Cities Are Like Stars, Says Researcher, And We Need To Better Understand Them

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

According to an unusual new paper in the journal Science, cities can act very much like our sun. However, instead of smashing hydrogen atoms together to make energy, cities smash people together – creating social connections that can result in different kinds of energy: innovation and productivity.

“It’s an entirely new kind of complex system that we humans have created,” said study author Luis Bettencourt, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “A city is first and foremost a social reactor. It works like a star, attracting people and accelerating social interaction and social outputs in a way that is analogous to how stars compress matter and burn brighter and faster the bigger they are.”

Despite the convenient analogy, Bettencourt also asserted that the social “math” that occurs within cities is actually far different than the calculations explaining what goes on inside a star. The Santa Fe researcher said the social network component of cities is what separates them from simply being a type of social reactor.

Bettencourt’s paper, and his theory, is based on four main principles: mixing population, incremental network growth, the limits of human effort, and socioeconomic outputs as they relate to social interactions.

According to the study, a city develops as a network of social interaction that optimizes the conditions of its residents. As cities grow, they add to their infrastructure – allowing for further growth. Because of the limits of human effort, cities never experience rapid, uncontrollable growth, Bettencourt concluded.

Based on this framework, certain city dynamics are predictable – from land use to rent levels.

“As more people lead urban lives and the number and size of cities expand everywhere, understanding more quantitatively how cities function is increasingly important,” Bettencourt said. “Only with a much better understanding of what cities are will we be able to seize the opportunities that cities create and try to avoid some of the immense problems they present. This framework is a step toward a better grasp of the functioning of cities everywhere.”

Bettencourt and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have worked over the past decade to study urban data for establishing a quantitative theory of cities, according to a press release. Recent advances in urban data collection and processing has allowed for this relatively new perspective on cities, the study said. Bettencourt noted that the massive volume of new data has facilitated the study of general statistical patterns of urban infrastructure and socioeconomic activity.

“Rapid urbanization is the fastest, most intense social phenomenon that ever happened to humankind, perhaps to biology on Earth,” Bettencourt said. “I think we can now start to understand in new and better ways why this is happening everywhere and ultimately what it means for our species and for our planet.”

The Santa Fe researcher said his initial framework is a first theoretical stage that needs further refining and expanding. He added that more and better urban data from developing nations will soon become available, allowing for further study in places where knowing how urbanization works is extremely important.