Policy by the Numbers
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Meeting the challenge of our growing urban population
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Urban populations are currently increasing by more than one million people every week, and will continue to do so every week until 2050. Figuring out how to meet the needs of this massive influx of people is a major challenge of our time. Physicist Geoffrey West argues that cities are networks of people, and that scaling such a network requires analyzing universal mathematical frameworks that demonstrate how networks of life generally scale. Check out his fascinating TED talk, where he explains the formulas in plain-speak:
West observes that as organisms double in size, they only need 75 percent more energy to be sustained, so the pace of life
as animals get bigger, meaning there is an economy of scale. Meanwhile, as cities double, the pace of life
. As a community, people produce 15 percent more income, crime, patents, AIDS cases and so-on, irrespective of differences in location or culture.
If biology says that we’re multiplying more quickly than we can scale, how do we prevent system overload?
The answer is some innovative discovery, like the steam engine or the Internet, that transforms our way of life. Each time we approach a collapse, some major innovation saves the day, resetting how our networks function. The catch, West says, is that as cities grow more quickly, innovation must accelerate. For policymakers, this means that fostering innovation isn’t just about getting ahead—it’s about survival.
Even with continuous innovations that keep urban populations going, West asks how we might avoid a “heart attack” after forcibly accelerating on a continual basis for an extended period of time. Futurist Paul Saffo
that we often focus on the inflection point of an “S” curve—when the innovation takes off—rather than on the “inevitable precursors” that facilitate environments for world-changing events. Maybe if governments studied these instances and developed innovation-inducing policies accordingly, we’d be able trump the laws of biology for good.
Let us know what you think in the comments. Can West’s observation plausibly explain how we’ve transitioned from feudalism to capitalism or from an industrial to information society?
posted by Dorothy Chou, Senior Policy Analyst at Google
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