Sunday, February 20, 2011

Science Sunday: Forget About Facebook. It's Physical Space That Really Matters

I do not text, tweet or use Facebook, having no earthly need to do so. Besides which, I find all three mediums vastly inferior to physical interactions with people, something that it is dramatically borne out in a new study.

University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. As anybody who predates the pandemic of impersonal communication devices would expect, the face-to-face groups thrived while the electronic groups struggled.

Similarly, and to the point of this post, density stimulates innovation, which is why cities arguably are more important than ever, something that was reinforced during several recent visits to New York City and has been quantified by physicist Geoffrey West and a Santa Fe Institute colleague, Luis Bettencourt.

After two years of analysis, West and Bettencourt discovered that urban variables ranging from the total amount of electrical wire, number of college graduates and gas stations, personal income, flu outbreaks, homicides, coffee shops and the walking speed of pedestrians could be described by "a few exquisitely simple equations," as Johan Lehrer puts in in a New York Times Magazine article.

"For example, if they know the population of a metropolitan area in a given country, they can estimate, with approximately 85 percent accuracy, its average income and the dimensions of its sewer system," he writes. "These are the laws, they say, that automatically emerge whenever people 'agglomerate,' cramming themselves into apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn't matter if the place is Manhattan or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same.

"West isn't shy about describing the magnitude of this accomplishment. 'What we found are the constants that describe every city,' he says. 'I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don't know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.'

"'Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.'"
There is, of course, bad with the good. When West and Bettencourt analyzed the negative variables of urban life, like crime and disease, they discovered that the exact same simple equations applied. After a city doubles in size, it also experiences a 15 percent per capita increase in violent crimes, traffic and AIDS cases, although some cities are able to mitigate the increases with addition police officers or strict pollution regulations. "What this tells you is that you can't get the economic growth without a parallel growth in the spread of things we don't want," Bettencourt says. "When you double the population, everything that’s related to the social network goes up by the same percentage."

West and Bettencourt assert that cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history.

"They are the idea that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity," West says. "When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life. We broke away from the equations of biology . . . Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That's why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse."

Photo illustration by Hubert Blanz

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