Sunday, June 25, 2017

Early Indications June 2017 Review essay: Scale by Geoffrey West

Review Essay: Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

Why are things the size they are? That is, why can’t a mammal be as small as an ant? Why are cities, social and kinship networks, and elephants not 100 times their current sizes? Why are school districts, park districts, policing areas, statistical metropolises, and counties sized a) as they are and b) not consistently or uniformly? Finally, why and when do things stop growing and when do they die?

Geoffrey West trained as a theoretical physicist, migrated into biology, and then pursued network analysis of things, people, and places. Scale is a great book: West is asking important questions, at a broad scale, in almost complete opposition to current academic tendencies toward hyper-specialization. Further, the answers to the questions are not of arcane interest, as one would expect from a theoretical physicist. Instead, a parent who today gives birth to an infant who will likely have a life expectancy of about 100 years (given some early breaks in the right direction) should be asking the same ones on behalf of the newborn:

-Where does planetary population doubling each its limit?
-How fast will humans run out of critical natural resources, whether water, titanium, or animal protein?
-Will science crack the code of human aging?

For all the potency of West’s big questions, he brings plenty of fascinating new answers to this book. Indeed, the science of scaling has advanced extremely rapidly in just 20 years or so, providing tantalizing insights into the essential nature of many natural and human-made phenomena alike. All mammals have a life span of about the same number of heartbeats. The network structure of tree branches and the human aorta share mathematical proportions and relationships. Similarly, the networks underlying biology and urban infrastructure such as electricity and plumbing are uncannily similar, down to their exponent. The book is full of such causes for wonder.

The book’s chapter on the “science” of companies was for me the weakest link. As West states, streets and sewers don’t make cities: people do. Thus he wonders why cities don’t “die” the way whales or companies do, but companies aren’t organic: they are humanly created entities designed to fit within tax codes, government regulations, artificial geographic boundaries, and other constraints. Imagine one nation that requires companies to pay dividends to shareholders, for example. A second country that allows Amazon-like reinvestment of profits will give rise to very different business practices and structures. Change a parameter like differential voting rights of shares (as at Google/Alphabet), taxation of offshore profits (as at Apple), or capital requirements (JP Morgan), and once again, the “metabolism” of the corporate body will change markedly. Given the extensive and malleable artifices within which they operate, to liken a company to an organic life form is a quest with limited utility.

The material on cities, however, is compelling and original, at least to me (an admitted non-student of urbanist scholarship). I hadn’t realized the sheer velocity of global migration to cities, for one thing: over the next 35 years, he asserts, 1.5 million people will be urbanized every week. The other stunning discovery, to me, was that the increasing size of cities scales reliably with the speed of city life. That is, spatial density changes the experience of time. Finally, the analytics behind a predictive model that addresses such variables as crime, patent creation, and disease as a function of population are thoroughly impressive. This model gains some of its power by drawing on the literature of complex adaptive systems, as befits a senior member of the Santa Fe Institute: cities and bacteria are remarkably similar fractal structures, for example, as are flow rate maps of trucks from central distribution hubs and cardiovascular arteries. Similarly, West’s analysis of cities by their “metabolism” (energy use) is enlightening and concerning.

West did not write Scale to be beach reading, or to generate buzzwords with a half-life of a few months. Rather, the scaling of the planet will require more and more frequent game-changing innovations that reset the field of play (life is speeding up, remember?). The printing press and the steam engine were introduced about 300 years apart; the personal computer and the smartphone hit mass markets about 30 years apart. What will be the next innovation with Internet-sized impact? Given the impending global population increase to 9 billion people, West argues we need something in the next two to three decades, and then another breakthrough about 25 years after that. The relentlessness of superexponential growth curves was well summarized in a puzzle: If we have a bacterium that doubles its volume every minute, and it starts doubling from a single cell at 8:00 am with the goal of filling a 2 liter container by noon, at what point is the vessel half full? The answer is nowhere near 10:00 am but instead 11:59; consider that the vessel will be only 1/32 full at 5 minutes to noon. 

Thus West, in my experience, successfully resets the reader’s worldview, giving the current scattered and underpowered efforts at “sustainability” new urgency. “Continuous growth and the consequent ever-increasing acceleration of the pace of life have profound consequences for the entire planet,” West states in his conclusion. The rate of change “is surely not sustainable, and if nothing changes, we are heading for a major crash” of a sort we’ve never seen before (p. 425). Given the current lack of broad mathematical literacy (West’s book is equation-free but you have to grasp logarithmic scales), however, it’s hard to say who will read this and change his or her mind.

Before I started the book, I was thinking about scale in a different realm: representative democracy. Just as banks grew “too big to fail,” have modern democratic nation-states become too big to govern? Consider the House of Representatives: in 1804, a Congressman represented, on average, about 40,000 people. Today, the average California Congressional delegate represents 677,000 people: an impossible number. Both by objective counts of bills passed and opinion polls, the U.S. Congress is not working for its people. The European Union is hardly a robust counter-example; China is run, to the degree it has its successes, under completely different principles.

Thus the two scale cases reinforce each other in a particularly unfortunate feedback loop. At the time when science needs to be multidisciplinary, multinational, and theoretically rigorous and predictive (in a way the social sciences have rarely ever achieved), we have a system of governance that generally devalues science and scientists, balkanizes constituencies within and across nations, and accelerates rather than decreases energy intensiveness: think of how much energy is used to pump water to Los Angeles, or to cool Phoenix, or to power all the cars in metro New York. At the same time, changing climate means higher water levels, changing crop yield patterns, and new winners (ships that use the North Pole to cut transit time) and losers (many ski resorts are already rebranding as snowfalls decrease and become less predictable). If anything, as urgently and eloquently as he makes his case, West’s concern is understated to the extent that legislative gridlock, remove from constituents, and symbolic agendas render government largely incapable of leading (or even following) the discussion that needs to happen sooner than later.