Barnabé Monnot

Final year PhD candidate in Singapore, research in algorithmic game theory and large systems with a data-driven approach.

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Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

I really wanted to like this book. I love the ideas that are in there. I was at first suspicious, because I tend to believe most “big picture” macrotheories of the city are either blatantly wrong or push a certain agenda that is not people-oriented. The author acknowledges it from the get-go (ostentatiously name-dropping Jane Jacobs is a certificate of sorts) and did convince me that the results they found do give an insight into the rhythms of the city.

But the book is about much more than just cities (though this was my obvious favourite part), looking at the issue of how systems scale, be they biological organisms, cities or companies. By focusing on a narrow set of ideas, namely the growth properties of these systems, West articulates precisely how similar all three are, but also why exactly they are different. A city is not a company because unlike the latter, it can survive incredible shocks and rebuild. Like a biological organism, a company dies, but its scale does not exactly dictate how fast.

These ideas are really fascinating, but the book is a mess. West digresses a lot, and although the story of the current wars between Tesla, Edison and co are super interesting, they really do not have anything to do with the subject matter. Some personal anecdotes from SFI are great, as are the paragraphs the author spends giving snippets of background on his colleagues and his influences, some could have been cut had the editor been a bit more shrewd. I feel in a way that I would love to listen to West hosting a podcast and following his wide-ranging knowledge where it takes him, but in book form I found myself skipping page after page to get to the meat of the subject. On the other hand, I wish he had dedicated more time on some topics. For instance, after showing the superlinear laws of innovation in the cities, West shows a similar result for the social network of city dwellers, and goes to tell that it is the social network that fosters such innovation. Later on in the text, he spends a couple of pages talking about the philosophy of science and the pitfalls of causation vs. correlation, which I feel is the exact problem here: do we know the social networks are what underlie innovation? Is there a third force at play? Is it the reverse?

Ditto for the last chapter on sustainability. I was expecting a more sober-minded, quantitative analysis of the forces of growth on the system. Instead the chapter relies heavily on Kurzweil’s singularity theory, which is still a very qualitative interpretation of the dynamics of growth, and the many results derived before in the book don’t seem to bear much on the chapter. Although as the author notes, we do not understand this well at all, and this is why a grand unified theory of sustainability may be necessary.

PS: my edition of the book, by W&N, was dubious at best. I want to chalk it up to them, that some graphs were just completely useless in black and white, some missed axis units, some seemed to miss captions that were referenced in the main text. I suspect the hardback had more legible figures with the correct content.

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