Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?


Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West gave a TED talk earlier this year in which he presented evidence that simple mathematical laws govern the development of cities, from Bogota to Birmingham. Like biological organisms and systems, cities always demonstrate economies of scale. He says:

“The reason for this is because of networks. All of life is controlled by networks. From the intracellular, through the multi-cellular to the ecosystem level. The question is any of this true for cities? Cities are just physical manifestations of your interactions and the clustering and grouping of individuals…

“Cities deliver economies of scale. Fewer petrol stations per capita the bigger your city is. Not surprising… This is true of any infrastructure you look at in any city around the world.

“But even more surprising is if you look at socio-economic quantities. Wages, wealth, patents, crime, AIDS cases, flu cases.”

Double the size of the city and any of these factors goes up by 15% per capita.

“Anything you can think of goes up by 15%... This is a universal phenomenon.”

The bigger the city, the more efficient it is, the more of everything there is, per capita. Whatever it is.

“The reason for this is us. Our interactions and networks. The bigger you are, life gets faster. Even the speed of walking gets faster as your city gets bigger.”

Now, Brockley Central is no theoretical physicist, but if the cause of these efficiencies is the networking effect of cities, then the implication would be that if the networks are more intricate, the scaling effect should be greater. Instead of getting 15% efficiency – a super-connected community should achieve a higher number.

It’s a hypothesis, but one we’re trying to prove with Brockley Central. Making SE4 and its surrounds the best-connected community in the world via the web, Twitter, Facebook, the forum and more Twitter ought to make us more efficient.

In other words, we won’t rest until you’re all rich. And have the clap. Join us!

34 comments:

Tom Brockley said...

This is a Noble Aim, and one I will support.

MalB said...

Interesting lecture with some impressive statistical data.

“Anything you can think of goes up by 15%... This is a universal phenomenon.”
The bigger the city, the more efficient it is, the more of everything there is, per capita.

And yet, apparently the bigger your city is the fewer petrol stations per capita there are.

The statements aren't contradictory however because the "any thing you think of" per capita growth only relates to socio-economic quantities (and these obviously have to be selected with care).

As a city expands other things surely get more difficult? ... transport for example. The logistics of supplying the centre. More complex constructs, tightly linked are generally less understandable, less manageable, and therefore more susceptible to unexpected catastrophic failure. Simple constructs loosely linked are more resilent even if there are lots of linked simple constructs. Our cities are not simple constructs - far from it.

Prof West, towards the end of the lecture, flags the problem with his "super-exponential unbounded growth" model. As he then states, suchs system are destined to collapse ... unless there is a major innovation and each potential collapse comes quicker and quicker (which reminds me of the bifurcation points in chaos theory. Therefore society has to innovate faster and faster. Where he leaves the lecture is before he answers the point as to whether faster and faster innovation can go on for ever. History suggests that it can (albeit with some fairly large dark ages when the innovation is only prompted by the beginnings of collapse). The fundamental laws of science rather suggest to me it can't.

Networks such as the Brockley blog are simple constructs loosely connected not city-like network constructs. After all DARPAnet was designed for resilience during an attack. But, be warned Nick, effficiency can fall if the network becomes too over-connected and traffic volumes become too high. And has the existence of Twitter, Facebook and the like actually made us more efficient at all? Now that is a whole different debate ...

Lots to think about there.

Brockley Nick said...

@Mal - re: petrol stations, don't think in terms of the stations of themselves - the "thing" cities get better at delivering is "access to petrol", which means you need fewer of them, to deliver better access to petrol for residents.

In other words, petrol stations are an input, not an outcome. So the fact that there are fewer is an example of cities' efficiency.

Transport around cities gets better as you get bigger too, on a per capita basis. Again, don't compare a single car journey between two points in the country and a small town. Think about how far you have to travel to get things, how efficient big cities are at moving large populations from a to b, etc. So on a per capita basis, cities need less infrastructure to achieve the same effects more quickly. That's why a small town couldn't handle the Olympics.

Re: eventual collapse. As Keynes said: In the long-term, we're all dead.

kolp said...

This doesn't excite me, my life is fast enough. My life needs depth, not speed.

Brockley Nick said...

@Kolp - the point is, however you choose to define "depth" - access to culture, education, conversation, whatever - cities provide 15% more per capita each time they double. In Brockley, it's more like 20% of course.

MalB said...

Nick: Cities the size of London are probably less efficient at moving people around than smaller cities. And, arguably, with better designed modular towns you would need to have shift all those people around in the first place.
Starting from scratch, with today's communication network, I don't think anybody would design cities in the way of London and the huge daily tedious and unproductive shift of people that takes place.

You say "efficient", but each commuter wastes 2 hours of productive time each day on average travelling. That one huge inefficiency that the city causes.

And as for eventual collapse, in one sense that is obvious - entropy will ensure it. In the sense that Keynes uses it (presuming by "all" he means people), it is no longer obvious for generations after ours - although it is almost certainly true for us. In the sense of cities, Prof West says that (within reasonable contraints) that it is not true: although he does not explain how we keep up with faster innovation for ever.

Brockley Gal said...

Can't we just clap?

Anonymous said...

Didn't read all of this, but I've at least 15% fewer friends in London than anywhere I've lived before.

Mazer said...

The cost of living seems to be about 15% more each year living in London - is this connected ??

London? said...

Friendships (as opposed to acquaintances)?
Social exchanges?
The old adage about feeling lonelier in the crowd, and the fact that it's quite possible to go through a day in central London without a friendly word exchanged, even though I am interacting with the network all day...
I suspect there are some socio-economic quantifiers which do not become more prevalent as the city expands...

London? said...

@Nick:
Quality of culture? (Yep, would give you that one.)
Quality of education? (Questionable.)
Quality of conversation? (Perhaps not.)

Brockley Nick said...

@London?

Incidence of loneliness presumably goes up 15% every time a city's size doubles too.

Note, this isn't about London v smaller cities, it's about what would happen if Manchester's size doubled or London's size doubled. Bangalore is a lot poorer than Bristol, despite being bigger, due to a multitude of other factors. But double the size of Bangalore and GDP per capita will go up 15%.

Brockley Nick said...

PS - it's only possible to go a day in London without a friendly word exchanged if a) you don't speak to anyone or b) you're one of those chippy provincials who goes to 'that London' ready to hate the whole thing and takes immediate offence because the Oyster card reader doesn't want to spend the day chatting to you about last night's Coronation Street. That way you can reassure yourself that, despite London being significantly better in every measurable way: climate, culture, job opportunities, food, etc, your home wins because of the friendliness of your people (ie: they're people like you).

Osh said...

You don't get this in the News Shopper.

Monkeyboy said...

Your kind of obliged to sleep with your cousin in small Norfolk villages. Not because you want to, but because there isn't the choice. Doesn't make it a great idea, although six toes and a tail does make climbing trees easier.

That 15%, I suppose we ought to give the chap the benefit of the doubt. If he's a proper scientist he ought to understand statistical analysis, but could he be finding patterns in data that he wants too? There's lots of stuff going on, depending on how you cut it you could find the magic 15% in any data set. A bit like lay lines?

Brockley Nick said...

@MB - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_West

I reckon he can tell the difference.

Mb said...

Well, yes ok. I stand by my not having to sleep with your cousin analogy as the better test for living in a city. ;-)

London? said...

@Nick and Monkeyboy

Yes, thanks so much for the clarification that this is about growth in a given city rather than between-city comparisons: that wasn't under dispute. Did I say something that suggested it was?

Monkeyboy's point about selective analysis and reporting very much stands, whatever the credentials of the analyst. This is a constant issue and these things are always up for dispute and discussion in social science. That's what makes it interesting. It's theory-building, not 'proving existence.'

P.S. I'm not a 'chippy provincial,' I'm a quantitative social scientist who has lived in various countries and places in the UK, and who is hoping critically to discuss the issue, rather than slinging assumptions and implied insults about people's backgrounds.

Brockley Nick said...

@London?
No offence meant to you. I wasn't suggesting that you were a chippy provincial, I was referring to the many chippy provincials I have had to put up with over the years. Just making the point that I don't believe the 'old adage' (aka urban myth) that it is possible to go through the day without having a friendly word, unless you try really hard not to.

I was careful not to say anything had been "proved" for the reasons you say. However, I was just pointing out to MB that he's an eminent scientist, unlike to make such a schoolboy error.

London? said...

@Nick - but that's really my point. It's not schoolboy errors that lead different people to cut and interpret the data in various, sometimes contradictory, ways. It's at the heart of social science. It's all debatable.

Anonymous said...

When I first moved to London one of the things that struck me was that if you smiled to a shop worker or anyone in a customer-facing role, they almost never responded in kind. I expect it now, and thus the cycle continues I guess. :(

Anonymous said...

Given the choice between not being smiled at when I smile at a shopkeeper and being chased out of a village by torch bearing provincials for wearing a nose ring and eating forieign food, I'll choose a sullen shop keeper

Anonymous said...

Except that bit about the village doesn't happen.

Brockley Nick said...

Its as true as the London stereotype. Maybe you don't get smiled at often in Primark on Oxford Street, but pop in to Sounds Around and it's a very different experience. There are plenty of provincial shops and pubs where you won't get a smile either.

Anonymous said...

"Except that bit about the village doesn't happen." yes. I was joking.

kolp said...

Every material need I have is met, I feel rich. I don't need more things or things faster. What might be better is 15% more Buddhism in society. There's a lot on unenlightened behaviour.

Mb said...

15% less superstition would be great.

Brockley Nick said...

I guess we shouldn't take him literally when he says "any" social indicator, but by that logic, there should be 15% more atheists and 15% more god-botherers each time a city doubles?

kolp said...

Superstition isn't a bad thing, in fact it's one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs... but anyways. Namaste to you open minded pair!

mintness said...

I'm 15% more aware of how shit London is with every passing year, and 15% more likely to spend the rest of my life here.

Dr Freud said...

Mintiness, move. There has never been a better time. House prices have held up on London and are falling outside. Are you one of those people who are miserable who give London a bad name? Be part of the solution, I understand guilford is ok.

MalB said...

@London: Social science is a very soft science - I'll agree. What I think Prof West is trying to do is to make it less of a soft science and more of a hard one. There is no reason why this should be not achievable eventually. The track record of economics, I'll grant you is not good, but all much of what we regard as science was treated as philosophy originally. So well done him for trying.

Conceptually I have some problems with the chosen statistics as well. But he says he has plotted 1,000s (I can't remember the exact number he has quoted) so it does look as if there is something go on there. My concern is however more with extrapolation. Even if there is a good straight line 15% as plotted, does it continue, or is it simply the centre part of an S curve? Or does it end with a discontinuity (as he suggests)?

Without a theory behind the data it is just that- data. Intriguing data, nonetheless.

pip said...

People living in London come into contact with so many people every day that we have to be more selective about who we interact with or life would be even more stressful. Compared to living in a small town or village we have our senses bombarded every time we leave the house, and have to develop mechanisms to cope with that. Not smiling and saying hello to everyone is part of that.

It's very superficial and nothing to do with friendliness, really - and we are easily jolted out of that behaviour - we've all seen it when something out of the ordinary happens on a train, for instance - people exchange smiles and comments just the same as anywhere else.

Tamsin said...

Good point, Pip. Once you start talking to your fellow commuters you are then into the social obligation to have a converstional exchange every day. So a conversation happens in response to something unusual - like a train stoppage (once you are inside and seated) of more than five minutes or so, or where you meet them out of the communting context.

Way back when we lived in Ladywell and commuted from Lewisham I was working for central London solicitors and there was a lad who caught the same train who was, I guess a barrister's clerk. We would say "hello" when we met each other going through the Inner Temple, but didn't talk on the platform waiting for the notorious Barnehurst to Blackfriars train.

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