Companies Die, Cities Thrive

“It’s hard to kill a city,” West began, “but easy to kill a company.” The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And “cities are the crucible of civilization.” They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. “Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities.”

That’s from the intro to Geoffrey West’s Long Now seminar “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster”.

Kevin Kelly summarized it in this way:

All organisms (and companies) have share many universal laws of growth. Creatures age in the same way, whether they are small animals, large mammals, starfish, bacteria, and even cells. They share similar metabolic rates. Similar distributions. All ecosystems (and cities) also share universal laws. They evolve and scale in a similar fashion among themselves — whether they are forests, meadows, coral reefs, or grasslands, or villages.

Geoff West from the Santa Fe Institute has piles of data to prove these universal and predictive laws of life. For instance, organisms scale in a 3/4 law. For every doubling in size, they increase in other factors by less than one, or .75. The bigger the organism, the slower it goes. Both elephants and mice have the same number of heartbeats per lifespan, but he elephant beats slower.

Ecosystems and cities, on the other hand, scale by greater than one, or 1.15. Every year cities increase in wealth, crime, traffic, patents, pollution, disease, infrastructure, and per capita by 15%. The bigger the city, the faster it goes.

Geoff’s talk is worth a listen, especially as you consider how companies grow and evolve over timespans measured in decades, not years or rounds of funding.

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