Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street


Guest blogger: Betty Tully Cares, Director, Alidade Institute

Research from Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West, along with Jose Lobo (Arizona State) and Deborah Strumsky (UNC Charlotte) on “growth, innovation, scale and the pace of life in the city” is discussed on Urbanite Baltimore. In the article, “C1ty By NuMb3r5”, Michael Anft interviews the researchers whose team set out to measure why cities like Baltimore produce not only innovation and success but also bottomless poverty and crime.

With an estimated 1 million people added to urban centers every week for the foreseeable future, West says there is a dire need for a scientific theory of cities. He describes the dual nature of cities as both the generator of most modern problems of disease, climate change, poverty and also the magnet for the creative problem solvers who can rescue them. SFI recently compiled 50 years of data on 366 US metro areas along with other urban centers worldwide to help better understand this paradox. This article and West’s TED talk from last summer give a great overview of their findings and are worth a look for those of us fascinated by the power of networks.

While you can’t go to Camden Yards or eat Bertha’s Mussels in Minsk, West’s team discovered an unmistakably universal trait in every burg. All cities’ data follow highly predictable patterns of linear scalability—this is consistent for every world city and for every statistic. So unemployment, socio economic status and crime rates scale almost identically from Charm City to Jakarta. Anft writes, “If you were to tell West that you live in an unnamed metro region with 2.5 million people, he can come up with a strong estimate of how much crime and how many paved roads you’ll have, among other metrics.”

SFI researchers endeavor to learn all they can from Complex Adaptive Systems like those found in nature’s brilliant and slowing changing designs. What evolution has taught them proves similar for struggling cities like Baltimore, with too many 19th century Industrial Age vestiges. It takes decades of change in social networks—factory closings that lead to unemployment causing corner stores to board up forcing folks to move elsewhere—for decline to really happen. Likewise, there are no overnight successes. The area now known as Silicon Valley was already thriving before it became its present self.

The “how” to change cities is a much harder one. West says their research shows that “politicians and planners only have 10-15 percent of the scale of a city to work with. The other 85 percent of what is measurable is generally determined by the city’s size.” It is hoped that their research can help the urban planners and politicians who initiate change. This brand of research is heady and without network-savvy decision makers it is up to scientists to explain why it is important. So will any of it influence decision makers who may trust their gut more than a peer reviewed paper on deviations of scaling? (see below for the original research paper)?

Similarly, there are scientists all over academia eager to tell DoD why their network research is important (and it is). But just like hiring an economist to help you run your business, they understand the science but often don’t get what military operations really entail. Brilliant academics and researchers present impressive data-laden papers, but how many of them have lead a platoon while carrying 75 pounds of gear in 110 degree heat or boarded a rusting freighter suspected of carrying suspicious cargo?

This is why the Network Science folks at USMA are doing such important work by imparting this new science to Cadets. Allowing them to do original research mere months before they are in the field is unmatched in the service academies—not to mention on the undergraduate level at most universities. It give these young officers advantages while they fight unfriendly networks of all kinds and will continue to inform their leadership. It is only when our operational leaders understand the power lurking in the networks they command and fight that the good work of academia can truly become useful to our military.

Betty Tully Cares directs the Alidade Institute, the educational arm of Alidade Incorporated, a Complex Adaptive Systems research firm seeking solutions for networked military problems since 1999.


C1ty By NuMb3r5

Has a former physicist found a formula for growing better cities?

by Michael Anft

Geoffrey West’s TED talk

Peer reviewed paper

Bettencourt LMA, Lobo J, Strumsky D, West GB (2010) Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities. PLoS ONE 5(11): e13541. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013541

Santa Fe Institute


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