Jordan Hall on Cities as the Vehicle for Superlinearity

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Jordan Hall:

"Cities and superlinear scaling

Here is my first proposition: superlinear scaling is the generator of cities. The city is, in its essence, the solution to the problem of how to grow the population of a place as large as possible so as to maximally benefit from superlinear scaling.

Consider: if you double the population of a city, you increase several important characteristics like wealth and innovation superlinearly. Move from a village of 10,000 to a town of 20,000 and per capita wages increases by 15%, sort of “automagically”. Double it again and those wages increase by 15% again. After a few doublings, the wealth and innovation gap between the “tiny village” and the “big city” is quite large.

Notably, West and team looked at cities across many periods of time, a wide variety of cultures and across many different levels of population. More or less, none of the particulars mattered that much. The dynamic was there in India, Japan, England and the United States and in cities from the 800’s through to the current age. The key was simply the relationship between population and superlinear scaling.

Notice the implicit feedback loop. Wealth and innovation are profound attractors. Merely by moving from the village to the city, you can participate in this increase and the various qualities of life that stem from increased wealth and innovation. All things being even vaguely equal, many people will choose to move to the city. This increases the population — which then increases the wealth and innovation.

Left to its own devices, this attractor would pull everyone into the city. However, the increase in population isn’t unconstrained. If want to add more people into a city, you have to find some way to provide food, water and housing, to remove waste, to enable people to move around, etc. If you can’t solve for these constraints, you can’t increase the population of the city.

How do you solve for these constraints? You take advantage of the wealth and innovation produced by superlinear scaling. Having a hard time feeding people? Invent irrigated agriculture. Have a hard time housing people? Invent the elevator and deploy wealth to construct skyscrapers to radically increase the vertical potential of housing.

Thus we have a dynamic tension. Increasing population produces superlinear wealth and innovation. It also produces a variety of new pressures. To the degree that the people of the city can craft and implement solutions to those pressures, the city can continue to grow and produce superlinear results. To the degree that they can’t, stagnation and even collapse."