[ExI] Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster

Kelly Anderson kellycoinguy at gmail.com
Fri Jun 3 15:00:42 UTC 2011

On Wed, Jun 1, 2011 at 11:53 PM, Emlyn <emlynoregan at gmail.com> wrote:
> ---
> Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life
> Gets Faster
> http://edge.org/conversation/geoffrey-west
> ---
> Apologies if this has been discussed recently.
> Watch this talk by Geoffrey West. Very long, but well worth it.

Took a while for me to get through it, but yes, there are some
interesting ideas here.

First that cities and corporations are merely extensions of biology,
and that perhaps they follow some of the same 'laws' that biological
systems follow. Check.

Second, that cities scale superlinearly, and that companies scale, but
sublinearly. Which implies that companies scale due to economies of
scale (like an elephant has a more efficient metabolism than a person,
and a person than a mouse) rather than due to innovation which is what
makes cities scale superlinearly.

> He appears to have come up with a mathematical framework which
> predicts and describes the singularity, but then disbelieves the
> conclusion. Start somewhere around 25:00 if you're impatient, really
> heats up around 32:00, gets to the point around 36:00.

The discussion of the Singularity is that it can be avoided for a
while by using technology to push it off. I think this is a different
sort of singularity than what we are used to talking about here. This
is a singularity in the growth of a particular city or company, not of
mankind in general, although that could be interpolated from what he's
saying by treating the entire planet as a biological system of the
type he's discussing.

> He's found that, all things being equal, cities scale up in all kinds
> of things with size, including crucially the amount (ie: speed) of
> innovation, but can't go past a certain size without collapsing.

Without the addition of more technology...

> Major
> innovations let all things not be equal (ie: change the constants in
> your equations), and allow us to have a new ceiling. Innovation gets
> you out of the Malthusian trap. Ok.

For a while.

> But, the bigger cities get, the faster things go (including even, for
> instance, walking speed!).

Yeah, that's a fascinating one. Perhaps this indicates that there is a
market for Segway after all, but only in cities above 100,000,000
people or something :-)

> You need major innovation on smaller time
> scales to continue growing the way we do.

Yes, this is where he falls off the rails. He dismisses it as
unrealistic that human beings can incorporate major new technologies
on the time scale of 6 months. Well, perhaps human beings can't, but
humanity+ can, and probably will. AGI can and probably will. I don't
think he is aware of the Singularity that we are all familiar with, or
at least he doesn't address that at all in this discussion. It would
be fascinating to discuss it with him.

> So right there, he's got the recipe for Singularity. But he baulks
> well before the asymptote, saying for instance that major innovations
> (say "invention of computing" sized innovation) couldn't happen, for
> example, every 6 months.

Right, because he's talking about a different type of singularity. His
definition of singularity is where the city or company dies. If he
looked at the big Singularity, he might come to the conclusion that is
where all people and civilization as a whole dies.

> Whereas I think what he's describing is that population cluster size
> and density drives innovation faster and also requires faster
> innovation, with no necessity for a ceiling.
> Thoughts?

One of the more interesting things for me was that large companies
grow sublinearly, and only in some dimensions. For example, big
companies don't innovate. Shocker there!

I wonder if he's ever applied his technique to governments? Now THAT
would be interesting. I'd bet governments grow sublinearly at a rate
below that of even companies, but that's just a guess. It feels like
they get less efficient with growth, but that would contradict his
entire thesis. This would be interesting indeed.


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