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Cities as Opportunity and Threat


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This brief is a result of a January 30, 2012 program with Dr. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute. DCFR explored the prospects for cities as growth engines and how to think about their development going forward.

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Cities as Opportunity and Threat

  1. 1. ‘‘ Global Themes an issues brief series of the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations DCFR Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations Issue No. 5 February 13, 2012 Cities as opportunity and threat An Interview with Geoffrey West, Professor of the Santa Fe Institute “After all, what’s the whole point of cities? The point of cities is to bring Introduction people together—to interact and create new things; it’s a facilitator. The Dallas’ metropolitan GDP is infrastructure is actually a facilitator for human interactions. As a facilitator, roughly the size of Argentina’s it would be sensitive to the dynamics of that social network.” economy. The GDP of New York is a few hundred billion dollars resources. This story is much dominated by economies of scale less than Canada’s. Chicago is deeper and complex. What is the or “sublinear scaling.” In contrast, likened to Switzerland, and so on, impact of innovation, knowledge the social networks that underlie according to an Atlantic article. sharing, and how people behave the “superlinear scaling” of wealth The growth of cities is somewhat to threats and opportunities? How creation, innovation, crime, and predictable according to Professor fast is life in the city moving? pollution behave in exactly the Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe opposite fashion: The bigger City size and scaling the organization, the faster the Institute. When West first analyzed the economic productivity of pace of life. In big cities, disease When the size of a city doubles, American cities, he and fellow spreads more quickly, business on average, wages, wealth, researchers found that cities is transacted more rapidly, the number of patents, and become more efficient as they and people walk faster — all the number of educational grow. in approximately the same and research institutions all systematic, predictable way (the increase by approximately the The expansion of cities leads same ~15 percent rule).” from Seed same degree, about 15 percent, to expanding economies. Ever- magazine, “Urban Paradox” by Geoffrey according to research by Dr. West increasing urban growth is West, 2/2/2009. and co-authors. This systematic capturing the imaginations of phenomenon is called “superlinear academia and government. In scaling.” The larger the city, the Dr. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute early 2009, the White House more the average citizen owns, presented his work on cities at DCFR on established the first Office of produces, and consumes, in terms January 30, 2012. This interview followed Urban Affairs. There is much his presentation. The program on cities of goods, resources, or ideas. that policymakers, firms and and growth is part of Series “D,” focusing planners can learn from the laws ... “The resource and energy on development issues. His colleagues that govern the growth of cities. networks that have evolved to Luis Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Debbie But the expansion of cities creates Strumsky and Dirk Helbing are also part sustain biological organisms of the team discovering ground-breaking a tension between growth and and ecosystems are primarily theory about cities. 4925 Greenville Ave, Suite 1025 | Dallas, Texas 75206 | 214.750.1271 |
  2. 2. 2Jennifer Warren: What has been arbitrary. If you’re planning in outrageous. After all, what’s thethe most striking revelation about a city context or want to change whole point of cities? The point ofyour work that sought insight into some aspect, then you better cities is to bring people together—the urbanization phenomenon of know about the characteristics to interact and create new things;the 21st century? of cities, their benchmarks, if it’s a facilitator. The infrastructure you will. There is an underlying is actually a facilitator for humanGeoffrey West: One of the most dynamic happening in cities that is interactions. As a facilitator, itstriking revelations of the research independent of what we’re doing. would be sensitive to the dynamicsis the scaling properties. Cities feel of that social network. It was aso individual. When you observe JW: Did the doubling of a wonderful process as those ideascities in a physical way, each one city’s population and the 15% started to gestate.feels different, for good or bad. productivity boost that resultsActually I was less surprised at the surprise you? This is more similarinfrastructure findings, such as gas to a return on investment than onestations and the length of roads, might think.because that was a biologicalmanifestation. I thought that GW: Yes, it didwould probably scale. As findings surprise me. I justemerged, many socioeconomic assumed everythingquantities (innovation, wealth, was going to scalecrime, pollution) started to scale: in a manner similarThey all scaled in the same way to infrastructure. If Iacross the globe. That was quite had thought about ita striking revelation. Literally from an economicsthere was something “universal” viewpoint, I wouldhappening. not have been surprised. TheA realization arose. This comes existence of thisfrom my translation of Jane universal qualityJacobs who wrote “The Death in the scaling wasand Life of Great American extremely salient.Cities” in 1961. The idea is that The savings on the economies Innovation and changecities are complex systems whose of scale on infrastructure is theinfrastructural, economic and same 15% that you gain on the Over time scales that aresocial components are strongly socioeconomic fronts: That is the enormous compared with humaninterrelated and therefore difficult key. social time scales, biologicalto understand in isolation. Cities systems are relatively stable andare not the buildings, the roads, The infrastructure—the buildings, sustainable, with major changesthe companies, and the rest of it. roads and power plants— taking place over thousandsThey are the people. hold a key. The infrastructure or millions of years. In social networks are, curiously, a organizations where growth isEven if this work doesn’t succeed physical manifestation of social driven by superlinear scaling,in providing a kind of “theory” networks. This I find unbelievable: growth is unbounded, neverof cities (though hopeful it will), a physical manifestation of reaching a stable state, andthe work in itself is sufficiently something that isn’t physical. proceeding at a rate that is fasterinteresting and intriguing because When you think about these than exponential. To sustainit reveals that things aren’t subtleties however, it is not so such growth in light of resource
  3. 3. 3limitations requires continuous “With respect to cities, even if we want to change the future, we haven’t left ourselvescycles of paradigm-shifting enough time. This is a real problem and the challenge. Incidentally, we should haveinnovations such as the discovery been thinking about the drivers underlying cities 50 to 75 years ago.”of iron, steam, computation, andmost recently, digital technology... and innovations was larger than about the need for retraining, toThere is, however, a serious catch: a typical productive lifespan. learn new skills and how to useTheory dictates that the time With 19th century innovations, new technologies. We all feelbetween successive innovations one often thinks of the coal era this pressure. In these equationsmust get shorter and shorter. and the movements it facilitated. suggested by the research, changeSo if we insist on continuous I was born in 1940, and grew has to become faster and faster. Asgrowth driven by wealth creation, up assuming alongside others, I said earlier, I am pessimistic that that all the major this can be sustained. The United Kingdom doubled real per capita GDP from innovations With respect to cities, even if we $1,300 to $2,600 in PPP terms in 154 years, from 1700 and support want to change the future, we to 1854. Starting 120 years later, the U.S. achieved systems were fixed. Relatively haven’t left ourselves enough this feat in 53 years (1820 - 1973). In first half of the time. This is a real problem and 20th century, Japan doubled its real per capita income speaking, they were the challenge. Incidentally, we in 33 years with a population of around 50 million. Now until twenty-odd should have been thinking about China and India, with a combined population of more years ago with computers. It was a the drivers underlying cities 50 2.5 billion, are doubling real per capita incomes every to 75 years ago. In the ‘60s and 12 and 16 years, respectively. This is about ten times major shift. Since then, there has been ‘70s, there was an awareness the speed at which the United Kingdom achieved this of these connections with the transformation—and on around 200 times the scale. another shift into IT (information Club of Rome ‘limits of growth’ Source: 2011 McKinsey Resource Revolution. concept and the ‘population bomb’ technology), which is based discourse. These thinkers were on using that computernot only does the pace of life technology to find new andinevitably quicken, but we must different ways to operate.also innovate at a faster andfaster rate! (from Seed magazine, Previously the time between“Urban Paradox” by Geoffrey innovations was thousandsWest, 2/2/2009) of years, to then hundreds of years, to perhaps aJW: Given the speed with which shortened period of 20 to 25innovation and change now years. Simultaneously, theoccurs, in cases one generation productive human life spanand less, is this sustainable? Will has increased dramatically.there be a breaking point for urban Instead of working agrowth and its city dwellers? productive lifespan of 35 to 40 years, one could workGW: There is an accelerating 50 years or more. We’vepace of life and quickened had these two phenomenarate of innovation. This is an driving change, and it’simportant issue to recognize and dramatic. Life has never hadan extraordinarily interesting this dichotomy. This is goingpoint. Until the end of the last to produce all manner ofhalf of the 20th century, the time interesting social stress. Wescale between major changes hear the often-cited platitude
  4. 4. 4 February 13, 2012totally dismissed because, rightly, The world’s new middle-class GW: That’s exactly the way onepeople said that ‘we innovate.’ consumers are likely to have should be thinking and one shouldOf course we do. We continue more resource-efficient levels of be building green infrastructuresto discover resources. Societies consumption than past consumers right now. I was pleased to hearcan innovate, but it has to happen with the same level of income, DCFR member-sponsor Markfaster and faster. We haven’t thanks to technology. Cities Humphreys say that the buildingsallowed ourselves enough time to with populations of 150,000 to they now design and constructmake the social and psychological 10,000,000 in emerging markets have allowances for electric cars.changes to adapt to an effective deliver nearly 40% of globalno-growth kind of situation. growth by 2025— with their Demography prospective resource footprints in JW: Given that population size the hands of city leadership. distribution is stable across Urban infrastructure demand The global population was forecast to countries and time, how does will grow tremendously. demography play a role in your stabilize at around 9 billion in the middle Current choices can make theory? of the century, mainly due to education, a difference in resource the economic empowerment of women demand and supply curves, GW: The world population is and urbanization. However, the world’s for better or worse. still increasing at an exponential population will keep growing and may hit JW: Given resource rate. While the rate of change limitations and urban centers is declining, the rate itself is 10.1 billion by the year 2100, the United as heavy polluters, shouldn’t still exponential (relative to the Nations projected in a report released numbers). This is why we will the greening and enhanced May 2011. Two-thirds of the 9 billion of efficiency of cities be a likely have ten billion people by 2050 are expected to live in cities. priority? Governments cannot 2050. There was a nine billion seem to implement policy figure, which I thought was on a national level very well. totally low, and now analysts Are cities not the perfect come back to ten billion again.Sustainability Petri dish of sustainability? That’s a 50% increase in 40 years, which is extraordinary. AlmostDemand from the new middle GW: There are bits and pieces all of the growth is in developingclasses will trigger a dramatic happening everywhere regarding countries— the Middle East, Latinexpansion in global urban sustainability. But remember that America, and India, for example.infrastructure, particularly in change can take decades in cities.developing economies. According It’s going to take a long McKinsey’s “ResourceRevolution” report, China could JW: That’sadd floor space totaling 2.5 why greenertimes the entire residential and and morecommercial square footage of the efficientcity of Chicago every year. India infrastructurecould follow suit. Today’s 1.8 is a big dealmillion middle class consumers because youwill grow to 4.8 billion by 2030, build a powerlargely owing to growth in China plant for 30and India. Said another way, three to 50 years.billion middle-class consumerswill be added to the globaleconomy.
  5. 5. 5Given the interconnectivity Victorian statue in a beautiful exponential rise and frequencyof the world, populations are garden. The article cited the trend with which it is happening. Thispredominantly moving to cities. of people stealing statues. Many is tiny on a scale but it’s the tipThis has an enormous impact municipalities and fancy country of this iceberg. Finite resources,on resources. As I said at the homes are replacing them with population increases and fastbeginning, this is going to have plastic facsimiles. Why are they change can lead to incrediblya profound effect on us. I saw being stolen? Not for the art—but disruptive social article in the London Times, for the metal to send to China forwith a picture of a 19th century building. There was a graph of this trend’s Global demand grows... From 2010 to 2030 GDP 89% Primary energy 33% Steel 80% Food (cereals) 27% Water 41% Source: McKinsey Resource Revolution The Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues. The views ex- pressed and facts presented in DCFR publications are the responsibility of the author or authors. GeoEdge BLOG For additional information about DCFR, please visit our website at Exploring the frontlines of foreign affairs Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations is a non-profit organization focused on explor- ing leading-edge developments in foreign affairs. Our mission is to promote knowledge of global affairs and a better understanding of the people and events impacting impor- tant policy choices of the future.For more information contact:Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations4925 Greenville Ave, Suite 1025 Dallas, Texas 214.750.1271