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Scientists Discover Why Big Cities Create Innovation & Wealth

Dr. Geoffrey West, President and Distinguished Professor of the Santa Fe Institute, recently led a team of scientists from various institutions that has found the key to understand and quantify seemingly contradictory features of urbanization.

(For many, cities are viewed as the principal source of our social and environmental problems such as crime, pollution, poverty and, often, incidence of disease. But cities have also always been disproportionately the birthplaces for most of human prosperity, innovation and culture.)

The team, including Luis Bettencourt of the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jose Lobo from the School of Sustainability of Arizona State University, and Dirk Helbing and Christian Kuehnert from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, detailed their findings in the article "Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities," in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An on-line version of the article was published on April 16, 2007 ( )

Recognized by the Harvard Business Review Breakthrough Ideas for 2007, 2/07) and TIME magazine (2006 100 Most Influential People, 5/06) as a thought leader, West brought ideas to the group from his ground-breaking research combining theoretical physics and biology.

Extending this work into the social realm has long been a dream for West.  Known internationally as a hub for multidisciplinary research and the study of complex systems, the Santa Fe Institute is a natural gathering place for researchers seeking answers to some of the world's most complex and difficult questions.

Drawing from insights from research in biology that revealed the theoretical underpinnings relating the extraordinary similarity in the structure, organization and dynamics of organisms of vastly different sizes from cells to ecosystems, the team analyzed a large number of urban indicators in the USA, China and several European countries, covering measures of economic productivity, innovation, demographics, crime, public health, infrastructure and patterns of human behavior. They discovered that all these quantities follow simple statistical scaling relations with population, predictable changes from small cities to the largest megalopolis.

These mathematical relationships deepen our understanding of life and hold the promise of more such discoveries. Of particular interest is the finding that measures of wealth creation and innovation, increase with size, in such a way that doubling the size of a city increases its economic productivity per person by about 15%. This “universal” behaviour is seen worldwide from China, to Europe, to the USA.

Their results show that all cities share common underlying dynamics and that, on the average, they are scaled versions of one another; despite obvious superficial characteristics, New York, Boston and Santa Fe are to a large extent scaled versions of one another!

The results are particularly relevant at a time where the majority of people worldwide are now living in cities. Yet, urbanization and its consequences remain poorly understood.  “What is fascinating and surprising about our results is that they show that the good things about cities (such as their innovation) and the bad ones (such as crime and the incidence of certain diseases) seem to increase predictably in the same proportion as cities become larger,” Bettencourt said. “Faster and faster rates of per capita growth with larger urban populations means the pace of life increases measurably with city size, as we have all experienced. Cities are social accelerators.”

The researchers showed that city growth driven by wealth creation increases at a rate that is faster than exponential; the only way to avoid collapse as a population outstrips the finite resources available to it is through constant cycles of innovation. These effectively re-engineer the initial conditions of growth. But the greater the absolute population, the smaller the relative return on each such investment - new ideas must come ever faster. Thus, the bigger the city, the faster life is; but the rate at which life gets faster must itself accelerate to maintain the city as a growing concern so much so that to maintain growth, major innovations must now occur on time-scales that are significantly shorter than a human lifespan.

“In this crucial sense cities are completely different from biological organisms, which slow down with size; their relative metabolism, growth rates, heart rates, and even rates of innovation -- their evolutionary rates systematically and predictably decrease with organismal size,” West said. “Several thousand years ago the evolution of social organizations in the form of cities brought a new dynamic to the planet that seems to be uniquely human: People actually do walk on average faster in larger cities whereas heart rates decrease as animal size increases.” With the city, it seems, mankind has created an “organism” operating beyond the bounds of biology.

West, 65, is a former Stanford University faculty member and led the particle theory group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. An active scientist, he is a Senior Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and was appointed President of the Santa Fe Institute in 2005.

The Santa Fe Institute (SFI) is an acknowledged leader in multidisciplinary scientific research. Its objectives are to discover and understand the common fundamental principles in physical, computational, biological, and social complex systems that underlie many of the most profound issues facing science and society today. SFI is an independent non-profit research and education center supported by grants, charitable giving, and corporate relationships.

For more information on the Santa Fe Institute see: