The Living City

From the Archive / by Jonah Lehrer /

In some ways, cities are like elephants: they get more economical with size. But as scientists apply metabolism to the metropolis, they are uncovering the surprising paradoxes of urban growth.

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“You can see this trend in human history,” West says. “Back in the bronze age there were thousands of years between major innovations. Then by the middle ages the pace of change was down to hundreds of years. But now we are living in an age where the time between innovations needs to be shorter than the average human lifespan. We are all going to live through multiple cycles of incredible innovation. Is this pace sustainable? What does this mean for society? Nobody knows the answer to those questions.”

Cities are the driving force behind these accelerating innovation cycles, but this doesn’t mean cities can take innovation for granted. According to West, they must continually nurture the institutions that make innovation possible. “Cities need to encourage companies that spend money on research and development,” he says. “They need to attract universities and improve their educational system.” But West notes that cities often cut back on these sources of innovation precisely when they are most needed. “A city that’s going through a tough time always cuts education first,” he says. “Corporations act the same way. Their first reaction to bad news is to economize, lay people off, and slash the R&D budget. But over the long term this is a bad idea, since you reduce your ability to innovate.” West cites Detroit as a city that has failed to reinvent itself and suffered the consequences.

While certain institutions can foster innovation, the researchers are quick to point out that the innovative abilities of cities are ultimately rooted in the one thing that every city has in common: lots of human interaction. “Cities concentrate our social interactions,” Bettencourt says, “and that’s what leads to this explosion in knowledge creation and innovation.”

This is a mathematical demonstration of an old idea. Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that every healthy city was defined by its ability to facilitate social interaction. She saw the busy sidewalk as an improvisational “ballet,” in which information freely flowed between city dwellers. Her book identified the specific urban ingredients—from short city blocks to mixed-use neighborhoods—that encouraged “the intricate mingling of diversity.” When strangers were forced to communicate, Jacobs wrote, the city developed the “innate ability… to invent what is required to combat its difficulties.” Interaction and innovation were intertwined.

There are many ways to define a city. From a distance, a city is simply a point in space, a grid of streets and concrete that can be fit on a map. But every city is also a collection of individuals, a pulsing mass of strangers, friends, neighbors, and lovers that never stops moving. The next step for West and his team is to figure out how, exactly, the social interactions of the urban street translate into new kinds of knowledge. While their initial work focused on discovering the universal properties of every city—what West calls “coarse-grained modeling”—their future research will require them to compare different cities with each other so that they can detect subtle correlations between variables. (The urban areas they plan to focus on include Phoenix, Detroit, and New Orleans.) Do faster pedestrians lead to more new patents? What’s the relationship between population density and GDP? Are busy sidewalks good for wage growth? Just as West used fractal geometry to explain the scaling equations of life, the scientists want to understand the generic social mechanics that make urban life possible.

The elegance of this new urban science is that it reveals how these different ways of looking at a city are just incomplete glances of the same underlying dynamic. Like a living organism, the city emerges from the complex interplay of its parts. When people come together in a place that lets them interact, they create an entirely new form of life.

Originally published July 1, 2007

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