Versatilist cities

My IBM colleague,  Dr. Rick Robinson, blogs here as The Urban Technologist where he writes about emergent technology and smarter cities. This particular post from Rick called Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making discusses how encouraging organic growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in cities not only helps with the economic revival of some of our run down inner city areas but also means those SMEs are less likely to up roots and move to another area when better tax or other incentives are on offer. As Rick says:

“By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality.”

Examples include Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which has a cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who also work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology. Linkages with local colleges and universities is another way of reinforcing the locality of SME’s. Of course, just because we classify an enterprise as being ‘small to medium’ or ‘local’ does not mean that, because of the internet, it cannot have a global reach. These days even small, ‘mom and pop’ business can be both local as well as global.

Another example of generating organic growth is the so called Silicon Roundabout area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London which now counts some 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs. See here for a Demos report on this called A Tale of Tech City.

Clearly generating growth in our cities, as a way of improving both the economy as well as the general livelihoods of its citizens, should be considered a good thing, especially if that growth can be in new business areas which helps to replace our dying manufacturing industries and reduce our dependency on the somewhat ‘toxic’ financial services industry. However it turns out that encouraging this kind of clustering of people also has a positive feedback effect which means that groups of people together achieve more than just the sum of all the individuals.

Hong Kong Skyline (c) Peter Cripps

In 2007 the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and colleagues published a paper called Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. The paper described the results of an analysis of a huge amount of urban data from cities around the world. Data included everything from the number of coffee shops in urban areas, personal income, number of murders and even the walking speed of pedestrians. West and his team analysed all of this data and discovered that the rhythm of cities could be described by a few simple equations – the equivalent of Newtons laws of motion for cities if you like.  These laws can be taken and used to predict the behavior of our cities. One of the equations that West and his team discovered was around the measurement of socioeconomic variables such as number of patents, per-capita income etc. It turns out that any variable that can be measured in cities scales to an exponent of 1.15. In other words moving to a city of 1 million inhabitants results, on average, 15% more patents, 15% more income etc than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand. This phenomena is referred to as “superlinear scaling” – as cities get bigger, everything starts to accelerate. This applies to any city, anywhere in the world from Manhattan, to London to Hong Kong to Sydney.

Whilst these equations explain what happens when cities grow, in terms of these socioeconomic factors, they do not explain why. In his book Imagine – How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehry talks about the concept of urban friction, that is the necessary and inevitable human interactions that take place in crowded spaces. Whilst some of these interactions may be unpleasant (bumping into the more undesirable elements of society) most are hopefully not and lead to not only more fulfilling lives but the exchange and development of ideas. Lehrer characterises urban planning as “finding a way to minimise people’s distress while maximising their interactions”.

It seems from this then, that if you want to be in a place where ideas and creativity are continuously being generated the place should be a large metropolis  rather than a quiet country cottage with views out over fields and pastures (though see this post for a counter-argument). Cities, with their eclectic mix of industry, culture, art, architecture and nationalities exhibit many of the versatilist characteristics we discuss in this blog and are probably the place to live and work if you want to be able to absorb, refine and adapt new ideas.


2 Comments on “Versatilist cities”

  1. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Pete,

    This is a great post with lots to think about. In particular, Geoffrey West’s work is a real challenge to those of us who aren’t necessarily attracted to unlimited growth in cities. I live in Birmingham; but I live in a suburb rather than the centre; and I’ve never been attracted to the idea of living in a larger, busier city such as London. And taken to an extreme, I find some of the potential solutions for supplying food, water and energy to ever larger and denser cities not necessarily to my taste! (I blogged about that a while ago here@ ).

    But the sort of creative, economic growth you’ve described is crucial for city economies, so whatever their size, cities need to understand how to create it.



  2. […] is an update of a post I originally put in my blog The Versatilist Way. I’ve removed the reference to the now […]

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