Math Rock

On stage at TEDGlobal 2011, Geoffrey West talked about the universal mathematics that govern cities. Knowing only the population of a given city, he can predict the number of patents held there, the city’s crime rate, even pedestrians’ average walking speed, plus much more. Before the conference, West talked to TED about how this concept is connected to his previous research in biology, and how it might be extended to corporations and conferences.

You’ve done a lot of work on finding universal laws in biology and other subjects. Should I be surprised that there actually are such universal laws?

Yes, I think you should. After all, we believe in natural selection and the Darwinian process. That means that each organism, each component of an organism, each organ of a mammal, even each cell type, each mitochondria, and each gene has evolved with its own unique history and its own environmental niche, so to speak.

You wouldn’t expect very significant regularities if you took the view that everything was determined purely by some kind of random interactive process. Quite the contrary. What you see is an extraordinary regularity, which implies that there are a whole bunch of constraints that are in play during natural selection.

So natural selection is operating within a set of constraints, and maybe those constraints are stronger than we previously thought?

Yes, I think that’s true. If you go back and read On the Origin of Species, Darwin makes remarks to this effect at a couple of points—there are all kinds of other things that are at play, implying that there’s physics and chemistry as well. The viewpoint that I take is that in some ways an emerging property from natural selection would be these kinds of constraints. Some of them are external, but they really come out of natural selection because, at least in the work I’ve been involved in, the constraints are the properties. These regularities are a reflection of the network systems that sustain life at all scales, whether intracellularly or within you and me or in ecosystems or within a city, for that matter. You could not have evolved a complex system like a city or an organism—with an enormous number of components—without the emergence of laws that constrain their behavior in order for them to be resilient.

That ties in with a fascinating observation of yours: When you look at cities, very few have failed or “died.”

Yes! The two questions that motivate me in this part of the work are, “Are cities—and companies, for that matter—just an extension of biology?” In what way do cities and companies behave as if they are all organisms? And, “In what way is there some new kind of dynamic, new kind of system evolved after man and woman started talking to one another, and developed language?” But then a subsidiary question to that is the one that you raised: “If that’s the case, how come cities never seem to die?” It’s very hard to kill [a city]. We know classic cases, of course, but of the millions of communities that have grown on the planet, almost all of them are still with us. My classic example is that you can drop an atom bomb on a city and 30-40 years later it’ll be thriving. It’s unbelievable. If you drop the equivalent of an atom bomb on Google, it will be dead, for sure.

You base much of this work on your analysis of the behavior of networks. Is this something you can apply to just about anything that’s networked, say large international conferences or something like that?

Oh you could, absolutely. The worked I’ve been involved in, of course, has been biology and from intracellular levels up to ecosystems—you know, forests, and so on—and now cities, and that’s clearly networked. It is networked in a much more subtle way. There are the obvious networks of the roads and electrical lines and all the rest. But really what’s driving a city is the virtual network: the social interactions, the way individuals interact in clusters, and interact with each other. So it’s kind of a network system. But you could expand that to things like NGOs or conferences like TED—all the various gatherings like this. It’s obvious there are a bunch of common features because they are a network of people. There are people interacting and there’s universality to the way people interact—no matter where you are in the world.

Geoffrey West is a theorist, physicist, and former president of the Sante Fe Institute. He was a TEDGlobal 2011 speaker. Ben Lillie is a member of TED.com’s editorial team.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson / Courtesy of TED

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