Learning our scales—or why size really matters

The scale of the global challenges facing mankind will start to grow exponentially after a certain point, writes Volans’ John Elkington. To come up with the solutions for them, we will need to understand how our cities consume and develop.

Model of the alien mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
A model of the alien mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Will the severity of global challenges or the ingenuity of human solutions go exponential first? This will determine the fate of the planet. Image: Ryan Somma,CC BY-SA 2.0

Do you recall the sequence in Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind where frantic scientists run up and down the scales on some sort of giant synthesiser, hoping for a communications breakthrough with aliens hovering like gods over Wyoming?

I do. Indeed, I’ve often thought of that sequence as I tried to get business leaders talking to the outside world—whether the outsiders have variously been environmental activists like Greenpeace, social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus, or the kind of exponential innovators you find in places like Google’s X facility, the X Prize Foundation or Singularity University.

In fact much of my recent frustration with the sustainability sector has reflected a sense that, despite real progress in some areas, those anchored in today’s market realities and those exploring tomorrow’s sustainability challenges often talk past each other—without realising they are doing so.

Reading Geoffrey West’s paradigm-shifting book, “Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies”, reminded me of the moment when the humans (or machine intelligences) cracked the code in Close Encounters—and the exchange of information with the aliens began to go exponential. That’s the prospect West heralds, though the alignment here will not be between humans and aliens but between present and future generations.

A theoretical physicist and former president of the fabled Santa Fe Institute, West has produced a definitive text for anyone working at the interface between business and society

Here are just a few of the key messages. If you plot the metabolic rates of animals, from mice to elephants, the results cluster tightly around an exponential trajectory. The same thing happens if you plot the number of heartbeats in an animal’s lifetime, from a hamster to a whale, with an eerily steady average number of heartbeats across species. And then the same sort of thing happens if you plot key characteristics of companies or cities. Indeed, you can take almost any measurable characteristic of animals, plants, ecosystems, cities or companies and show how it predictably scales with size.

West’s work suggests that we may be closing in on a critical breakthrough, involving the development of a robust science of companies and cities. At a time when I have increasingly soft-pedalled the use of the S-word, West sees the sustainability agenda as central. But he also challenges current mindsets and strategies in this field, underscoring the exponential character of many of the challenges we now face.

He argues that as these problems bite, from climate change through to the loss of soils or biodiversity, so the inadequacy of current solutions will become achingly obvious. At a time when “most politicians, economists, and policy makers take a fairly optimistic view that our ingenuity will triumph,” West is less sure—concluding that “everyone will be affected; there is no hiding place.”

Having spent most of my life focusing on business and markets, but originally trained as a city planner, I felt this book bringing me full circle. West concludes that: “The future of humanity and the long-term sustainability of the planet are inextricably linked to the fate of our cities.”

He explains: “Cities are the crucible of civilisation, the hubs of innovation, the engines of wealth creation and centres of power, the magnets that attract creative individuals, and the stimulant  for ideas, growth and innovation.”

There are also immense downsides to our cities. “They are the prime locus of crime, pollution, poverty, disease, and the consumption of energy and resources,” he points out. And the bigger the city, typically, the greater the crime and disease.

Unlike companies, however, cities tend to be very long-lived. Even though I have walked through the ruins of dead cities in the Middle East and worked in Detroit as that city experienced a near-death experience, most cities outlive generations of inhabitants.

The implication is that we either work out how to produce almost infinite resources to feed our new appetites, or new technologies and major paradigm shifts must “reset the clock before potential collapse occurs”.

Which is where West’s laws of emergence come in. Among the dynamics he explores is the finding that every time the size of a city doubles, its demand for a range of infrastructural investments—for example gas stations or electricity cables—falls by around 15 per cent. Just as doctors have come to understand human metabolisms, so urban planners must begin to probe the deep metabolism of settlements and cities.

Several fascinating sections investigate the increasing “clock speed” of cities, where time itself is accelerating—to the point where their metabolisms, economics and politics are increasingly out of sync with nature and with less urbanised regions.

The implication is that we either work out how to produce almost infinite resources to feed our new appetites, or new technologies and major paradigm shifts must “reset the clock before potential collapse occurs”.

The final words of West’s afterword forecast a continuing acceleration of urban evolution toward “an impending singularity,” the moment where artificial intelligence overtakes our own. The moment where, as I sometimes think of it, we have finally built an ubiquitous, all-knowing God.

West’s last line: “How this plays out will determine much about the sustainability of the planet.” Amen to that.

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