Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations



Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Featured speakers have included Al Gore on climate change, Philippe Starck on design, Jill Bolte Taylor on observing her own stroke, Nicholas Negroponte on One Laptop per Child, Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, Bill Gates on malaria and mosquitoes, Pattie Maes on the “Sixth Sense” wearable tech, and “Lost” producer JJ Abrams on the allure of mystery. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, development and the arts. Closed captions and translated subtitles in a variety of languages are now available on TED.com, at

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24 responses to Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations

  1. 15% rule is 'universal'? Would have been interesting to compare cities behind the Iron Curtain and those in Western Europe. Once the Wall came down, Eastern European cities rapidly caught up with that universal. But kept in the aspic of central planning and state-controlled micro-management?

  2. at min 7:50: it is 68%

    75% is the approximated more intuitive way that use the exponent b directly instead of 100[(((100+p)/100)^b)-1] where p=%increase of the x

  3. Why must so many speakers have the microphones in their mouths? I hate listening to slimy, sticky mouths when people present.

  4. Am I stupid or is it just a normal occurence that the numbers of people in a city go in exponential tandem with everything related to what the people do? I don't really understand the big revelation here

  5. It's misleading that he says cities are responsible for climate change, to say they're responsible for all of our problems is ridiculous hyperbole. Cities are actually less damaging to the environment per capita than suburban environments because they take up less room per person than the sprawling suburbs, people walk and use public transit more, etc. Urban sprawl is much more problematic than cities concentrated in a certain area.

  6. I think my favorite idea out of this talk was his observation that societies must accelerate their speed of innovation to avoid impending collapse. That is a scary truth but it is not do or die.
    That is, it seems possible for societies to reach sufficient happiness, wealth, and population size before the crash, but only if they are able to innovate faster than the challenges they face. If they are not able, then they will either never reach optimality; rarely advancing beyond a point, or they may die away altogether.

  7. Won't doubling the size of the organism require 1.5 times the energy for metabolism? I think he made a 'silly mistake' there.

  8. It seems to me that maybe the reason we don't see animals bigger than the blue whale is that this scaling property has its limits.  That would suggest that cities stop scaling sub linearly beyond a certain size.  

  9. All the comments below keep 'fanboying/fangirling' over this talk, while conveniently ignoring one of the most salient and worrying points, that is the need for ever faster cycles of innovation, so that we dun reach our carrying capacity. So can we start discussing this pressing problem now ??? How on earth do we cope with ever increasing amounts of waste (domestic etc.) and demands for resources as cities get bigger ?!

  10. I am not sure if it is a scientific talk. I believe he is just trying to spread an idea. There are a real variety of TED talks that are not scientific, or at least not completely scientific, but they all spread ideas.

  11. This IS a scientific talk. I do NOT consider the underlying math to be simple. This is (advanced) statistical physics, and that is the context in which you should see this talk/video if you DO have a scientific background. There are several good scientific messages in this video, one of which being that VERY complex simulations of huge and interconnected systems CAN yield very simple properties. Kind of like how a random walk performed by N_A particles will always give you predictable diffusion.

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