Scale

“The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate emphatic failure and ignore empire success.” – The Life and Death of American Cities

 

Scale by Geoffrey West may not be the easiest read (it has a highly academic style, complete with lots of highly academic jabs at different academic fields – Geoffrey West is a physics professor, which is very apparent). It is rather heavy going, more like a text book than a business book. Nonetheless, the ideas contained and explained therein are extraordinary – the result of the author’s lifetime work in understanding systems and how physical principles of scale can (and do!) apply to biology, business, societies and cities. I love looking at things through different lenses and connecting dots between seemingly unrelated industries and incidents to solve mysteries and overcome problems – and Scale does this very, very well.

The book looks critically at system failures of all sorts due to poor planning or the misunderstanding of the physical limitations of scale (such as those of city planners, criticised by the quote above). It provides a convincing proof of the limits scale places on perpetual growth – for everything from animals to the Singularity (which, in Geoffrey West’s scholarly opinion could well be compared to that of a rapid rise (super exponential growth) and subsequent even more rapid collapse of a bacterial colony in an enclosed jar. In other words, if the Singularity occurs, society, humanity and civilisation should in all likelihood collapse – possibly into extinction – with almost immediate effect. The good news is, due to the scale-related self-limiting of the various components of the growth of technology required to achieve the singularity, we may never quite reach that point anyway. But don’t rely on my second hand interpretation, go read the book for yourself. Preferably alongside The Square and the Tower, to get the Humanities perspective on many of the same issues addressed here.)

Just how “scalable” are the ideas presented in Scale? Well, I now plan to attend (if I can secure a place) the 2020 Complex Systems Summer School programme at the Santa Fe institute, a programme Professor Geoffrey West was instrumental in setting up.

 

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