- 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.
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.
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.
[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.
Geoffrey West, cited in Alliance Magazine