What Does Nature Teach Us About Cities?

Jun 15, 2012

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Future of Cities.

About Geoffrey West's Talk

Physicist Geoffrey West believes that complex systems from organisms to cities are in many ways governed by simple laws that can be discovered and analyzed. He proposes that one simple number — population — can predict a stunning array of details about any city, from crime rate to economic activity. It's all about the plumbing, he says, the infrastructure that powers growth or dysfunction.

In this Talk from TEDGlobal, he shows how this works.

About Geoffrey West

Trained as a theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West has turned his analytical mind toward the inner workings of more concrete things, like animals. In a paper for Science in 1997, he and his team uncovered what he sees as a surprisingly universal law of biology: the way in which heart rate, size and energy consumption are related, consistently, across most living animals.

After decades working in high-energy physics at Los Alamos and Stanford, and serving as the president of the multidisciplinary Santa Fe Institute, West has recently focused on the behavior and development of cities. "Focusing on the differences [between cities] misses the point," he says. "Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We've found the 'what.' "

His next target for study: corporations.

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Geoffrey West says we can't make our cities work better until we know how they work.


GEOFFREY WEST: Cities are the crucible of civilization.

STEWART: That's West, speaking at TED in 2011. He's a physicist who studies the behavior and development of cities. He says the only way to understand the city is to understand its defining patterns and deep structure. These clues will show us whether a city will flourish or fall apart.


WEST: Cities are the origins of global warming, impact on the environment, health, pollution, disease, finance, economies, energy are all problems that are confronted by having cities. That's where they - all these problems come from. However, cities, despite having this kind of negative aspect to them, are also the solution, because cities are the vacuum cleaners, the magnets, that have sucked up creative people, creating ideas, innovation, wealth and so on. So...

STEWART: When you first sat down and decided what to put into your TED Talk, you only have a limited amount of time, what did you hope people would glean from this talk?

WEST: Oh, that's a very interesting question. There were one or two major points I really wanted to get across. One was to emphasize that - the truly major seminal role that cities have been playing in not only creating the extraordinary quality and standards of living we have in the developed world, but also being the source of this kind of tsunami of problems.

And these problems have been with us for, you know, certainly for 200 years, but that we only feel they're upon us now because we've been accelerating at this exponential rate. So that was one of the major points that I wanted to get across.

And the second associated with it was that we form cities in order to enhance interaction, to facilitate growth, wealth creation, ideas, innovation. But in so doing, we create from - from a physicist's viewpoint, entropy, meaning all of those bad things that we feel are engulfing us. But to see these as an integrated, more holistic, systemic package.


WEST: My provocative statement is that we desperately need a serious, scientific theory of cities and scientific theory means quantifiable, relying on underlying generic principles that can be made in a - put into a predictive framework. That's the quest. Is that conceivable? Are there universal kind of laws?

So here's two questions that I have in my head when I think about this problem. The first is: are cities kind of part of biology? Is London a great big whale? Is Edinburgh a horse? And if that is the case, how come that it's very hard to kill a city? You could drop an atom bomb on a city and 30 years later it's survived. And very few cities fail. All...

STEWART: You and your colleagues set out to find, as you say, a quantifiable, serious scientific theory of cities, one that relies on underlying generic principles. How do you start to do that? What are the immediate questions that need to be tackled?

WEST: (Laughter) We have to look across the multitude of urban systems and ask is there, in fact, any evidence of regularities, of some commonality that, for example, in the United States extends from, you know, New York down to, here I am in Santa Fe. Are there commonalities among them? And are those commonalities shared by Tokyo and London and - and other cities across the planet?

So - so the first strategy in this, is to ask does the data show any regularities that would be suggestive that underlying what appears to be kind of this random growth and this random glomeration of buildings and people and roads and factories and so forth, is there in fact underlying that a kind of regularity? Is there a structure?

Is there - has there been operating a bunch of effective emergent rules that have been hidden and, despite the history, geography, culture and the efforts of politicians and urban planners in specific places at specific times, are there things that transcend that? Because that's the way science works.

Science works by looking for regularities and then asking what, if any, are the underlying principles that are driving or constraining those regularities? So, that was the kind of paradigm that we used to start to think about this. And one of the most successful of those paradigms that has been used many times in science is something called scaling.

And that simply asks the question, you know, if you take a physical system of a given size, what happens if I scale it up? You know, can I understand the dynamics and the change in organization as I scale it up?


WEST: So is London a scaled up Birmingham, which is a scaled up Brighton etcetera, etcetera? Is New York a scaled up San Francisco, which is a scaled up Santa Fe? They are networks. And the most important network of cities is you. Cities are just a physical manifestation of your interactions, our interactions, and the clustering and grouping of individuals.

And here's scaling of cities. This shows that, in this very simple example which happens to be a mundane example of the number of petrol stations as a function of size, you see exactly the same kind of thing. There is a scaling and that is that the number of petrol stations in a city is now given to you when you tell me its size.

But here's what's surprising. It scales in the same way everywhere. This is just European countries, but you do it in Japan or China or Colombia, always the same, with the same kind of economy of scale, to the same degree. And any infrastructure you look at, whether it's the length of roads, length of electrical lines, anything you look at has the same economy of scale, scaling in the same way.

It's an integrated system that has evolved, despite all the planning and so on. And what you see is the bigger you are, the more you have per capita. Higher wages, more super creative people per capita as you get bigger, more patents per capita, more crime per capita. And we've looked at everything, more AIDS cases, 'flu etcetera.

This, no doubt, is the reason why a million people a week are gathering in cities, because they think - they think that all those wonderful things like creative people, wealth, income is what attracts them, forgetting about the ugly and the bad.

STEWART: This is a simple question, but I'm sure it's one that a lot of listeners have. And people have asked you this. How can there be these universal laws when you have so many different cultures and so many different kind of (laughter) people around the world?

WEST: Yes. Here's what's really extraordinary, I think. When you look at a city, you know, it looks so unique. You feel this kind of uniqueness, you know, and especially if you go from a big city to a small city or if you go from one country to another. Cities look very different, often. They even feel very different. You know, and they are, of course. They certainly are.

But it turns out those differences that we feel actually only represent maybe 10 to 20 percent of what's actually going on in the city and what the city really is. You know, and that's expressed by these scaling laws, these extraordinary regularities that go from the smallest towns to the biggest cities. And they have the same scaling, no matter where you are in the world and no matter what metric you look at.

So, the question is, just as you said, where in the hell does that come from? Why - how can that be? What is it that is common across all socioeconomic metrics, but is also common across the world, independent of culture? Well, the commonality that transcends all cities, no matter where they are and no matter what size, is - and I know this sounds (laughter) like a platitude - it's because cities are actually places where people live. And the socioeconomic behavior of people is, roughly speaking, universal.

That is the way we interact as social beings is not so different, whether you're in the United States, Europe, Japan, China or Latin America. And so this is some universal kind of phenomenon that is hardwired in and has evolved as we evolved as human beings as - and as we evolve particularly as social human beings.

And so it is that the - the kinds of networks, the hierarchical networks that comprise societies, despite some of the differences in culture, have many of the similar kinds of regularities like that, that transcend where you are. And we believe, and this is a hypothesis, that it is that universality of social networks, and the kinds of structures of those social networks, that are being manifested in the structure of cities and manifested, therefore, in the scaling laws.

Because ultimately, cities are there to facilitate interaction between people, bringing people closer together, to interact, create ideas, innovate. And all of those come from the same kind of social interactions. So that's the universality.

STEWART: Geoffrey West from Santa Fe, New Mexico, thank you for taking the time to be on the TED RADIO HOUR.

WEST: Sure. It was a great pleasure.

STEWART: Geoffrey West. You can find more of his research about the science of cities on our website:

I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.