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.


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.


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