Cities, companies, and innovation – Prologue

It’s rather rare that I’m immediately fascinated when I hear about an idea for the first time, but Geoffrey West’s 2011 TED talk about The surprising math of cities and corporations really stunned me. A theoretical physicist and former president of the Santa Fe Institute, West’s quest is for a genuine science of cities, based on universal principles, with quantifiable results; he is looking for a unifying theory that allows for predictions about any city’s development and growth patterns.

That seriously ambitious endeavour triggered my appetite. Digging a little further, I found interviews he gave in the New York Times and on, as well as lectures he held on or the Transition2015 conference: all of those reveal the genesis of his thinking. And that is even broader then I thought at first glance.

West spent a significant part of his career in theoretical physics: you might say that is a world of rather orderly systems. Physicists apply their methodological rigour to develop grand theories about the essence of the world, what holds it together and keeps it going. To be fully accepted these theories must deliver not just explanations for and descriptions of the past, they must yield quantifiable results that have predictive power into the future.

With such background and experience, West became interested in complex adaptive systems in the 1990s. He wanted to find out whether the methods and tools established in physics could actually be employed with any success in other spheres? Like biological systems, animals, plants? Or even social systems, human-made systems like cities or companies? That’s what West and his numerous collaborators (including Luis Bettencourt, José Lobo, Deborah Strumsky, to name but a few) set out to investigate systematically, based on the data available from the specific field, and applying the tools of physics.

Especially the work on social systems is full of hints at innovation, so I got hooked right away. Therefore, over the course of the next few posts, I’ll explore Geoffrey West’s ideas further. Replicating the sequence of his investigations, I’ll begin with biological systems before I tackle social systems, cities first and then companies. Building on that basis, I will dive into his fascinating observations on innovation in cities and companies.

There are a few counterintuitive surprises in his observations. And I hope you’ll draw as much inspiration from those findings as I did.


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