Business Today

An Intellectual Odyssey

Connecting the dots between vastly disparate physical, physiological and socio-economic phenomena
Mudit Narain   New Delhi     Print Edition: December 31, 2017
An Intellectual Odyssey

Before starting to write this review, I was compelled to check the section in which this book was placed at airport bookshops. Geoffrey West's Scale - a tome that attempts to tease out the universal laws of growth, innovation and sustainability in organisms, economies, cities and companies - defies the simple classification into sections for science, economics, philosophy, technology or governance; or self-help, business or fiction, for that matter. More on that later. Here are the key takeaways from this expansively enriching read.

Seduced by the seemingly unending ways in which organisms, cities and companies of vastly different sizes seem similar to each other, physicist Geoffrey West summarises the extensive work on 'complex adaptive systems' undertaken by his team at the fabled Santa Fe Institute in the US. West makes a strong case that similar scaling behaviour can be seen in vastly disparate physical, physiological and socio-economic phenomena - such as patents produced in cities, length of pipes, urban water supply systems, and even variations in urban walking speeds! These phenomena exhibit sub- or super-linear scaling - in other words, economies of scale or increasing returns to scale by a seemingly universal factor of 15 per cent - instead of the expected linear scaling, since similar forces of network dynamics and physical constraints of mass, energy or information exchange govern them. Harnessing Big Data derived from the near-ubiquitous use of data collection widgets in our hands called mobile phones, the book provides startling insights into how millions and millions of humans act in fairly predictable ways.

West provides strong quantitative evidence of the network effects of living in close proximity with individuals from a vast range of backgrounds. 'Science of Cities' using the tools of systems modelling is a relatively new field of inquiry, and the book makes a convincing case that it should get more attention in academia and public discourse, given the immense impact cities have on economies, innovation, and human development. This science, backed up by new sources of data, would not only help explain seemingly unconnected patterns, but also help tackle seemingly intractable urban challenges such as congestion or crime.

West's comparisons of technological innovation across the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and the relatively more recent Industrial and Information Revolutions provide a fascinating overview of how human socio-economic systems have demonstrated a perceptible acceleration in change. The prediction that humanity will need to keep jumping on successively accelerating socio-economic 'treadmills' at a faster and faster pace, if we have to maintain growth and avoid catastrophic disruption, is unsettling. West also discusses the socio-economic possibilities in case these treadmills do turn out to be too fast for us at some point.

Using data from the stock market appearance of firms through their almost-inevitable exit, and several connected data sets, West manages to tease out some common phenomena, but stops short of proposing a grand theory, acknowledging the limitations of such an effort unless all the data of companies' interactions, such as emails, calls, meeting minutes, etc, are available for quantitative treatment.

Without resorting to intimidating mathematical equations, West explains concepts and theories as diverse and esoteric as emergent behaviour, entropy, fractal geometry, non-linear scaling, and finite time singularity, in lucid English. While that's appreciable, the use of equations would not only have made the book substantially shorter, but also ensured it is preserved as a long-term reference.

Scale ends with a call of action to develop a grand unified theory of sustainability, by 'bringing together the multiple studies, stimulations, databases, models, theories and speculations' across a variety of science and knowledge. He makes the case that survival of humanity will require a study of complex systems underpinned by a quantitative socio-economic theory, to enable us to bring a scientific approach to take on monumental challenges such as climate change and other impending singularities.

P.S: I found the book in the 'New Arrivals' section.

 

The reviewer is Founding Manager, Atal Innovation Mission at Niti Aayog

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