Pardee Distinguished Lecture With Geoffrey West

In delivering the 2013 Frederick S. Pardee Distinguished Lecture on April 4, Prof. Geoffrey West discussed how the rapid pace of urbanization may be creating some extreme challenges, but noted that the same rapid urbanization is also likely to spur the innovative solutions to those issues.

Prof. West, Distinguished Professor and former president of the Santa Fe Institute,  gave the annual Pardee Distinguished Lecture at the Trustee Ballroom. His talk was titled“Growth, Innovation, and the Accelerating Pace of Life from Cells to Cities: Are They Sustainable?” He was invited to deliver this year’s Distinguished Lecture in association with a Pardee Center initiative focusing on The Urban Century.

Prof. West is a theoretical physicist who has spent the past decade looking at whether and how universal scaling laws found in biology can be applied to cities. He and his colleagues have found that cities around the world are comprised of systems that grow, on average, at remarkably similar rates, in the same way that organisms among different species grow in the same general fashion, no matter their ultimate size. This suggests we can project the scale and nature of urban growth rates for the planet.

This work is important because, as he noted, globally people are moving to cities at the rate of 1.5 million people per week, and by mid-century more than 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas.

The current urban growth rate “is equal to a metro Boston every month in terms of infrastructure needs,” he said, adding that in terms of growth rates, “we live in an exponential world.”

Prof. West noted that cities, like biological organisms, cities can experience stable growth rates, much like an adult member of a species. But in contrast to biology — where organisms eventually die and regenerate – cities do not tend to die off and their regeneration depends on  social networks that foster creativity and innovation, helping to avoid what ordinarily would be an ultimate “collapse” of the systems required for continuous growth.

He cautioned, however, that because of the accelerated pace at which social networks operate, over time there will be shorter and shorter periods of opportunity for creativity and innovation to solve problems and avoid ultimate collapse.

He compared this cycle to being on treadmills that are going faster and faster, and said we will need creative and innovative solutions to develop at a rapid rate to keep up.  And that will necessarily occur in cities.

“We can’t solve these issues without interaction, and interaction happens in cities because that’s where the people are,” he said.