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Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster : Geoffrey B. West

January 2 02016

Jason's Notes:

The most important network in the city is the social network. This is defined by the 4 to 6 people closest to you. That then scales up to larger clusters and diversifies the quality of interactions in a city. As a city gets bigger, it benefits from sub-linear scaling (x<1), so they become more efficient and get economies of scale. Conversely, the value of the social/economic system is super-linear (x>1.15), and value is added to the system the larger it gets by virtue of an enriched network.

Networks allow for continuous cycles of innovation, which is what you need to overcome the hockey-stick graph that shows exponential growth. However, the dark side is that rebounds of innovation need to become quicker each time.

At their core, cities are fundamentally resistant to change. A cool city 39 years ago is likely to still be cool, and a dull place without innovation is likely to still be just as dull. Change isn't adopted quickly by the governing social networks. "Cities are physical manifestations of our social networks."

Corporations are sub-liniar: the bigger they get the less they own and they less they earn per employee. They don't benefit from economies of scale. They stagnate and follow the sigmoidal curve that a living creature does: they start of small and grow quickly until ripe then taper off and die.

Companies don't allow crazy people in, and innovation dies (or is de-funded) and the company is fragile  to major shocks. First there are engineers, then accountants, then lawyers, they the company dies.

Scaling and simplicity is evolved survival patterns in interrelations, sub-liniar scaling.

Geoffrey B. West

From the Long Now:
Superlinear Cities

"It's hard to kill a city," West began, "but easy to kill a company." The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And "cities are the crucible of civilization." They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. "Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities."

"We need," West said, "a grand unified theory of sustainability--- a coarse-grained quantitative, predictive theory of cities."

Such a theory already exists in biology, and you can build on that. Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability. (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber's Law.) Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale. If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line. From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.

But the proportion is not linear. Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use. Only a tripling in energy use is needed. It's sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4. Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.

With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life. A shrew's heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human's 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute. The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative. Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life. (West added that human bodies run on 100 watts---2,000 calories of food a day. But our civilizational energy use adds up 11,000 watts per person. We're like blue whales walking around.)

Does such scalability apply to cities? If you plot, say, the number of gas stations against the size of population of metropolitan areas on a log-log scale, it turns out you get another straight line. Ditto with the length of electrical lines, carbon footprint, etc. Per capita, big city dwellers use less energy than small town dwellers. As with animals, there is greater efficiency with size, this time at a 9/10 ratio. Energy use is sublinear.

But unlike animals, cities do not slow down as they get bigger. They speed up with size! The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate. All the productivity-related numbers increase with size---wages, patents, colleges, crimes, AIDS cases---and their ratio is superlinear. It's 1.15/1. With each increase in size, cities get a value-added of 15 percent. Agglomerating people, evidently, increases their efficiency and productivity.

Does that go on forever? Cities create problems as they grow, but they create solutions to those problems even faster, so their growth and potential lifespan is in theory unbounded.

(West pointed out that there is a bit of variability between cities worth noticing. On the plot of crimes/population, Tokyo has slightly fewer crimes for its size, and Osaka has slightly more. In the U.S., the most patents per capita come from Corvalis, Oregon, and the least from Abiline, Texas. Such variations tend to remain constant over decades, despite everyone's efforts to adjust them. "Exciting cities stay exciting, and boring cities stay boring.")

Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.'s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

What is the actual mechanism of difference? Research on that continues. "Cities tolerate crazy people," West observed, "Companies don't."

       --Stewart Brand

"The Power of Ideas, what ideas do we need for the future" Peter Schwartz

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

"How Long is Your Now? How Big is Your Here?"

Time frames in a few years: things look to be getting worse. Time frames over centuries: things are getting quite a bit better.

Every view of the future:
  1. Long term dynamics of how things happen
  2. How those play out
  3. See the consequences
  4. Use those insights to guide present choices

In the long run, Humanity is in a constant struggle to:
  1. Keep from killing each other too much
  2. Live within our means
  3. Live meaningful life
  4. Enable us to do great things

Powerful ideas are not always really good ones. Religion or Communism have tremendous power, and some have staying power because people continue to believe in them.

Cosmology really does matter: it defines the limits of your thinking. Ideas come from ideas, and they come from tools. Without givens ideas don't evolve.

Bib: Constant Battles

Peter Schwartz:

From the Long Now:

The art of the really long view

For such a weighty subject there was a lot of guffawing going on in the Seminar Thursday night.

The topic was "The Art of the Really Long View." Peter Schwartz chatted through his slides for tonight's lecture, then the discussion waded in. Present were Danny Hillis, Leighton Read, Angie Thieriot, Ryan Phelan, David Rumsey, Eric Greenberg, Kevin Kelly, Anders Hove, Schwartz, and me.

The event was very well audio and video taped, so we can link you to a fuller version later. For now, here's a few of my notes.

Much of discussion circled around Schwartz's assertion that the most durable and influential of human artifacts are IDEAS. And a distinction worth drawing is between POWERFUL ideas and GOOD ideas. Not all powerful ideas turn out to be good, in the long run. For example, Schwartz proposed that monotheism has been an extremely powerful idea, dominating all kinds of human activity for millennia, but its overall goodness is increasingly questionable.

Or take the powerful idea of Communism and the powerful idea of Capitalism. Looking at them when both were being touted as world solutions around, say, 1890, how would you distinguish which one was likelier to play out as good? Most of us, then, would probably have given the nod to Communism, particularly in light of robber-baron excesses in the US, etc.

Danny Hillis proposed that bad powerful ideas are essentially collective hallucinations which mask reality, whereas good powerful ideas have built into them all kinds of reality checks. So Capitalism---expressed as markets---has prevailed so far because it is an emergent, distributed, out-of-control feedback system.

Some notable quotes (among many):

    "The future is the ONLY thing we can do anything about." --Hillis

    "Denial is a special case of optimism." --Leighton Read.

Revisiting Long Now's frequent chant that multiplying options is the great good to do for future generations, we examined the idea of "toxic choice"---for instance the stupefying multiplicity of choices in a supermarket or department store that make you long for a good boutique. "But lots of boutiques," said Ryan Phelan. "I've got it! " said Read, "We'll have two big toxic choice emporiums, connected by a bunch of boutiques! I think we've just invented the mall."

Contemplating work to be done, Schwartz said: "We know it would be a good idea to have the rule of law extended to include ecological systems, but we haven't figured out how to make that a powerful idea yet."

       --Stewart Brand

Welcome to the Anthropocene: we are small potatoes. - John Baez

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

Zooming Out on Time:

Our sense of time is laughably constrained to scale so small as to be perfectly inconsequential. When you zoom way out on history we see a much more varied climate. We should understand our petri dish bubble in history to be an incredible blessing and assume that our luck won't continue.

John Baez:

From the Long Now:
Welcome to the Anthropocene

The graphs we see these days, John Baez began, all look vertical— carbon burning shooting up, CO2 in the air shooting up, global temperature shooting up, and population still shooting up. How can we understand what really going on? “It’s like trying to understand geology while you’re hanging by your fingernails on a cliff, scared to death. You think all geology is vertical.”

So, zoom out for some perspective. An Earth temperature graph for the last 18,000 years shows that we’ve built a false sense of security from 10,000 years of unusually stable climate. Even so, a “little dent” in the graph of a drop of only 1 degree Celsius put Europe in a what’s called “the little ice age” from 1555 to 1850. It ended just when industrial activity took off, which raises the question whether it was us that ended it.

Nobel laureate atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen suggests that the current geological era should be called the “Anthropocene,” because it is increasingly dominated by human-caused effects. Baez noted that oil companies now can send their tankers through a Northwest Passage that they may have created, since it is fossil fuel burning that raised the CO2 that raised the summer temperatures in the Arctic that melts the polar ice away from the land.

Zoom out further still to the last 65 million years. The temperature graph shows several major features. One is the rapid (every 100,000 years) wide swings of major ice ages. When they began, 1.35 million years ago, is when humans mastered fire. But almost all of the period was much warmer than now, with ferns growing in Antarctica. “Now it’s cold. What’s wrong with a little warming?” Baez asked.

The problem is that the current warming is happening too fast.

Studies of 1,500 species in Europe show that their ranges are moving north at 6 kilometers a decade, but the climate zones are moving north at 40 kilometers a decade, faster than they can keep up. The global temperature is now the hottest it’s been in 120,000 years. One degree Celsius more and it will be the hottest since 1.35 million years ago, before the ice ages. Baez suggested that the Anthropocene may be characterized mainly by species such as cockroaches and raccoons that accommodate well to humans. Coyotes are now turning up in Manhattan and Los Angeles. There are expectations that we could lose one-third of all species by mid-century, from climate change and other human causes.

Okay, to think about major extinctions, zoom out again. Over the last 550 million years there have been over a dozen mass extinctions, the worst being the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, when over half of all life disappeared. The cause is still uncertain, but one candidate is the methane clathrates (”methane ice”) on the ocean floor. Since methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, massive “burps” of the gas could have led to sudden drastic global heating and thus the huge die-off of species. Naturally the methane clathrates are being studied as an industrial fuel for when the oil runs out in this century, “which could make our effect on global warming 10,000 times worse,” Baez noted.

“Zooming out in time is how I calm myself down after reading the newspapers,” Baez concluded. “A mass extinction is a sad thing, but life does bounce back, and it gets more interesting each time. We probably won’t kill off all life on Earth. But even if we do, there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and ten billion galaxies in the observable universe.”

       --Stewart Brand