Monday, January 31, 2011

Solving the city with math?

Photo: Vincent Laforest, NY TImes 
Solving city problems: math or hard work?

Click your heels - solve the city! If only math solved our problems so simply. The TV program Numbers will have us believe it is possible.

I just read a fascinating story in the New York Times magazine (December 17, 2010) about Geoffrey West, a retired physicist - "A Physicist Solves the City."

Every now and then a thinker from one field jumps into another. Sometimes the field-jumper creates new genius, such as Gavin Menzies the ex-submarine commander who posed a new history of how the European Renaissance was ignited by a Chinese fleet in his best-seller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002).

Other times the field-jumper creates Frankenstein. Such is case with ex-lawyer and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant who wrote The Passing of the Great White Race (1916) to explain white racial superiority. Hitler based Mein Kampf on that pseudo-scientific nonsense.

It's too early to tell which version emerges in Solving the City. Ex-physicists West and Luis Bettencourt apply a mathematics known as “superlinear scaling,” to explain patterns in large cities. Superlinear scaling is not dissimilar to threshold theory in criminology that we proposed in 1994 to predict tipping points in crime areas.

“What we found are the constants that describe every city,” says West. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes… I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it."

West sees cities as a sprawling, uncontrollable organism (though apparently, a predictable one. A fascinating paradox unanswered in the Times story).

The City - An urban ecosystem

West joins a long line of urban thinkers who express the belief that cities are a kind of urban ecosystem, thinkers such as Jane Jacobs and Amos Hawley.

Human ecology is, incidentally, the same theoretical proposition on which SafeGrowth is based.

Solving the puzzle of how cities "work" with the mathematics of superlinear scaling sounds simplistic and naive. Then again, my favorite West quote makes me think he may be on to something:

“Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”

That's the same thing Richard Florida suggests through his "creative class".

Read the article on West HERE.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

In the distant future I think we could be able to predict individual and mass human behavior, but we are a long way from  that point. I am sure that going back 50 years no one would have believed that we would be predicting the weather based on all the dynamics involved but we have done so with progressive accuracy due to the collation of data over many years for trending combined with the scientific properties of nature.  
Humans are biological machines which presents the likelihood that behaviors can be predicted. But at what price? And if you can predict the behavior of one you should be able to then predict the behaviors of many. As with the weather it will involve trending over many decades reflecting the various dynamics evolving of out countless environments and then the scientific characteristics of the human biological machine itself.  
There would be a significant price to pay for this type of  accurate measurement. Do we as humans for the sole purpose of predicting individual and mass behavior want to subject ourselves to 24 X7 monitoring for this purpose.
Sometimes it is the random behavior of individuals and masses that makes life interesting.  If we as a race could predict with a reasonable level of accuracy the behavior of individuals and masses how boring that would be. I prefer the random gathering of many dynamic individuals forming a force with a common purpose that results in a better quality of life for others!!!! 
Some of the most creative human beings on record have lived with various degrees of human frailties that in someway probably shaped their creative gifts.

Greg Mills

GSaville said...

Excellent points, Greg. I couldn't have said it better!

I've just read Friedman's "The Next 100 Years" and Smith's "The World in 2050", futurists both. The former sees the world through geo-political and economic eyes and the latter through demographic and environmental eyes. It is remarkable how different they paint our future world.

When West et al bring the physicist's eye to the future of the city, I can only conclude their stories will be equally one-sided and wrong. As you note, humans are complex and unpredictable: "Many dynamic individuals forming a force with a common purpose that results in a better quality of life for others"...

That's the best vision for the future I've seen in awhile.