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Electronic bus information board at Milton Keynes railway station
MK:Smart - Milton Keynes as a Smart City laboratory


In a TED talk given in Edinburgh in July 20111 Geoffrey West said:

“Cities are the crucible of civilization. They have been expanding, urbanization has been expanding, at an exponential rate in the last 200 years so that by the second part of this century, the planet will be completely dominated by cities. Cities are the origins of global warming, impact on the environment, health, pollution, disease, finance, economies, energy – they’re all problems that are confronted by having cities. That’s where all these problems come from. And the tsunami of problems that we feel we’re facing in terms of sustainability questions are actually a reflection of the exponential increase in urbanization across the planet.”

He points out that that China is building 300 new cities in the next 20 years, and that every week for the foreseeable future more than a million people are being added to our cities.

Geoffrey West and his colleagues have conducted remarkable research on cities. Across the world, irrespective of culture and history, they have shown many surprising relationships. For example, as city size increases the number of petrol stations per capita decreases, and this economy of scale holds in cities worldwide. The same is true for lengths of roads, electricity lines, and other infrastructure. In contrast to this ‘sub-linear scaling’, some social phenomena have ‘super-linear scaling’. For example, the average wage increases with city size, as do crime, cases of AIDS and flu, the number of patents, and many many other variables.

Apart from these surprising similarities, cities interact in many other ways. They compete for business, tourism, and prestigious projects such as the Olympic Games.

Cities and transportation

At the mesolevel, urban transport is essential for citizens to perform their daily activities, but at the same time constitutes one of the major sources of urban pollution (Green House Gas emissions, local air quality, noise), directly affecting citizens’ health and well-being. The quest for environmentally sustainable urban transport, while ensuring competitiveness and addressing social concerns such as health problems or the needs of persons with reduced mobility, is a common and urgent challenge for all major cities in Europe.

Cities and ICT

The massive penetration of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) is modifying social relationships and travel behaviour, and providing a huge amount of heterogeneous data: intelligent transport systems, internet social networks, mobile phone call logs, e-transactions. Urban transportation models can simulate the interactions between social networks and travel behaviour, e.g. the influence of social networks on the planning of joint trips. This will allow a more comprehensive assessment of mobility policies, particularly of new services emerging around the idea of a shared access to resources, such as car sharing. The new travel behaviour models will increasingly be integrated into state-of-the-art agent-based simulation tools. This will be part of the wider smart city movement.2 If you are interested, there is a FutureLearn course on Smart Cities.3

Cities and global finance

At the macrolevel, cities form a global system in which they complement and compete with each other. For example, London competes successfully with financial centres around the world to be a hub for global finance. At the national level, the government gains significant revenue from the finance sector and, at the individual level, there are some very well paid and wealthy individuals.

The overheated housing market of London is attributed to investors from Russia, China and other countries. In a capricious world London is an attractive place to protect individual and corporate wealth. A consequence is that individual Londoners can pay very high rents or prices for even modest apartments. However, the housing market is complicated. At the top end of the market house prices are currently falling while at the bottom end prices continue to rise.

Other global cities have similar problems and apply differing policies to supply more accommodation, regulate rents, and so on. With increasing global populations and increasing pay gaps, the upward pressure on property prices in global cities seems inexorable. As Mark Twain said, ‘buy land – they don’t make it any more’.


1 Geoffrey West, ‘The surprising math of cities and corporations’, Ted Talks, July, 2011.

2 MK:Smart, Research into Smart Cities.

3 Lorraine Hudson and Gerd Kortuem. Smart Cities. A FutureLearn Course.

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

  • Policy Makers including presidents, directors of NGOs, and citizens
    Policy makers

    In Global Systems Science this article defines policy makers are defined to be politicians, their officers, citizens and other stakeholders.

  • Prediction and the policy dilemma
    Prediction and the policy dilemma

    The Policy Dilemma involves policy makers trying to predict if their policies will work. This article explains why prediction is so hard.

  • Policy design
    Policy design

    In this video Jeffrey Johnson explains that policy, like design, is a coevolution between problem and solution involving compromise and satisficing.

  • Conclusion to the course
    Conclusion to the course

    This article concludes the Global System Science and Policy course by noting that Complex Systems Science is young and cannot solve all problems.