Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Readings: A Physicist Solves the City

Readings: A Physicist Solves the City: "

This piece in the New York Times Magazine is getting a lot of positive references.

(Physicist Geoffrey West) saw the metropolis as a sprawling organism, similarly defined by its infrastructure. (The boulevard was like a blood vessel, the back alley a capillary.) This implied that the real purpose of cities, and the reason cities keep on growing, is their ability to create massive economies of scale, just as big animals do. After analyzing the first sets of city data — the physicists began with infrastructure and consumption statistics — they concluded that cities looked a lot like elephants. In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent.

This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests, for instance, that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability.

After a resource is exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our superlinear growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”

But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. This helps explain why West describes cities as the only solution to the problem of cities. Although urbanization has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue.

Steven Johnson also covered some of this ground in Price Tags nomination for Book of the Year: “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

You can find an excerpt in this Price Tags post that also explains the connection of Kleiber’s Law to West’s work:

But the most fascinating discovery in West’s research came from the data that didn’t turn out to obey Kleiber’s law. West and his team discovered another power law lurking in their immense database of urban statistics. Every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation – patents, R&D budgets, ‘supercreative’ professions, inventors – also followed a quarter-power law, in a way that was every bit as predictable as Kleiber’s law.

More here.


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