons) and debates about data privacy are driving debates in our governance. The impact of everyone sharing location are forcing us to re-think our cultural norms. Will the culture of selfies and “competitive happiness” of status updates from Facebook here to stay or will there be a backlash?

Concepts such as Democracy and Capitalism are accelerators. The transparencies of  these methods of organization help transmit information quickly from one layer to the next. Think of them as catalysts that help the slower layers to move in sync with the others, preventing the need for large adjustments of the slower layers which inevitably cause shocks to the system.

Stewart added that the layers also act as filters which sift ideas from the outside layers. His example was that both hula hoops and jogging were born in the same Summer but only one survived to have broader impacts to the inner layers. Jogging begat an appreciation for exercise which drove new industries in commerce, infrastructure changed to allow for jogging paths as an important part of city development and so on.

As a parting thought, Stewart Brand left us all with some homework.

Identify a global issue/challenge foremost on your mind…

Now ask yourself:

  1. Out of which pace layer did it emerge?
  2. In which pace layer are its impacts most felt?
  3. From which pace layer is a solution most likely to emerge?

Consider the time dimension for each of 1 – 3:

  1. How long did it take for the issue to emerge?
  2. How long will it take to resolve?

The challenge proposed was global warming. While changes to the upper layers in fashion and commerce have impacted nature, the feedback from the planet in the form of super storms and long term droughts are now being felt with increasing frequency. Will the upper layers be able to absorb these changes or can changes in the governance layer lessen the impact and put in place laws and infrastructure that can reign in the onward momentum of the upper layers?

One challenge before us is that our existing structures of governance are limited by geography. Local, State and Federal governments are coming together to address climate change but to impact changes as deep as the global climate change, a new form of global governance may be necessary, one that has the teeth to make and enforce global policy changes. If not, we may be in for a rough ride and can expect multiple shocks to the system.

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