Ecosystems outlast organisms.

- Seth Godin, Cities don’t die (but corporations do)

Cities do die, actually, but very slowly. Usually cities decline when there is a cultural collapse, or when the cost of rebuilding aged infrastructure is more expensive than migrating.

However, Seth’s real point is that cities are more resilient than companies. And this is true because companies select people that fit in and reject those that don’t. Cities work the opposite way: people elect to live in specific cities, and they do so for their own reasons. They make the city fit their needs, and they become part of a myriad of semi-independent social scenes.

Cities are connectives, with people headed in many directions, loosely cooperating — obeying the traffic rules, and paying taxes — while companies are collectives, where people must subordinate themselves to a strategy and the strong ties of an organization. Cities are more resilient, flexible, and cheaper to operate than companies. Cities are superlinear and companies are sublinear.

And, as a result, the larger cities get, the more productive they become, the more responsive and adaptable they become: which is the opposite of companies, which become slower, less adaptable, and less productive (per capita) as they become larger.

What do population density, lightning, and the phone company have in common? - Tim De Chent


Investigating the likelihood of lightning strikes causing damage to telecommunications systems, NTT researchers stumble upon the 3/4 exponent — the same exponent underneath the relationship of placenames and population density (see The curious relationship between place names and population density) and other density-related phenomena:

Tim De Chent via Per Square Mile

Using past data on lightning strikes, telecom equipment failures due to lightning strikes, and the 2005 Japanese census, they [NTT researchers] developed a model to describe how telecom equipment failures due to lightning correlate with population density. At first blush, I expected urban areas to receive the brunt of the impact—after all, they have loads more equipment than rural areas—but the results were just the opposite. Expensive circuitry and antennas were safer in urban Tokyo than they were in rural Gunma, even when the discrepancy in lightning strikes between the two regions was taken into account.

The authors offer two explanations for why telecom equipment is safer in urban areas. First, many of the copper lines that feed base stations and boxes run underground in cities, which lowers the induced voltage during a strike. Second, the equipment itself tends to be exposed to the elements in the country, either on the ground or perched atop telephone poles. In the city, most of it in encased in apartment buildings.

But there is another possible explanation they missed—the design of telecom networks and their relationship to population density. The evidence lies in their calculated coefficient that describes how population density can predict equipment failures due to lightning strikes. The coefficient is ¾, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll no doubt recognize that number. As an exponent, ¾ is powerful descriptor, explaining a variety of phenomenon ranging from how plant sizes influences population density to how human population density affects the density of place names.

In this case, ¾ seems to say less about the pattern of lightning strikes than it does about telecom network design and the differences between rural and urban infrastructure. Denser populations require more equipment, but not at a fixed rate. Cellular networks provide a good example. In rural areas, cell sizes are limited by area, not the number of users. It’s the opposite in the city—the more users, the smaller cells become. Therefore, phone companies can rely on fewer cells and less equipment per person in the city than in the country.

The relationship between infrastructure demands and population density could go a long way to explaining why there is a lower rate of equipment failure in denser areas—there’s simply less equipment per person in the city than in the country. But the fact that telecom infrastructure—and damage to it—appears to scale at the same power that describes an range of phenomena related to density and metabolism, well, that’s just too good to be a coincidence.

Research by Stephen Shennan at University College London, Robert Boyd at UCLA, and others indicates that shifting demographics was an important cause of early leaps in human development. Shennan’s research—which notes that artistic and technological leaps similar to the one in Europe had occurred in Africa and the Middle East tens of thousands of years earlier—suggests that what all these leaps had in common was the growth of local population density beyond a certain threshold. (Many of these cultural blooms withered, Shennan observes, when populations subsequently shrank.) Boyd’s research shows the close relationship between toolmaking advances and population size. As people gathered into larger groups and came into contact with one another more frequently, knowledge was shared, retained, and advanced more easily. From the earliest periods of modern human history, cultural development and technological development have been closely linked to rising population density.

They still are today. One simple indication of the economic advantages held by large, dense cities is their explosive growth over the past century and more—growth that is still continuing rapidly. America’s largest cities, each of which held no more than a few hundred thousand people in the mid-19th century, surpassed 1 million by the century’s end. By the middle of the 20th century, New York City had surged past 10 million residents; today, Greater New York contains more than 20 million people.

More than half the world’s population now lives in cities and metro areas, a proportion that is projected to grow to more than 70 percent by mid-century. China’s economic development in recent decades has been propelled by the rise of its cities—130 of which are home to 1 million people or more, including Shanghai with a metro population of 19 million and Beijing with 17.5 million. The Tokyo metro area, home to more than 35 million people, produces almost $1.2 trillion in economic output each year, roughly as much as Australia.

Researchers [Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt] affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute have identified the mechanism that underpins city growth and development as an accelerated rate of “urban metabolism.” Unlike biological species, whose metabolism slows as they get bigger, successful cities exhibit faster metabolism as they grow—a phenomenon that the researchers dubbed “superlinear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.” There seems to be no limit, as yet, to the relationship between greater density and faster growth.

For centuries, the specific geographic advantages of cities tended to obscure their underlying social role. When agriculture powered economic development, cities grew near fertile soils. In the industrial age, access to raw materials and ports became critical, along with the presence of enough physical labor to run large factories. But as those factors become less important, we can see more clearly what has arguably mattered the most all along.

Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. With their breadth of skills, dense social networks, and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them.

Richard Florida, Where the Skills Are

Florida looks at US cities and wonders if something big is coming as our cities grow, and as we are concentrating certain skills in different areas. And he cautions that cities can’t do what they are designed to do — efficient creation of ideas and their application — unless we take care of the physical, infrastructure side of urbanism. Since they are meant to be a place for people to interact, we have to make sure that they are social spaces.

But Florida never delves into the post-industrial city, where online interaction is just as critical and deep as off, where cooperation is easier, and chance insights are even more low-cost. More to follow in ‘Liquid City’, my book, in process.

The Urban Web: An Architecture Of Cooperation

[This is a short précis of the keynote I will be presenting in Montreal for Infopresse, on 26 October 2011, for the conference called Réseaux Sociaux (Social Networks).]

The Urban Web: An Architecture Of Cooperation

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and we have just passed a tipping point where just over 51% of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and their immediate surroundings. The US is leading this trend, with fully 82% of citizens living in urban settings. At the same time, billions of people are spending significantly greater time online, connected through social networks. 65% of adult web users in the US now use social networks, which is the third highest app used after email and search engines. And for young people, over 80% use social networks.

So these two trends are shaping both: urban life is increasingly physically and virtually high density. Urbanites have always had more social contacts than those in the country, but now the intersection of virtual connection, the increasingly networked social spaces of cities  — wifi in cafes and public spaces, ubiquitously connected devices like iPads and smart phones, and wired workplaces — are creating a melting pot of high density social connection of an unprecedented degree.

Cities, as Geoffrey West and others have shown, have superlinear economics: as cities grow, the costs associated with adding more people, businesses, and transportation decrease. New York City, the largest US city, has the lowest amount of CO2 produced per capita in the US, for example, and the lowest electricity use per capita.

Damon Centola and others have shown that increasing social density increases the speed that innovative ideas pass through a group of people, and this is true online and off. As we connect to more people, and they are connected to yet more people, many which we don’t know, we are surrounded by shells of others — social scenes — that exert an influence on us. And as you increase the number of connections people have, you increase the force of this influence, like increasing air pressure or gravity.

We are setting the stage for an unprecedented experiment in an augmented urban life, with a secondary layer of social connection through social networks, where ideas, trends, news, beliefs, and values will stream and take root at an unimaginable pace.

Cities are not controlled by a central agency, at least in the Western neoliberal approach to urbanism: it is a piecemeal and haphazard model of development and societal integration. Cities are connectives, not collectives. People in urban settings are likely to be wildly heterogeneous, and not generally working toward shared aims: instead, they are cooperative. They accord with basic conventions that serve the whole — like driving on the right, or standing in lines for service — but are actively pursuing individual aims, perhaps to the detriment of others.

Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This regional intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated agreements about what the city is meant to be, and do. Everyone can inhabit their own city. 

The Arab Spring revolutions that leverage social networks are an example of the power of messiness at scale. The inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — has been a major impact on the uprisings it supports. The Egyptian revolution had no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees, or like the daily commute in New York City.

The participants in a social revolution — of whatever kind — do not have to agree in all particulars, or even have a common agenda. There is an architecture of cooperation latent in social networks, where the dark matter of influence supports bottom-up connective action, rather than top-down collectives.

And the grafting of social networks into every-larger and complex cities may be like the evolution of the mammalian cerebral cortex, basically a higher order nervous system, capable of an altogether different sort of mind, operating at a new tempo, and capable of new forms of thought.

Media, business, and society will be changed inexorably and massively by these transitions, and the rate of fusion of the urban and the web is accelerating.

When you look at infrastructure in cities you find a similar economy of scale as manifested in networks of living organisms: the bigger the city, the less roads, electrical cabling, etc are needed per capita to sustain its growth. However, for socioeconomic quantities with no simple analogue in biology, those associated with wealth creation, innovation and creativity, the bigger the city, the more there is per capita. We call this super-linear scaling. In a big city, you generally get higher wages, are wealthier, and have more innovative people around you, but you also get more crime, pollution and disease, all to the same degree. The good, the bad and the ugly come as an integrated package!

In biology, because of network properties, not only are there greater economies of scale, but the pace of life gets systematically slower the bigger you are: hearts beat more slowly, oxygen diffuses more slowly across membranes, organisms live longer. In cities you find the opposite: the bigger the city, the faster the pace of life. While in biological organisms economies of scale occur over a finite lifespan, the wealth creation process in cities seems to lead to open-ended expansion.

As corporations grow, they eventually behave much like living organisms; death and decline are part of the process. So here’s the speculation: when a company is formed, it is driven by open-ended, innovative ways of thinking – not overly concerned with economizing – and many may die quickly because of that. But those that survive and flourish eventually become increasingly dominated by bureaucratic and administrative issues as they grow in size. Driven by economies of scale rather than ideas and innovation, the company eventually dies.

Geoffrey West, cited in Alliance Magazine

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