Is a quantitative, mathematisable, predictive theory of cities and companies conceivable? Why do almost all cities survive whereas all companies eventually fail? Can we use biology as a guide for developing a serious theory of social organisation? Despite the extraordinary complexity and diversity of life, many of its most fundamental properties scale with size in a surprisingly simple fashion. For example, metabolic rate scales as the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude from complex molecules up to the largest multicellular organisms. Similarly, time-scales (lifespans, growth-rates, etc) and sizes (genome lengths, tree heights, etc) typically scale with 1/4-power exponents. This universality and simplicity suggests that fundamental constraints underly the generic structure and organisation of living systems. These derive from geometric and physical properties of space-filling, fractal-like, branching networks that sustain life at all scales. This leads to a quantitative framework that captures many essential features of diverse biological systems including vascular systems, growth, cancer, aging and mortality, sleep, cell size, and evolutionary rates. These ideas will be extended to social organisations. Analogous scaling laws reflecting underlying social network structures point to general principles of organization common to all cities and companies, but, counter to biology, shows why the pace of social life systematically increases with size. This has dramatic implications for growth, development and sustainability: innovation and wealth creation that fuel social systems, if left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their inevitable collapse.
Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist whose primary interests have been in fundamental questions in physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles, their interactions and cosmological implications. He served as SFI President from July 2005 through July 2009. Prior to joining the Santa Fe Institute as a Distinguished Professor in 2003, he was the leader, and founder, of the high energy physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he is one of only approximately ten Senior Fellows. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena evolved into a highly productive collaboration on the origin of universal scaling laws that pervade biology from the molecular genomic scale up through mitochondria and cells to whole organisms and ecosystems. This led to the development of realistic quantitative models for the structural and functional design of organisms based on underlying universal principles.
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