Cities Hold the Power to Save the Planet

West told the Esri UC audience that cities serve as hubs of innovation but put stress on resources.
West told the Esri UC audience that cities serve as hubs of innovation but put stress on resources.

Theoretical physicist and author Dr. Geoffrey West says that he can deduce a wealth of information about a city from the size of its population.

“If you tell me the size of a city, I can tell you how long the roads are, how many police it has, how many cases of AIDS, how many patents it produced, how many murders occurred last year, and more, all to within 80 to 90 percent accuracy,” said West, the keynote speaker at the 2017 Esri User Conference (Esri UC).

West studies complex systems, ranging from living organisms to cities and companies, and what causes them to thrive or die. “I think you’re a special audience that can appreciate this work,” Esri president Jack Dangermond told the crowd at the San Diego Convention Center.

West worked for decades as a theoretical physicist at Stanford University in California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. When the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator project, which he was working on, was canceled by Congress in 1993, it presented both a disappointment and an opportunity. It meant that many experiments and answers would be left unexplored, but it freed up West’s cognitive bandwidth to search for fundamental laws that govern everything—including cities.

During his 50-minute presentation to more than 17,000 people, West spoke about the rapid urbanization of the world and the stress it puts on the social fabric of communities and resources—for example, energy and water—and materials such as concrete, copper, and titanium that are needed for infrastructure.

“The United States has become over 80 percent urbanized, and the planet itself is moving toward that 70 to 80 percent number by midcentury,” said West, a distinguished professor and past president of Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a nonprofit theoretical research institute based in New Mexico.

With the global population at 7.3 billion, more than 3.6 billion people now live in urban areas. “This extraordinary phenomenon of urbanization leads us to the idea that the whole fate of the planet—in terms of human beings, at least—is bound up in what happens to our cities,” West said.

West has spent a portion of his career studying scaling, described in an article that he wrote in Medium as “how systems respond when their sizes change.” He also authored a book about the subject, entitled Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. The book proved to be popular at the Esri UC; for hours, people lined up to buy Scale and have West sign their copies.

West told the Esri UC audience that the long-term sustainability of the planet is linked to cities despite their generating much of the crime, disease, global warming, climate changes, and other problems. Why? Because cities—as the centers of business, education, culture, and finance—attract people who come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.

“The most critical part of the city, obviously, [is] the people. The point of a city is to facilitate social interaction,” West said. “[So], on the one hand, cities and urbanization are the origin of the tsunami of problems that we face, but they are also the solution because cities have been the magnet, the vacuum cleaner that has sucked up people that do all the innovation.”

Origins of Inquiry

West’s book Scale compares cities to living organisms.
West’s book Scale compares cities to living organisms.

The contrast of urban and rural areas provides some context for West’s inquiries regarding cities.

“In my very early days, I was about as rural as you could get,” said West, in an interview he conducted after his Keynote Address. “I was born in Taunton, Somerset, in the west of England.”

West’s family moved to London when he was 13, and the shift to an urban environment provided new opportunities for exploration.

“I used to go walking on the big chalk cliffs south of London and look across the English Channel,” West said. “On the horizon, I could see the ships getting smaller and smaller. Then, when I was learning trigonometry a few years later, I learned there was a formula that I could use to calculate how far away I could see. I thought, ‘My God. This is powerful stuff.’ The rest of my life, I have been trying to do that in some sense.”

West sees a growing need for these guiding laws of science.

“Developing models and theories and trying to expose underlying principles are the way science has progressed,” says West. “With this onslaught of big data, it actually becomes more important to do that. Computer scientists and others say you don’t need underlying principles anymore because the data speaks for itself. I think that’s a dangerous position to take.”

Connecting Networks

West broadened his outlook beyond physics when he joined SFI, where he teamed with the ecologist James H. Brown and his student Brian Enquist to understand macroecology. They shared the goal of seeing if it was possible to develop a large-scale statistical understanding of life that could be translated into mathematics.

This research began with Kleiber’s law, which describes the metabolism of biological organisms. This scaling law states how the metabolic rate—the amount of energy needed to stay alive—is related to an organism’s size. West and team discovered that the underlying driver for this and other power laws in biology was the constraints of the distribution networks.

In biological systems, the networks are the plants’ and animals’ vascular systems that deliver energy to cells. The networks set the pace and are constrained by scaling functions related to the size of the organism. The nature of the networks, and their common structure and dynamics, led West to a quantitative predictive theory that works with most animals and plants even though you could be comparing koalas to giraffes or a dandelion to a giant redwood tree.

The study of forests, for instance, revealed that the entire forest can be described mathematically and behaves structurally and functionally like a scaled version of the branching networks in the largest tree.

Cities are also made up of networks—roads, pipes, wires, and conduits—that connect and constrain our mobility, energy, and communications.

“I thought cities were quite boring when I was first tipped to look at them,” says West. “They turned out to be extraordinary, and it began to dawn on me that the future of the planet is tied to what happens in cities.”

Profound Patterns

What West uncovered, with an exhaustive examination of statistical inquiry, were patterns in cities that proved to be profound.

Looking at details on both infrastructure and population, he and his team of researchers found scaling laws in cities that applied to the quantity and quality of life with predictability related to

“The bulk of what happens in a city is constrained,” said West. “We tend to focus on the differences, but it’s constrained by the simplicity of these networks.”

“Of course, each individual city deviates a bit,” added West. “It’s the deviation where the role of leadership, the effect of the local culture, and the local geography play an important role.”

Population dynamics are a driver for a great many things when it comes to cities. West’s findings show that as you double the size of a city, you get twice as many businesses. Adding 22 people means a new business will be born, and each business adds 12 jobs. This happens based on the organic nature of the dynamics and is true regardless of city size.

“The mayor [of a city] has little to do with productivity increases; there’s a dynamic that produces those results as the population grows,” West said. “Therefore, we should normalize city performance relative to the scaling laws.”

The predicted figures of scaling laws form the baseline to gauge how well a city is doing. If the city is underperforming or overperforming related to these baselines, the baseline will provide a means to prioritize resources to make improvements or to examine the mix of policy and actions that have yielded gains.

A Quickening Pace

West spoke about the differences in the metabolic rates of various animals such as elephants and mice.
West spoke about the differences in the metabolic rates of various animals such as elephants and mice.

West’s findings on the behavior of cities have troubling implications. He discovered that as cities double in size, they require 15 percent less infrastructure than they initially did, thanks to economies of scale. However, the dynamics of the social network adds another 15 percent to socioeconomic outcomes. This means that as cities double, they generate 15 percent more wealth and jobs as well as 15 percent more crime and disease.

The pace of life picks up in cities as they grow. Unfortunately, any entity that continues to scale and speed up reaches a point—the singularity—where the system runs out of resources and finally stagnates and collapses.

In the past, humans have avoided collapses with major discoveries, such as iron, coal, and oil, and the invention of the telephone, computers, and information technology.

“An innovation that changes everything resets the clock,” says West. “However, to avoid the singularity, these innovations have to keep coming faster and faster.”

West suggests the need for a socioeconomic change where we redefine growth and think of future paradigm shifts in cultural and social terms.

“The way geography is redefining itself, it has the potential to understand and create better cities,” says West. “Cities determine everything now; therefore, we [had] better understand them.”

Watch a video presentation of West’s Keynote Address in its entirety.