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Cities: The Single Most Important Invention in Human History

Cities are not only the “real” centers of sustainability, but also the hubs of economic growth and perhaps most important the engines of innovation that allow for this continued economic growth. According to physicist-turned-urban-researcher Geoffrey West in an interview in this week’s New York Times Magazine, cities abide by the rules of “superlinear scaling.” Basically, when people come together, they become much more productive and this attracts more people who also become more productive, and so on. West finds that “whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same.”

 

West goes on to call cities “the single most important inventions in human history. The idea that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity.” And in fact to sustain this superlinear growth, cities must be centers of constant innovation.  When one resource runs out due to the ever-growing consumption to fuel growth, we are forced to find and exploit a new resource.

 

He finds a stark contrast between cities and corporations. “Corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks.” West believes this is due to the top-down nature of corporations, while cities, for the most part, are “unruly.”

 

“Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”

More on his work can also be heard in this Smart City Radio interview.

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