Mega-Urban Mathematics

02 of October of 2011

After a visit to, say, Manila, in the Philippines, or Guangzhou, in southern China, you end up reading everything you can get your hands on (or that registers on your smartphone) related to social entropy and overpopulation of cities.
New evidence of this phenomenon is popping up almost daily, with examples like this photo of people in a giant pool in Dayin, Sichuan province, and the world’s longest traffic jam, stretching for 60 miles, which trapped thousands of drivers for 10 days. Average traffic speed in Beijing (4.4 million cars; every day 2,000 new vehicles are registered) was one kilometer per day. By 2015, there will be more than 7 million vehicles there, reducing the average speed from 24 km/h currently to 15 km/h—the same as for a bicycle. It’s time to go back to basics.

In this context, the physicist Geoffrey West gave a somewhat surprising presentation at TEDGlobal 2011 on economies of scale and the laws of mathematics that govern cities, using a figure as simple as the number of inhabitants. If a good part of sustainability problems (environmental, economic, energy) are the result of the organization of people in cities, then cities are also part of the solution, in that they are centers for innovation, wealth creation, etc.

According to this theory, if you double a city’s population, the scalability of wages, the number of patents or creative people, cases of AIDS or the flu, the amount of waste generated etc. rises by approximately 15%, with similar savings due to optimising infrastructure use. There also seems to be a pattern in terms of innovation that should accompany growth so as to avoid a collapse of the system; however, it’s necessary to accelerate the pace of innovation—to innovate more and faster.

Which cities set an example? Although there are various Smart City indices at regional and global level, this text discusses several approaches to the smart city model and includes some examples, such as energy management in Málaga and Amsterdam; business environments in Luxembourg, Dubai, Malta and Kochi; urban mobility in Singapore, Brisbane, Stockholm and Maastricht; citizen participation in Tampere, Turku and Albuquerque; environmental management in Copenhagen, Vancouver, Melbourne and Montpellier; city planning in Masdar and Sondgo; cultural activity in Paris, London, Salzburg, Bruges, Sydney and Zurich, etc.

Another good example is end-to-end management of municipal services in Birmingham, through a contract with Amey, a Ferrovial Servicios subsidiary, to maintain and upgrade the road network and urban infrastructure for the next 25 years under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI).This agreement includes management of 2,500 kilometers of roads, 5,000 kilometers of sidewalks, 850 bridges, 100,000 street lights, more than 5 million square meters of green areas, etc. with an unequivocal goal: to efficiently manage urban infrastructure with a view to reducing costs while improving the service provided to citizens.

When 500 cities with between 1 and 10 million inhabitants are home to more than 50% of the world’s population (around 3.3 million people), and that percentage is estimated to reach 70% by 2050 (between now and then, an additional million people will move to cities every week), no-one questions the importance of good planning and management of municipal services, or the fact that being a smart city is not a long-lasting condition, but rather a continuous process of

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