I first read about the work of Geoffrey West on “superlinear scaling” in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. West is a British theoretical physicist, former president and distinguished professor of the Santa Fe Institute. His long-term fascination in scaling phenomena led him to look for universal scaling laws that pervade not only biology, from the molecular genomic scale up to whole organisms and ecosystems, but also social structures, in particular cities and companies.
Just yesterday I was glued to my laptop screen for 52 minutes, listening to West’s fascinating monologue on the underlying principles that govern biological, urban, and business growth. His talk from Edge magazine is truly captivating, delivering a convincing framework for universal scaling. Here are two short passages by West:
I think this is very much science of the 21st century, because it is the kind of problem that scientists have ignored. It is under the umbrella of a complex adaptive system and we need to come to terms with understanding the structure and dynamics and organization of such systems because they’re the ones that determine our lives and our extraordinary phenomenon that we have developed on this planet.
[Cities] are the origin of the problems, but they are the origin of the solutions. And we need to come to terms with that, and we need to understand how cities work in a more scientific framework, meaning to what extent can we make it into a quantitative predictive, mathematizible kind of science.