Cities Are Organisms

At The Economist magazine’s “Intelligent Infrastructure” conference, Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute and subject of an interesting profile in The New York Times Magazine, argued that companies and cities function like biological organisms and have finite lifespans. In a provocative discussion, he asked, Is Microsoft an elephant? Is New York City a big whale?

Sustainability is the “big question” these days given changes are happening to a planet that is “the mother of all complex adaptative systems.” Getting to a more sustainable path will require an intensive scientific investigation into the questions: Can we keep all that we have? Has the last 100,000 years just been one large experiment in natural selection that is about to end?

West argued that almost half of all cities created in the last few thousand years still exist in some form or another, but all companies have died, lasting only a few hundred years. Pointing to a forest, he said its complexity can be answered in predictive models. “A forest has amazing structure. Life has extraordinary scalability.” However, individual animals and people (and companies and cities) must grow and then stop.

For any organism, the relationship between the metabolic rate (which West called the most complex process in the universe) and body mass is the same. However, this relationship scales “less than linearly,” meaning that the bigger you are, the less energy you actually need. “There’s an economy of scale across all life forms.” The larger you are, the slower the pace of life as well. Bigger cities have lasted as long as they have because their metabolisms are in a sense slower.

Bigger cities have both higher wages and more taxes, higher crime rates and larger police forces. “If we doubled a city overnight, we’d have the same increase in inputs, outputs, wastes, patents, parks, etc.” Bigger cities mean bigger growth and higher wages, but also an eventual collapse.

While the book, The Singularity Is Near, famously posited that the rate of innovation will only get faster and faster, leading to an eventual hive mind on the planet, West instead thinks that you can’t have continuous biological growth. “The fundamental law is entropy.” There could be innovation in cycles, but this pattern will also include periods of decay and collapse.

Read the article in The New York Times Magazine on West’s theories on cities.

Image credit: Eastern Island Monuments / Ancient

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