big data & big cities

The McKinsey Global Institute has recently published a report on Big Data , defined as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze”. The authors expect that big data will play a significant role in having/letting businesses and governments operate in a more efficient and qualitative way, which, amongst others, should effectuate a more thorough relation between companies, institutions and consumers/the public, leading to innovation and economic growth. At the same time researchers emphasize the complexity of the interpretation of big data: new analytic software and specialized analysts would be needed.

One may well call Geoffrey West, physicist and former president of the SantaFe Institute such a specialist. Via reasoning inspired by metabolic processes West is developing quantitative, analytic, mathemitizable, predictive frameworks in order to understand how cities – complex social systems – work exactly. One of his findings is that, unlike other physical and biological processes cities do become more efficient: the bigger the city, the (exponentially) higher its production and wages. In cities, more patents are produced, they are more innovative …

Based on these findings the growth of cities is a positive trend. From the point of view of sustainability also major advantages of living in a city can be discerned. The impact smaller towns have on the environment are relatively high. Based on this understanding the Chinese government had hundreds of thousands of people move from the rural Ordos plains to the newly buit Ordos City. In “City vs Country: The concrete jungle is greener” Shanta Barley gives some more examples of why densification of cities should be supported:

  • The carbon footprint of inhabitants becomes lower
  • The scale of waste generation becomes substantial enough to be an efficient and economical resource for energy production
  • It helps decreasing overpopulation since urban women have better access to family planning and birth control, often have better employment opportunities and have their first child later.

How would these insights and examples contribute to the ongoing debates on sustainability? One could argue that these developments support efficiency, no substantial change. By all means they clearly stem from a belief in or the need for technology to solve sustainability issues instead of finding new ways to bring more balance in the earth’s ecosystem (Medea vs. Gaia Hypothesis).

Exaggerating, one could say that West believes that the closer one would bring people together, the better the ideas will pop up. However, West also realizes that with the pace of growth of cities, it will be hard for human kind to keep being innovative…

See also the New York Times Magazine’s article A Physicist Solves the City and a conversation with Geoffrey West on entitled Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster .