Geoffrey West on Biological and Urban Allometry

Santa Fe Institute physicist Geoffrey West giving a talk about the allometry (scaling rules) of animals, organizations and cities (his work has been on resilience science before) – based on his great work with ecologists James Brown and Brian Enquist.

In an interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, West was asked “Was studying the networks within organisms what led you to study networks between organisms, ie cities?  West replied:

Exactly. It’s obvious that a city, or even a company, has network structure. Not even at the social level, just at the physical level, a city has roads and gas stations and pipelines, which are networks. But it also has something more abstract and, in some cases, something more sophisticated than in biology. And that is networks of social interactions, which are where things like information and knowledge are being translated.

If you go back to biology, another way of saying it is that—let’s just think of mammals. The fact that the whale is in the ocean and the elephant has a big trunk and the giraffe has a long neck and we walk on two feet and the mouse scurries around, these are all superficial characteristics. And in terms of their functionality, their physiological design, their organization, their life history, the essence of what they are, they’re actually all scaled versions of one another. We are, at some 90 percent level, just a scaled-up mouse. And the question is, is that true of cities? Is New York just a scaled-up San Francisco, which is a scaled-up Boise, which is a scaled-up Santa Fe, even though they look completely different?

So what we did is look at all this data, everything from number of gas stations to length of electrical cables to number of patents they produce to number of police and crimes and spread of AIDS disease and wages, everything you could lay your hands on, and ask, ‘If you look at those functions of city size (population), is there some systematic progression?’ And to our amazement, actually, there is. So, in some average way, Santa Fe is a scaled-down New York City.

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