Insights from Scale, by Geoffrey West

To sustain open-ended growth in light of resource limitation requires continuous cycles of paradigm-shifting innovations.

Geoffrey West

I recently finished reading this book (official title is Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies, whew!) published in 2017. Somehow, I missed it when it first came out; I found a reference to it in something else I was reading. West is a former President of the Santa Fe Institute and a distinguished nuclear physicist – in spite of that his book is relatively easy reading.

The general basis of the book is that there are properties of cities that scale in certain ways with population. In general, infrastructure scales sublinearly with population. As an example, if we graphed miles of roads vs population of cities from around the world we’d get a line that would curve down from a straight line. In other words, the larger the city the fewer miles of road per person (Mathematically, road miles scales with population raised to the ~0.85 power, 1 being linear).

However, some properties do scale linearly with population. For example, “the total number of establishments in each city regardless of what business they conduct turns out to be linearly proportional to its population size. Double the size of a city and on average you’ll find twice as many businesses. The proportionality constant is 21.6, meaning that there is approximately one establishment for about every 22 people in a city, regardless of the city size. Similarly, the data also show that the total number of employees working in these establishments also scales approximately linearly with population size: on average, there are only about 8 employees for every establishment, again regardless of the size of the city.

On the other hand, socioeconomic properties scale superlinearly (curve up from a straight line, with exponent ~1.15). “The larger the city, the higher the wages, the greater the GDP, the more crime, the more cases of AIDS and flu [and covid, as we saw during the pandemic], the more restaurants, the more patents produced, and so on, all following the “15 percent rule” on a per capita basis in urban systems across the globe.” Both what’s good and what’s bad about cities, in one mathematical relation!

This seems to imply that population growth leads to socio-economic growth indefinitely. But, as West points out, growth can’t go on indefinitely. Similar to Moore’s Law for computer chips (doubling in power every two years), eventually you come up against some physical limitation that slows down growth. Unlimited growth inevitably leads to collapse…unless…

And that leads to what I see as the most important reason to read the book: West’s insights on growth, innovation and change. Innovation leading to positive change can enable continued growth. Thus, West posits a sort of symbiotic relationship among the three.

Change and, by implication, innovation, must occur in order to continue growing and avoid collapse. Growth and the continual need to be adapting to the challenges of new or changing environments, often in the form of “improvement” or increasing efficiency, are major drivers of innovation.

He also has a valuable insight about the rate of transformation. He points out that communities trying to fundamentally change and rise above their peers must temper their desire with the knowledge that positive transformation can be a very slow process. “Perhaps the most salient feature is how relatively slowly fundamental change actually occurs. Cities that were overperforming in the 1960s, such as Bridgeport and San Jose, tend to remain rich and innovative today, whereas cities that were underperforming in the 1960s, such as Brownsville, are still near the bottom of the rankings. So even as the population has increased and the overall GDP and standard of living have risen across the entire urban system, relative individual performance hasn’t changed very much. Roughly speaking, all cities rise and fall together, or to put it bluntly: if a city was doing well in 1960 it’s likely to be doing well now, and if it was crappy then, it’s likely to be crappy still.” This is an interesting sort of echo of the Law of Conservation of Community Momentum.

In the book, West concentrates on the overall trends. However, the real opportunities for fruitful investigation by the rest of us are the outliers to the trends.

What communities have leapfrogged their peers? How have they done it? New Orleans after Katrina seemed to have done this in several areas, e.g., education. But now NOLA seems to be backsliding – reverting to the mean or even worse, especially in violent crime. I think this book is essential reading for those interested in our communities – both for the hidden relationships it reveals and for the food for thought it provides.


I read this appreciation of George Orwell this morning. Well worth your time.
https://www.spiked-online.com/2022/09/17/why-orwell-matters/

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