New Science Explains City Behaviours

Go listen to Geoffrey West – there he is again! My friends and colleagues say go to hear his talk on Why Cities Keep Growing. When more than three people recommend a site to me, then I sit up and take notice.

In this case I am happy to say that I followed the link on first suggestion. What I am pleased to see is the ability of people to link what West has to say with my framing of an Integral City as a living system – a meshwork – that has fractal qualities to its interconnections. These connections embrace the four quadrants of bio-psycho-cultural-structural.

West’s proposition is that (the built) city has more than the usual three dimensions (plus time) – that there is a fifth dimension that is fractal in nature.  Fractalness is the quality of self-same pattern making at different scales, that is the basic design process of all natural systems. West points to the fact that in living systems it is the result of metabolic rate in relation to size.

The bottom line is that the “bigger you are the slower everything is”.  In the human system we have 10 to the 14 cells – which are arranged in hierarchical branching networks (for evidence, when I am teaching this, I point to heart capillaries and arteries at all scales or brain axons/dendrites). Each network uses the same basic units with a few basic rules: feed all the cells and minimize the energy used for survival so that you can maximize the energy for replication/regeneration. This appears to back up the basic propositions of living systems that what qualifies you as a living system is to survive, regenerate and connect with your environment.

West has discovered that there are two kinds of linearity that derive from the scaling of cities – one is superlinearity which appears to be socio-economically based where the doubling in size of structures produces a 15% increase in everything from wages to length of roads to crime to diseases. Superlinear scaling leads to open ended-growth that becomes ever-more frenzied in speed (even of walking) and demands without ever catching up to the dilemmas created by such growth. West asks if this is sustainable? Is the only way to counteract this superlinear growth ever greater pace of innovation and change and can the human being adapt to these conditions without eventually leading to collapse?

The contra-indication to this intractable problem is sub-linearity which arises from the scaling of social-cultural networks – the dimensional increases of relationship exchanges which enables economies of scale that depend on densifying the connections. The fractal connections in the relationships lead to hierarhical clustering of networks – or meshworks. (This enables sub-linear economies of scale in the range of a 15% savings on energy output.)

Much of what West proposes is fascinating because of its implications for innovation (that it is the only thing that can save the collapse of a singularity of super-linear growth), its living system limits to growth (ie. superlinearity is always drawing on more resources until an innovation allows for reduced energy demand)  and its interconnectedness of bio-psycho-cultural-structural dimensions (the integral city equation). It is also reminiscent of Miller’s (1)  Living System discoveries of the 3 major systems (information, energy, matter) and 19 sub-systems in all scales of living systems from cell to city/nation. And its lifecycle implications for organizations recalls Adizes (2) framework for corporate lifecycles based on the human lifecycle that posits the need to stay at “prime” – or the top of the sigmoid growth curve, by constantly reinventing itself.

It appears that human systems behave quite naturally at all scales – and that learning these lessons fractal geometry can definitely open up new pathways for evolutionary intelligence. Perhaps we could say something like:  mere matter leads to mere revolution; more info-energy connections leads to evolution???  TBD


(1) Miller, J. G. (1978). Living Systems. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

(2) Adizes, I. (1999). Managing Corporate Lifecycles. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press.

By | 2017-04-07T02:57:37+00:00 September 6th, 2011|E. Evolutionary Intelligences, Meshworking, Uncategorized|1 Comment

About the Author:

HI I am the Founder of Integral City Meshworks Inc. and Chief Blogger. Working with cities and eco-regions, I ‘meshwork’ or weave people, purpose, priorities, profits, programs and processes to align contexts, grow capacity and develop strategies for sustainability and resilience in the Integral City. You can read more details about me here

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