Surviving and thriving in an urban world

October 25, 2016

 Geoffrey West is a physicist, born in the early years of WWII in Somerset, England. He studied at the University of Cambridge and at Stanford, and has been a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, and the Santa Fe Institute, an independent research group studying complex adaptive systems. West moved to New Mexico to join a commune, and refers to SFI as the commune where he ended up. He credits seven “comrades in arms” for doing the real work and refers to himself as the “great bullshitter” who promotes their ideas.

West is interested in the sustainability of cities and companies, comparing them to organisms and ecosystems. Companies inevitably die, but cities persist. “You can drop an atom bomb on one, and 30 years later, it’s fine...The urban environment has been expanding at an exponential rate for 200 years, so that by the second half of this century, the planet will be dominated by cities.”

In 1800, less than four percent of the US lived in cities. Now it’s more than 80 percent. In 2006, half the world’s population was urban. In 2050, it will be more than 75 percent, with China planning 300 new cities by 2030. A million people, worldwide, move to cities every week.


 West says this has implications for health, pollution, disease, finance, economics, and entropy. He points to forests. “If you actually look at the measurable quantities [how many trees, how big, how much energy flows through each branch, etc.], this has extraordinary regularity. No matter where you look on the planet, there is a mathematical, principled, physics-based framework that can answer those questions.”

Are cities equivalent to forests? “No, but they are networks...We need a scientific theory of cities,” meaning “quantifiable, relying on underlying generic principles that can be put into a predictive framework.”

West shows that animal species, from tiny shrews to giant whales behave similarly. “Life is scalable.” A two-gram shrew and a 200 million-gram blue whale are essentially the same thing, but as body mass doubles, metabolic rate only goes up 75 percent. In other words, the bigger you are, the less you need.

If you survey cities around the world, there are only 85 percent more gas stations, miles of road and sewer main, etc. as the population doubles. Meanwhile, socio-economic quantities—wages, jobs, crime, illness—go up by 115 percent. This means that, per capita, Duluth should use 15 percent less stuff and be 15 percent wealthier than Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, which is about half the size of Duluth.

Contrary to the biological model, this also means life’s pace is faster in the bigger city. People walk faster and Duluth has a higher crime rate and more flu cases. Still, the net effect is greater wealth and better quality of life. Cities are magnets for creative people who come up with innovative solutions and create wealth. To a certain extent, this is the solution to problems like pollution and wealth distribution.

“You get...a beautiful, rising, exponential curve that—if you compare it with data—fits well with the development of cites and economies. The catch is that this system is destined to collapse. You run out of resources [food, raw materials, water, fuel, etc.]. How do you avoid that? We’ve done it before. As we approach the collapse, a major innovation takes place and we start over again.”

Europe replaced charcoal with coal when wood for charcoal became scarcer, sparking the Industrial Revolution. Mass production, switching from coal to oil, and digital computing have been other major innovations. “Unbounded growth requires accelerating cycles of innovation to avoid collapse. You have to innovate faster and faster and faster.” West makes the analogy of a treadmill. “Can we, as socio-economic beings, avoid a heart attack?”

A “heart attack,” in this case, would amount to social unrest among people feeling poorer as society confronts the world’s limits to provide for us. “It’s amazing that we don’t have people in the streets already.”

We need a last major innovation, one that will keep an urban world healthy and provisioned for thousands of years. We realize certain necessary parameters: Population size compatible with renewable natural resources; reliable, non-polluting energy; equitable wealth distribution; grace, beauty, and opportunity for expression. “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

Please reload

More from this Author

Archives by Date

Please reload

Archives by Title or Author