The Technium

Cities Are Immortal; Companies Die


All companies die. All cities are nearly immortal.

Both are type of networks, with different destinies. There are two basic network forms: organisms or ecosystems. Companies are like organisms, while cities are like ecosystems.

Treenet

All organisms (and companies) have share many universal laws of growth. Creatures age in the same way, whether they are small animals, large mammals, starfish, bacteria, and even cells. They share similar metabolic rates. Similar distributions. All ecosystems (and cities) also share universal laws. They evolve and scale in a similar fashion among themselves – whether they are forests, meadows, coral reefs, or grasslands, or villages.

Geoff West from the Santa Fe Institute has piles of data to prove these universal and predictive laws of life. For instance, organisms scale in a 3/4 law. For every doubling in size, they increase in other factors by less than one, or .75. The bigger the organism, the slower it goes. Both elephants and mice have the same number of heartbeats per lifespan, but he elephant beats slower.

Ecosystems and cities, on the other hand, scale by greater than one, or 1.15. Every year cities increase in wealth, crime, traffic, patents, pollution, disease, infrastructure, and per capita by 15%. The bigger the city, the faster it goes.

A less than one rate of exponential growth inevitably leads to an s-curve of stagnation. All organisms and companies eventually stagnate and die. A greater than one rate of exponential leads to a hockey stick upshot of seemingly unlimited growth. All cities keep growing. As West remarked: We can drop an atom bomb on a city and 30 years later it will be thriving.

The question Geoff West could not answer at tonight’s Long Now talk was:

Is the internet more like a company or more like a city?

I’d bet it is more like a city.

I think the difference between the development of an organism and a ecosystem, or a company and a city, is that the later in each case evolves rather than grows. Growth is always self-limiting, while evolution is unlimited. Evolution is the infinite game; it remakes itself again and again from within so that its growth cannot catch up or stagnate.

The other question, also unanswerable right now, is: how does one make a company more like a city?

West’s answer to that one was: bring in the crazy people! A city is full of crazies. You can’t get rid of them, but they are the ones that keep the evolution going. Companies get rid of crazies, which in the long term will prevent them from evolving. I don’t buy the crazies. Rather I think it is the defined boundaries of a company which prevent it from evolving. It is too closed, too bounded. Cities on the other hand or ill-defined, loosely coupled, permeable, center-less beings, and therefore capable of constant transfiguration without changing their essence.

That’s why I think the ill-defined center-less internet will evolve and live forever. Or at least as long as a city.




Comments
  • nickgogerty

    Kevin, great post. Understanding the nature of scaling (pun intended) is crucial for better managing or working with systems be they corporate or other.

  • Nena

    This is very nice! Seems like I’ve found myself a new blog to spend hours on :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/rjvg50 Kirk Holden

    I am putting together a story about the rise of the Motorola 68000 family of microprocessors. The statement in WTW that there are more hammers today than ever before is also true about 68K derivatives in embedded applications. There are more 68K’s or Coldfire’s (an almost straight embodiment of the original) than there ever existed in engineering workstations and Macintoshes (Macinti?). The fact is that we were almost all completely insane back then. We did not even bother to define what be built. We just built for fun. There is no more amusing art in microprocessor design now than in the design of interstate highway overpasses. Art has been replaced by the irksome toil of mere craft. By your metric, the innovation is static and the Bass Diffusion curve, a measure of the uptake of innovative product, is flat or in decline. Completely true conjecture IMHO. The ARM architecture now rules in embedded applications but this will change with quantum or biological computation in your toaster by 2050.

  • http://www.matthauger.com Matt Hauger

    Interesting analogies here.

    How do we understand those cities that have died? Or are dying (e.g. Detroit)? Were they too much like individual organisms–too self-contained, too neat, too self-reliant, too carefully-defined?

    Could the Internet fall into the same trap? Do we nudge it that direction when we try to define it, to direct it, to protect it, to preserve it? How might the net neutrality debate enter into this discussion?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      West says the metropolitan area of Detroit is not dying, only its central core, which he imagines will revive in some future decade.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=796435084 Michael Costigan

    Kevin said: ”The other question, also unanswerable right now, is: how does one make a company more like a city?West’s answer to that one was: bring in the crazy people! A city is full of crazies. You can’t get rid of them, but they are the ones that keep the evolution going. Companies get rid of crazies, which in the long term will prevent them from evolving. I don’t buy the crazies. Rather I think it is the defined boundaries of a company which prevent it from evolving. It is too closed, too bounded. Cities on the other hand or ill-defined, loosely coupled, permeable, center-less beings, and therefore capable of constant transfiguration without changing their essence.”I was at the talk and enjoyed it immensely. I agree that West’s glib answer of bringing in the crazies was not serious, and he said it in a way that seemed a conspiratorial joke among the audience and him. But I don’t agree with your simple diagnosis of the boundaries as key. It chimes with Arie de Geus’ Shell analysis of long-lived companies (as told in The Living Company) and also corresponds with one of your Nine Laws of God the “Maximize the fringes”. But what about the other Eight Laws? Of these, “pursue no optima; have multiple goals”; “grow by chunking”; and “seek persistent disequilibrium” seem best to describe dynamic cities and companies. Given that they are “your” laws, surely you must have a good take on which ones are most relevant in this discussion? What do you think?

  • Ross Lampert

    Interesting concept but not entirely accurate. Cities do die. Anyone live in Ur or Machu Picchu anymore? Not really. How about Troy? It’s important to distinguish between long-lived and immortal, or even “nearly-immortal.”

    As the internet evolves, I think it will follow a different path in which it will disappear into the background of our lives, becoming something different even from the “utility” some already consider it to be. But for the foreseeable future anyway, the internet will have one prime vulnerability that cities and companies do not have: it relies on electricity. How that electricity will be generated will change over time, but without some source to power transmission, reception, and processing, there will be no internet.

  • http://www.evbogue.com/ Everett Bogue

    I love what you’ve mentioned about bringing on the crazies. 

    Over the past two years I’ve lived in 6 different American cities, and they all have their own ecosystem of insane people (I am not exempt from being a part of this system.) 

    I started to worry about New York when the crazies began to go away — last time I was there, they were out and about again, so whatever they tried to do with them didn’t work.

    When I look out into the Net, I see the growth stagnate when we attempt to shield ourselves from the true diversity of the idea environment.

    The walled gardens where we choose only to see reflections of ourselves, that’s where the growth stops.

    Luckily, there’s plenty of space outside the places where we code for cleanliness where the true diversity of Internet crazy can thrive.

  • Peeyoosh Chandra

    Kevin, recommend you get your hands on http://www.amazon.com/Critical-Mass-Thing-Leads-Another/dp/0374281254 – great case study to support your argument

  • http://markrvickers.com/ Markvickers210

    “It is too closed, too bounded.”

    I guess one way to test this is to determine which organizations are most like cities in this respect and then determine if they tend to last any longer than the norm. Maybe a list like this one can serve as a starting point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jschoettler John Schoettler

    Hey Kevin, here’s another rare gem with Mcluhan talking about how those who live in cities are the new cave dwellers @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15ZpH7qWbf4

  • sbronstein

    Yeah, I didn’t really agree with his reasoning (cities stay alive because they bring on the crazies!) either. 

    This may just be a rephrasing of what you mean about defined boundaries, but I think the key difference between a city and a company is that a city is a aggregation of distributed (and yes, networked) systems, each system/network (down to the individual) operating independently with its own goals, measures of success, etc. Any given company, on the other hand, is inherently top-down and has a very particular measure of success – is it profitable. 

    Even with enlightened management, it’s hard to stay profitable and innovative over the long term since the interests of the employees diverge pretty quickly from this goal of company profitability. So companies die relatively quickly.

    • nathanb131

      I was trying to figure out a way to say this, now I see you already did.  There is some threshold that is crossed as a group moves from completely dissociated (jungle) to sharing a few common protections but still acting independently (city) to all trying to achieve the same vision (company).  The gains from the division of labor begin to slow down as we cross that threshold.  In a completely free and vibrant market of completely voluntary transactions of mutual gain, innovation is well rewarded.  As companies/people/governments get powerful from that, then innovation is stifled to maintain the status quo.  This seems to be true for governments also, that once things get over-socialized then innovation slows.  Concentration of wealth and power by the few over the many, whether it be in a corporation or government is a difficult problem to avoid.

  • http://pseudofish.com/blog Geoff Wilson

    “I think it is the defined boundaries of a company which prevent it from evolving.”

    It will be interesting to see which of the modern companies that are trying to relax those boundaries succeed in the long run. I’m thinking of Google as an example that aims to promote growth on the edges. Their 70-20-10 allocation of resources is a way of trying to keep some of the evolutionary approach at the boundaries. (70% core, 20% apps, 10% wild cards – from Into the Plex)

  • matthewbattles

    I’m fascinated by the assertion that cities don’t die; having watched West’s talk (online; don’t have the bread for TED), I realize I’m going to have to go and look at his data, because it isn’t clear how “city” is defined. And after all, the record is full of dead cities. Of course cities have passed into death or near-death and then new cities have arisen on the same sites; I suspect that many still-living cities of this type are still kicking not because of dynamics explicable by analogy to organisms and ecosystems but because of the site itself, at a congeries of resource-access points and topography conducive to transit. We have needs for those things, and their access points change on geological not historical time scales.

    West’s work highlights some fascinating dynamics, but they seem to point to underlying, fundamental constants—the constraints with which life on Earth must contend, rather than emergent characteristics of life itself. His data on body size correlated with metabolism, for instance, might not be much different than the correlation between body size and total mass. In short I’m wondering whether it’s all usefully predictive, or merely descriptive; someone smarter is going to have to help me out on that one.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I think West says cities are hard to kill, not that they don’t ever die. There are dead cities but their numbers fall on a distribution curve where they are not significant.

  • James Myers

    Cities are only eternal in literature. Boomtowns go bust. I spent time inside S&P municipal bond unit. Given sufficient economic pressure, both the bonds & urban core implode. I always like the Long Now stuff, but it’s part of the new trend in presentation that treats The Presentation, the Idea as Aesthitc object. There isn’t a harangue of critique, where there should be something from inside the diaipline, and another from without. Today’s urban core is the playground of the wealthy. Maybe you’ve heard, but they can be fickle.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Name a boomtown that has died in the last 100 years.

  • Bob Houghton

    The network-organism debate may be analysis of different scales of the same thing (fractal, nonlinear) and at different scales we get behavior and looks appropriate to that scale but the underlying formula is the same. Empower a company/organization with something similar to the rich fuel of today’s major world cities (population pressure, deep levels of communication from intelligent beings and critical location) and it would appear immortal too.

    When the Roman’s were busy salting down (OK, ancient urban myth) once world power Carthage, Earth’s population was miniscule in comparison with today. It stayed dead until Rome revived it, until Muslim armies wiped it out again. However the fuel of a city (viable location, location, location; higher intensities of interaction; along with exploding world population)  revived a city again in the same location (Tunis has over 2 mil now). (As for viable location, Dhaka, Bangladesh will probably not survive the rising water levels of ongoing climate change.) But with each rebirth of a city in the Carthage location, these were/are very different cities/cultures that inherited little but climate from their predecessors. Cities might be longer lived in exponential growth ecosystems because of their anchor in a location, but hardly immortal.

    So, a missing element of the city-company, network-organism debate is the discussion of the ecology within which we analyze these organisms. The world’s population has multiple exponential pressures going for it today that are all fueling cities. Perhaps the Web is just the world’s virtual global city that is still in formation. The Web will have similar “immortality” as long as the exponential high octane fuel driving it continues. Take a look at the multiple exponential pressures we are working with today, the digital ones that especially drive the Web.

    http://bit.ly/d-trends

    • Kevin_Kelly

      “Perhaps the web is just the world’s virtual global city in formation” — that’s my guess.

  • Ron

    Companies are owned by a few people (owned in the stakeholder-with-agency sense), and cities are owned by many people. If you were breeding them, companies would be purebreds, and cities would be feral.

  • Ron

    Or, to put it another way: companies are more top-down, cities are more bottom-up. A company is largely a result of the CEO’s decisions, but a mayor’s decisions are largely a result of the city.

  • TJIC

    >  Every year cities increase in wealth, crime, traffic, patents, pollution, disease, infrastructure, and per capita by 15%. The bigger the city, the faster it goes.

    What?

    Are you saying that there’s twice as much crime, pollution and traffic in Boston than there was 5 years ago?

    Four times as much as 10 years ago?

    …and eight times as much as 15 years ago?

    This sentence utterly fails the sniff test.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      You are right. I didn’t say that as well as I could have. For every doubling in size of the city, there is 1.15 increase in wealth, crime, patents, pollution, etc.

  • Arvind B

    Cities don’t die (but corporations do)http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/10/cities-dont-die-but-corporations-do.html