Ecologically, cities are what humans do—just as bacteria create biofilms and trees make stable soil communities, Homo sapiens
has evolved to generate metropolitan areas. So argues physicist Geoffrey West. Our cities obey the laws that govern ecosystems; generally speaking, they grow in
stability and creativity as they increase in diversity and size. Another
striking facet of the nature of cities is that
they don't die. Companies, by contrast, act like organisms, getting slower as they get bigger, and then growing old
and fading away.
If you think that sounds a touch grandiose, then you probably haven't watched West's recent TED talk or given a listen to his even more recent talk at the Long Now Foundation. West is a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, the southwestern center devoted to the study of complex systems (the place where novelist-in-residence Cormac McCarthy got the notion of the "long shear of light" that touches off the events of his apocalyptic novel The Road). West's recent research teases out some of the deepest laws governing life—physical constraints on the growth, metabolism, body size and, ultimately, the longevity of all living organisms. Despite the evident diversity of the biosphere, all living creatures follow these laws in lockstep, and the mathematics that describe these limits to growth are both simple and highly predictive.
Author and Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly asks a provocative question about West's work: how could a company, then, be made to act more like a city. Less a finite, momentary thing and more of a living ecosystem? When West fielded this question at the Long Now Foundation, his answer (reported by Kelly) was equally provocative: "Bring in the crazy people! A city is full of crazies. You can't get rid of them, but they are the ones that keep the evolution going."
West's answer is titillating, but it packs an intuitive punch, echoing the ideas of urbanist Richard Florida about the rejuvenating effect of the creative class on urban areas in decline. Kelly is skeptical; he thinks that the fuzzily defined borders of cities—which permit an openness and permeability few companies exhibit—let them evolve "without losing their essence." (To this I might add that the longevity of cities may have less to do with any intrinsic properties than the fact that they're typically located in stable place with easy transit routes and access to resources—factors that tend to change on geological, not historical timescales.)
West's talk about the fates of cities and companies, ecosystems and organisms calls to mind the Fermi Paradox—that problem posed by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, who noted that if life is as common in the universe as some postulate, we should see its evidence everywhere. Some theorists have suggested that a clue lies in the very technology Fermi helped to develop: the nuclear bomb. It may be the case that wherever intelligent life emerges, its capacity to destroy itself evolves before the wisdom to eschew self-destruction is won.
Here's where it all comes together: Pollution, climate change, and many of the other perils life faces on Earth are largely the work of companies. Perhaps the answer to the fatal terms of the Fermi Paradox will be found when companies learn to act more like cities and ecosystems—to become adaptable on the longest timescales, to evolve and change rather than trying to make the world bend to serve their interests. The question is, what would such a company look like?