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Geoffrey West on unified field theory of scaling

by John Elkington 29 May 2011

Time and again, I hear people saying that Twitter only brings them dross, but time and again I find it brings a real haul of treasure – most recently, and off the scale in terms of interest and value, was a tweet this morning from Valerie Casey of Designers Accord. The link was to a video interview of Geoffrey West, of the Santa Fe Institute – one of the places I have longed to visit for over 20 years.

In the interview, West outlines how the theory of scaling he and his team have developed covers everything from cells to civilizations, from the level of the citizen to the level of the city.

Don’t just read the transcript of the interview, which has some delightful mishaps in it due to what may just have been machine transcription (for example ‘adobe’ buildings in Sante Fe become ‘dopey’); watch the video. Depending on your worldview it will either be like taking a mind-reorienting drug or like coming home.

West’s thinking on the metabolism of cities is something I struggled with when doing an urban planning postgraduate degree at UCL in the early 1970s, and that line of enquiry was what drove me to visit people like Paolo Soleri and his Arcosanti project in Arizona, counterposed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling, semi-cancerous model of Broad Acre City, and – much later – got me thinking about corporate metabolisms with Shelly Fennell, while at SustainAbility.

Just yesterday I had been saying that I had a sense like a wobbling tooth in relation to the book I’m currently writing on the need to set many of the sliders on our economic dashboards to zero, as with carbon, waste or biodiversity loss, and bingo up this came.

Seems to me that this unified field theory is not only going to have to be a central strand for the book but also for the work we do at Volans and SustainAbility.

@volansjohn:Black Friday gift for White House. Watch Earth breathe - and warm. Nasa timelapse paints 'most complete picture of… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…
@volanssam:Making money while doing good goes mainstream - ​ rcnt.eu/oml0k via @raconteur @volansjohn @OLIVERBALCH
@volansjohn:Thanks to @OLIVERBALCH for quoting me in The Times/Raconteur 'Responsible Business' supplement today, google.com/url?hl=en-GB&q…'

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