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

  1. There are some simple, universal laws which link all complex systems and this book explores these various scaling laws and systems to provide a predictive framework
Key Takeaways
  1. We live in an exponentially expanding socio-economic urbanized worked. A key topic of this book is the key role that cities and urbanization play in the future of the world. Cities are the crucible of civilization and humans depend on their continuity for innovation, commerce and as magnets for creativity and growth. However, they also attract crime, resources and cause much pollution and health problems. The author will explore if there can be a science of cities and companies to predict their longevity and provide a framework and strategy for achieving long term sustainability. Mega cities will take on scales never before seen as the trend is for increasing urbanization with up to 75% of the world population living in cities by 2050
  2. The open ended exponential growth of cities is in marked contrast to what is seen in biology and in corporations. To what extent are cities extensions of biology and if they are in fact a type of super organism why do most of them never die? The author will explore whether a serious mechanistic theory can explain our own mortality and that of companies and why cities seem immune
    1. Too short of a time frame to tell? 5-10,000 is a lot but on geological scales it is not at all
  3. Energy, metabolism and entropy. Will refer to all types of biological energy transformation as metabolism which are used towards physical work as well as for refueling, growth, reproduction and maintenance. The vast majority of human energy has been put towards forming collectives such as cities and companies as well as to the discovery and implementation of ideas. However, without a steady supply of energy none of this growth or innovation is possible. Energy is primary to everything we do and everything that happens around us and is often underapprecaited by scientists and researchers in most fields. As there is no free lunch regarding energy, every action and energy usage has a consequence in the form of useless energy in the form of heat or disorder, otherwise known as entropy. Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, always increases and hangs over everyone and everything. Growth stops because of the mismatch between energy demand and supply. However, things which grow super linearly, like cities, get more energy supplied than is demanded as they grow so as they get bigger they also grow faster. For companies, sales or revenues can be thought of as growth and expenses and maintenance. The fewer expenses the more energy is available for growth. Younger company’s profits scale faster than expenses but on average these scale linearly as companies grow (similar to the progress of most organisms). Companies tend to grow, scale, mature and die in similar fashions regardless of industry which indicates universal dynamics may be at play
  4. Scaling and non linear behavior. Scaling is how things change with size and the fundamental rules and behaviors they obey. This helps establish a framework to connect how various systems, organisms and more behave as they change size. Scaling helps understand tipping points, chaotic systems and phase transitions. Scaling will play an increasingly larger role as man made systems continue to increase in size and complexity and underlying principles are typically not well understood as they tend to becomplex adaptive systems. Linear extrapolation to growth and scaling is dangerous as it is often implicit as it is often wrong. Metabolic needs, parents, innovation and much more scales non-linearly or enjoys increasing returns to scale – LA’s GDP per capita is greater than expected when compared to Oklahoma City’s GDP per capita.  Economies of scale – as a city, organism, etc gets larger it in fact gets more efficient. An organism twice as large only requires 75% more energy rather than 100% as linear thinking would suggest. This 3/4 metabolic scaling law applies across nearly every taxonomy. The number 4 therefore plays a nearly universal law in biological life. Elephants, though having 10,000 more cells to support than rats, only need 1,000 more energy. This amazing efficiency allows for longer longevity
  5. Emergence, self organization and resilience. Complex systems are made up of a multitude of small components which lead to unexpected results where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, emergence. Humans are more than the totality of their cells. There is no central control by these individual components but amazing things can emerge through this self-organization. These complex adaptive systems are able to adapt and evolve to changing external conditions leading to a resilient system. However, these systems are also influenced by both positive and negative feedback loops which can quickly alter the system
  6. You are your networks. Growth can be considered a special case of scaling. Networks the determine the rates at which energy and resources are delivered to cells, they set the pace of all physiological processes. Pace of life slows as the network expands which is why bigger animals live longer, take longer to mature, have slower heart rates and are more metabolically efficient
  7. Cities tend to scale at a 1.15 scaling law as it doubles. So, a city twice as bi has 15% more innovation, wages, crime, disease, etc. than a linear doubling would suggest. This appears across countries and across time showing there may be a universal, generic scaling law we can apply to cities. Pace of life in bugger cities scaled as well and people’s pace of walking even does too. This scaling also indicates that pace of innovation and wealth creation must keep speeding up as well. This must break at some point however so growth may hold the seeds of its own destruction – dialectical materialism
  8. Companies are much more like organisms than cities in that they scale sub linearly (0.85), they get more efficient and slower as they get bigger, rather than faster like cities (1.15 scaling). Companies, like organisms, also stop growing at some point, slow down and eventually decay as changing and growing becomes more difficult the larger one is, they become more unidimensional whereas cities get multidimensional as they grow
  9. Understanding that area and volume scale at different proportions is helpful when thinking about scaling up houses, organisms, etc. If the size of an elephant doubles, the weight of the elephant grows in proportion to the volume (which cubes if the animal is doubled) whereas the strength would only double. That is why ants the size of elephants or Godzilla could exist if they were made of the same materials. There are limits to size and growth as the relative strength decreases as size increases. There is a nonlinear growth scale between strength and weight (2:3)
  10. A key assumption of scaling is that the physical and chemical compositions remain the same. However, innovation often allows for growth at a larger scale due to stronger materials, like steel instead of wood, or improved design such as the use of arches or vaults
  11. Brunell – one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century and a true polymath. He innovated with tunnels, railways, shipbuilding (larger ships require proportionately less fuel per ton than smaller ships, economies of scale), bridges and more
  12. The Navier-Stokes equation describes turbulence and was very influential in shipbuilding and was one of the first studies of complexity
  13. Metabolic rate is the fundamental rate for all of biology, setting the pace of everything life does. Metabolism may be the most pervasive and consistent law in the universe, applying to some orders of magnitude of mass, from bacteria to blue whales
  14. The Magic #4 – a huge range of scaling laws across life (metabolism, heart rate, size of aorta, tree trunk) scale in simple quarters suggesting that evolution has been constrained by other general principles beyond natural selection. This may be a clue to universal biological principles which could help us better predict and analyze life. Networks may be the constraint which leads to quarter scaling as the physical makeup of the network may be different but they would be constrained by the same mathematical and physical principles. Power law scaling is the mathematical expression of self similarity and fractality. We are thus all living examples of self similarity and fractals. My understanding is that this quarter scaling is indicative of our 4D universe (the fourth being fractality or self-similarity which takes advantage of volume filling traits) and contrary to the 11D string theorists currently believe we live in. Few human inventions take advantage of the optimization fractals confer but organic processes like organisms and cities do.
  15. Humans require approximately 90w of energy to live
  16. What is irrelevant at one scale becomes dominant at another. What is important at every scale is to find the variables which dominate the behavior of the system. See Game Play video with Alan Watts narration which Kevin Rose pointed out which discusses perspective and scale
  17. Optimization principles lie at the very heart of all of the fundamental laws of nature as all aim to minimize the amount of action or energy required. Thus, though the networks are physically different, animals and plants scale similarly to minimize the amount of energy needed for energy to reach the terminal destination (capillaries). Can say the blood changes from AC (pulsatile) to DC (steady stream) as it moves to the capillaries. This saves energy and ensures the blood is moving slow enough for oxygen to dissipate
  18. Impedence matching is when there is clear and accurate communication, saving energy
  19. Although organisms take advantage of optimization from self similarity, the physical bounds of the networks limits the size, age, scope, etc of physical organisms. Weight would crush the animal as volume scales faster than area, oxygen would not be able to diffuse into cells once animal reaches a certain size. Organisms also stop growing due to the different ways energy need and metabolism scale. The rate at which energy is needed for maintenance scales faster than the rate at which metabolic energy can be supplied, forcing the amount of energy for growth to systematically decrease, resulting in the cessation of growth at some point. So, the less energy needed for maintenance (fixed costs), the more is available for growth.
  20. Life is so sensitive to temperature because chemical reactions such as metabolic rate scale exponentially in respect to temperature. For example, a 2°C rise in temperature would lead to a 20-30% rise in pace of life (and hence mortality)
  21. The author believes that caloric restriction can increase lifespan as anything which slows down the metabolism will lead to less damaged cells in a similar period of time, thereby increasing life span. However, we are complex adaptive systems and simply altering one variable will have unseen consequences
  22. Amazingly, the universe is expanding exponentially and on earth, we are expanding exponentially socioeconomically
  23. Traditionally, population growth has correlated closely with increases in financial indices
  24. The city is our ingenious invention to increase collaboration and social cohesion and interaction. Two key components of innovation and wealth creation. Their downside include crime, pollution and huge consumption or resources. Cities are an emergent self-organizing phenomenon helping increase productivity, social collaboration and innovation no matter where in the world the city is
  25. Dunbar’s Number is a nested group in that your most intimate friends number around 5, second tier is about 15, then 50 and 150 and so on in multiples of three. This can be used to form optimally sized groups, councils, etc. The author speculates that cities are physical manifestations of our brain as their function and basic layout are universal and symbolic of how humans act and interact which is encoded in our neural networks
  26. Zipf’s Law is used to describe the size and frequency distribution of a huge array of areas. It says that the second largest or more st frequent will be about half as large or frequent as the first, the third about 1/3, fourth about 1/4, etc. Another way of stating Pareto’s 80/20 Law
  27. People, regardless of city or occupation, spend about 1 hour per day commuting. All technology has done has allowed people to live farther away as they can now travel faster
  28. Social interactions underlie the universal scaling of urban characteristics
  29. Cities which are rich, safe, innovative and generally overperforming, tend to keep doing so and similar for cities which underperform
  30. Different types of businesses and professions also scale proportionately as cities grow, some super and some sub-linearly
  31. To sustain open ended growth in light of resource limitation requires continuous cycles of paradigm shifting innovations which over time must occur at shorter and shorter intervals
What I got out of it it
  1. A lot of excellent examples of scale and new examples of how it permeates our everyday lives