SCALE.01: Complex systems, and the city’s role in bringing people together

Recommended book (+ chapters)

I feel like the Geoffrey West’s Scale was made for me — a single place to investigate ideas of infrastructure, science, the growth of companies, and collaboration. Which actually should be a glaring red flag to self, a silent hiss and jab to the ribs of “Don’t immediately like this book just because you think you should.”

Luckily, after reading, I think my appreciation for this book still holds true. I like its narrative style and its ability to bring together ideas from the periphery. I’ll dive into other chapters and concepts in future posts, but I’ll start now with two foundational ones. (1) Our society needs a “science of complex adaptive systems,” and (2) Cities are the people within them, not just the walls, roads, and lights we typically think of.

[1] A collective push in complex systems. As West defines, “a universal characteristic of a complex system is that the whole is greater than, and often significantly different from, the simple linear sum of its parts.” He says we should “be wary of naively breaking the system down into independently acting component parts,” as we so eagerly do. Rather than entrenched stovepipe efforts, West calls for a greater, more collective effort to investigate complex systems, akin to an interdisciplinary urban ops. (This is similar to the mission of the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a professor.)

TIP: See Richard Hamming’s The Art of Doing Science and Engineering (ch 28) for a beautiful way of describing this systems approach.

[2] Cities are built for the collaboration of people. “It is shortsighted and even courting disaster to ignore this critical dimension of urbanization and concentrate only on buildings and infrastructure,” according to West. This is another important reminder to self. As one fascinated by the settling ponds and lattice work of structure, it’s important to remember that we built and continue to build for a larger, more anthropological purpose.

More to come on how these concepts morph into other ideas.


Scale

Author: Geoffrey West

Chapters: The Big Picture; A Prelude to a Science of Cities

Note: I first heard Geoffrey West’s research into scale — across organisms, cities, and companies — as a podcast. The book version is the superior version.

EXCERPTS:

We urgently need a science of complex adaptive systems to address the host of extraordinarily challenging societal problems we face.
A typical complex system is composed of myriad individual constituents or agents that once aggregated take on collective characteristics that are usually not manifested in, nor could easily be predicted from, the properties of the individual components themselves.
The economic output, the buzz, the creativity and culture of a city or a company all result from the nonlinear nature of the multiple feedback mechanisms embodied in the interactions between its inhabitants, their infrastructure, and the environment.

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This may seem obvious, but the emphasis of those who think about cities, such as planners, architects, economists, politicians, and policy makers, is primarily focused on their physicality rather than on the people who inhabit them and how they interact with one another. It is all too often forgotten that the whole point of a city is to bring people together, to facilitate interaction, and thereby to create ideas and wealth, to enhance innovative thinking and encourage entrepreneurship and cultural activity by taking advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that the diversity of a great city offers.