Are cities living, breathing entities? Only better? Apparently yes, at least from the perspective of physicist Geoffrey West. He examined cities and found, like organisms, they are scalable, which makes them resilient and robust.
But while the plot of biological metabolic rate vs. mass is sub-linear, a similar line for cities has a super-linear slope. The larger, the less energy needed. In fact, economies of scale are everywhere. That’s good news (unless you look at negatives, like crime). For every socio-economic quantity, every time a city size doubles, there is a 15% premium. This is one reason people like living in cities. And why cities are so resilient. The only catch is that – because of real resource limits – growth depends on regular innovation.
(For businesses, the news was not as good. The do scale, but they scale sub-linearly, like living organisms, implying a definite limit on their growth and survival.)
West declares, “We are the city!” From a different direction, Edward Glaeser (Triumph of the City) concludes that cities are people. One key conclusion he has is that investing in education is much more important than buying a new sports arena.
These theses set me thinking tangentially. What struck me as I absorbed the lessons was how cities might change in the face of ever-smarter environments. What happens when every square inch of our cities is filled with sensors, processors and network connections?
Essentially, our cities become cyborgs. By analogy, the old, pre-microprocessor, cities, were fixed with peg legs or augmented with sunglasses or warm scarves. But the new cyborg cities have active exoskeletons, like those of Eythor Bender. They can jump higher, run faster, and see the invisible, at least metaphorically. Indeed, the goal of making things smarter is to gather much more data, process it for better decisions and enable coordination, learning, optimization, and efficiencies that are not possible today. Introduce a little muscle in the form of robotics, and our cities can be physically reshaped to fit our needs, too.
But I felt I was missing something. Cities are more than people, cars, infrastructure, homes, arenas, and offices. Does smart everything really mean everything? Are there any plans to make the flora and fauna of cities smart, too?
I decided to check. After a few false starts (looking up “smart animals” got me nowhere), I found cyborg animals. Microprocessors are already being tested out in pigeons, rats and, most notably, in insects. Just as putting humans in the loop (for augmented reality, drones, and cars) can often lead to faster, less expensive applications than pure, unaided technologies, taking advantage of the natural talents and capabilities of living creatures may be a short cut to imagined futures – mostly, apparently, tied to spying and military endeavors.
We shouldn’t leave out the plants. I found an article on a Mexican artist, Gilberto Esparza, who created a machine/plant hybrid that seeks out dirty water. It does not appear to be a practical application, but I found it intriguing, nonetheless.
I was left wondering how smart we want our future to be. How far do we want to smudge the line before nature and artifice? How smudged is it already?