From Cells to Cities Part 3 – Cities and Growth (Geoffrey West)

Cities and growth

Waking Up with Sam Harris #86 – From Cells to Cities (with Geoffrey West)

From Cells to Cities Part 1 Geoffrey West discussed Biological Scaling and therein the nature of scaling, the phenomenon of space-filling and fractals.

From Cells to Cities Part 2 Geoffrey West discussed power laws relating to biological scaling, heart – rates, and your expected maximal life span.

Part 1 and Part 2 is prerequisite reading to appreciate the context and continuity of the discussion as well as the nature of Geoffrey West’s scientific arguments.

From Cells to Cities Part 3 below Geoffrey West discusses the idea of emergence and the city; the scaling of cities, growth and finite time singularity and innovation cycles.

So there’s a kind of extraordinary universality to cities underlying their extraordinary diversity and complexity mimicking the extraordinary simplicity of the scaling laws underlying the extraordinary diversity and complexity of organisms.

Part 3 Cities and Growth

The idea of Emergence and the City

The City is not the sum of all the people in it and it’s not the sum of all the roads or all the buildings or all the events that take place. There is something much more to Cities which stem from the integration of the aforementioned. The City is useful to think of as some form of a collective phenomenon. It has its own individuality. Fundamentally, the idea of emergence is the collective phenomenon which goes beyond its individual constituents. And ‘constituents’ is semantic, because it depends on what you call constituents. Often one thinks of a city you think of its constituents as people. And in another way you might think of it as the buildings.

I think that’s true of the brain as well. Almost no one talks about the brain in terms that the neurons needs to be supported by an energy system…it has to be metabolised. So people talk about the neural system which is doing all the firing and presumably is the origin of our consciousness and mind. But along with that is this circulatory system feeding it and doing so in a highly integrated way – localized in space and time. When we think about the constituents of the brain we don’t talk about the capillaries of which there are many if not more than there are neurons. Our brain and our mind is the emerging phenomenon coming from not just all those neurons or all of that white or grey matter and the electrical firings, but also of the support system and the whole infrastructure giving rise to this.  Cities could be described like a fractal adumbration of the fractal structure of the brain.

The Scaling of Cities

So consider this; if civilization were to ever fail would this have anything to do with the future of cities? Essentially cities are very hard to kill! They tend to survive even if you drop a nuclear bomb on them. However, companies die and organisms die. It’s reported that half of publicly traded companies will disappear within 10 years of entering the market. So cities do matter! The kind of social networking and collaboration between its inhabitants has led to extraordinary socioeconomic systems, quality of life and standard of living for which we are privileged. The kind of structure which underlies its social networks and dynamics is fractal like; they have this fractal quality to them in terms of their social organisation. They also have another important distinguishing aspect that instead of having an ‘economy of scale’, meaning the bigger you are the less per capita; these networks induce something which is the opposite behaviour; the bigger you are the more per capita. That is something that doesn’t exist in biology. So through social networking we have this positive feedback mechanism. So ideas develop and that dynamic which is formalised through commerce, business economies, finance and education systems is fairly recent in human history, like a few thousand years. That is the origin of this huge difference and enormous success in terms of socioeconomic outcomes. And there is nothing like that in biology. That has led to the phenomena of wealth creation, innovation and idea creation. Cities are the engine we invented for facilitating and enhancing social interaction. That’s also where the buzz and the idea of a sexy life take place and where opportunities reside. However it also incorporates the bad and ugly. So you might have higher wages and wealth creation but you sadly also get access to more crime, more pollution, more disease and so forth.

The amazing thing that we discovered about all these aforementioned socioeconomic activities is that they all progress or advance to the same degree. That is, the scaling of cities match-up in terms of these characteristics and metrics. So the wages, the length of the roads, the number of aids cases, and so on – all of these scale effectively in the same way to each other city and across the globe. So there’s a kind of extraordinary universality to cities underlying their extraordinary diversity and complexity mimicking the extraordinary simplicity of the scaling laws underlying the extraordinary diversity and complexity of organisms.


How does an organism change over time? How do we grow? One satisfying aspect of the theory are growth curves. In that you grow quickly and then stop growing and the theory explains that and it applies to any organism. So much so the theory tells you how to scale any organisms and it appears that they all grow in the same way and at the same rate. The reason that you stop growing is intimately related to the sub-linear nature of these 1/4 power scaling laws. That you have economies of scale which lead to the cessation of growth. So all organisms grow and lead to a stable configuration and then they stop growing. And the bigger the organism is, the slower the pace of life, its longevity increases, but ultimately dies. So all of this comes out of this generic network theory. However, in cities instead of having this sub-linear scaling, in terms of its socioeconomic dynamic we have this super-linear scaling. So if you ask how does that feed into the growth of a city using the same kind of ideas, you discover that the city can grow indefinitely. That’s what we see with cities; they just kept growing. In contrary to scaling laws of biology the pace of life increases with size rather than decreases. So life gets faster the bigger you are. People walk faster, transactions take place faster and so on. So you have this open ended growth. But it has fatal flaw built into it.

Finite Time Singularity and Innovation Cycles

Mathematically it’s called a finite time singularity. What that means is in some finite time; it could be 5, 10 or 100 years into the future whatever the metric is, whatever growth you are looking at; it could be the GDP of the city, number of restaurants in the city, number of aids cases in the city would become infinite. Then the theory tells you that the system would eventually stagnate, collapse, and die.

The question is how do you get out of it? This is where innovation comes in. Because when you talk about these mathematical laws they are set within a given innovation paradigm. A grand innovation; like coal, iron or computers which has universal cultural and socioeconomic implications effectively resets the clock.  It’s a paradigm shift where effectively the system starts over again. So the way you avoid stagnation and collapse is before you reach the singularity you have to make a major innovation. And once you start all over again, you reach a finite time singularity in principle, so then you have to re-innovate again to reset the clock and reinvent yourself. So if you demand continuous open ended growth then you have to have continuous innovation cycles. The catch is – the pace of life has to be continually speeding up to grow, but the time between innovations has to get shorter and shorter. So you have to accelerate the rate at which you keep innovating. So it might have taken a 100 years to develop an idea a 1000 years ago, now it only takes 25 years because of this positive feedback mechanism that’s coming from that which is built into the social network. So it speeds everything up and gives rise to super linear scaling and demands that the system be open ended and viable to enable accelerating innovation.

So it took us 25 years to go from computers, laptops to IT. So we are going to have to forge another major innovation in 20 years to something which will have as bigger impact. In less than 20 years after that we will require another one and so on and so forth until you have to make a major innovation paradigm shift every year or even 6 months. It will be unsustainable. So something dramatic has to change in this dynamic for us to avoid the inevitable demise. So the typical mantra by economists etc, ‘Oh don’t worry we are going to innovate ourselves out of this’, but when you look at it through this lens those innovations are just postponing a big problem. So the question is how do we get out of it? It will be difficult we have always thought of innovation in traditional material and technological terms.


Maybe we need to redefine what we mean by paradigm shift or what we mean by growth. Traditionally, growth is measured by physically types of quantities in particular economic ones like GDP. May be we should start redefining and introducing a real matrix for quality of life, happiness and contentment or at least think in different terms away from technical innovation towards cultural or social innovation. In this sense it might require a major cultural – educational shift towards a new appreciation and channeling of our external reality.

Could this suggest that much of what is material will become virtual? Is this how we escape entropy in all this?
May be it will just be a new way of being, like living far simpler lives. Because part of the dynamic ingrained in modern society is this manifestation of greed. For example, we may want to have more cars than we need or more IT than we need. It’s this treadmill affect. Can we channel that energy into a social and cultural phenomena and still remain a vibrant socioeconomic society with wealth creation and innovation; but without this need for mindless material growth?  Can we can lead new kind of lives where our ideas of success and contentment are not determined by material well-being; rather where there are other matrices and other dimensions we might all consciously agree to. It’s hugely speculative and flaky, but it is something we do need to come to terms with being on this accelerating treadmill of innovation.

It could be that the sustainable future is some hybrid of a super hi-tech perfection of IT and whatever can be virtual should be made virtual and a greater intellectual and ethical norm of simplicity attained.

Hereby ends the ‘From Cells to Cities’ trilogy.

Related Articles:
1. From Cells to Cities Part 2 – Life Span (Geoffrey West)
2. From Cells to Cities Part 1 – Biological Scaling (Geoffrey West)

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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