Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations Die, and Life Gets Faster

There’s an old adage that if you can describe a problem mathematically, it’s 80% solved, and if you can’t describe it mathematically, you’re never going to get it right. The second modern risks that the world faces today, climate change, political paralysis, financial collapse, obesity, and anomie all are closely tied together by industrialization and urbanization.  At the same time, the creative and innovative solutions that might help solve these problems also originate in cities and corporations.  In an increasingly urban world, cities and corporations are the keys to the future, and Geoffrey West believes that he has the mathematical tools to understand them.

Dr. West’s credentials are impeccable.  The former director of the Sante Fe institute, he has devoted decades to using the tools of theoretical physics to understand complex systems.  His greatest success has been explaining Kleiber’s law, the relationship between an animal’s mass and metabolism. Metabolic rate scales at the 3/4th power of mass, or in other words, big animals are more energy efficient.  In an influential paper in Science, Dr. West explains this relationship by viewing an organism as a device for transporting energy to all its cells.  Circulatory systems are space-filling fractals in 3-dimensional space, and the laws of fluid mechanics and mathematics dictate that the most efficient fractals result in a metabolic ratio and capillary structure that is observed in mammals, invertebrates, and plants.

Cities are a lot like organisms, in that they can be seen as mechanisms for circulating and distributing energy.  Since 1997 Dr. West and his team have collected a stunning amount of data, showing strange relationships between population and various statistics about cities (New York Times). Infrastructure-roads, electricity grids, gas stations, police officers, carbon footprint, scales by the 0.85 power of population.  Intellectual capital-patents, works of art, and wages, along with negatives like crime and disease, scale by the 1.15 power of population.  What this means is that big cities are both wealthier and more efficient than small cities or rural towns, and that given a city’s population, Geoffrey West can derive with 90% accuracy any other fact about the city. New York is a scaled up San Francisco is a scaled up Des Moines.  It’s all in the numbers.

I don’t doubt the data, or the correlation, but the underlying mechanisms and the usefulness of Dr. West observations are harder to grasp.  Cities, in this model, are made of people and their social networks, and human relationships are far less deterministic than fluid mechanics and circulatory systems. Dunbar’s number, the idea that people can maintain about 150 personal relationships, is closer to a conjecture than a proven scientific fact.  The idea that there are fractal scaling laws in human relationships is even more speculative.

Likewise, if 90% of a given city is just based on population, what about the last 10%, the variations that make New Orleans different from Minneapolis?  The data shows that cities are extraordinarily stable over time; variations persist for decades despite the best efforts of politicians to improve their cities.  The data, as I understand it, doesn’t show that more roads decrease congestion, or if more schools improve education, or any other causal links between policy choices and outcomes.  Management tools have to work on human scales if they are going to be accepted and used.

The second major topic of the lecture was death, and why corporations die while cities appear immortal.  In animals, death is the result of entropy. Metabolic processes create free radicals, which eventually overwhelm cellular repair mechanisms, and cause some vital organ to fail.  Cities, compared to organisms, are incredibly resilient.  They can be sacked, suffer industrial collapse, even get nuked, and still bounce back in a couple of decades.  What Dr. West didn’t elucidate were boundaries and conditions. Animals have well-defined boundaries between the organism and the world, and between alive and dead, while cities are far loser agglomerations.  Is Roman Londinium the same city as British London?  Cities have kept entropy at bay because the global population is continually increasing, and it’s easier for a city to make new citizens than it is for an animal to make new cells.

Corporations are like cities, in that they are agglomerations of humans, but observationally, the data shows that like animals, corporations are sub-linear; larger corporations generate less income per employee.  From this, Dr. West concludes that corporations are bound to die, which I think is an artifact of defining a corporation in terms of its legal charter, rather than the products it makes, the employees who work there, or equipment it uses.  The names on the outside of a building are as relevant to the real business of business as the stripes on a leopard are to the business of a predatory cat.  It’s not the legal labels that matters, but the people, capital, and ideas.  In that sense, the data is totally inadequate to explain corporate behavior.

This project is extremely ambitious, but the sense that I got from the lecture was that of a profoundly misapplied metaphor. Like a 19th century physicist describing the universe as a perfect clockwork mechanism, Dr. West describes the universe in terms of the dominant network technology. There are real insights to be gained, but very real dangers of technocratic arrogance plagues the application of any of these theories. During the Q&A session, there was palpable unease as the political implications of what Dr. West was saying, and the way his theories directly contradict our notions of freedom of action and democratic self-governance.

Rather than collecting and correlating the data that’s available, I’d prefer it if Dr. West used his acumen to develop more rigorous theories of energy and information flow between people and technological artifacts.  If cities truly behave as he says they do, the important lessons for bettering the human condition will be found in more precise theories of human relationships, and the ecology of technology. The macro issues of infrastructure and creativity are important, but what makes cities unique, and what makes living in cities interesting, is the microstructure of where the roads go, where the good restaurants are, and what the creative people talk about. At present, the theory does not even being to explain these qualities.

Crossposted from The Breakthrough Generation Blog

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