"The origins of cities lie not only in energy supply and demand, but also in the sharing and processing of information"
Sander van der Leeuw is one of a handful of minds I find quite close to the center of understanding complexity. As with Geoffrey West and David Krakauer, he's at the Santa Fe Institute. Others elsewhere would be Howard Odum, Herman Daly, Joseph Tainter and William Ophuls.
This is an excellent introduction to his thinking on cities, their formation, and their role as information processing systems more than anything else.
This is the first of four videos, about 8m 30s..
A rough transcript follows:
About 25,000 years ago, changes, probably evolution of better cognitive capabilities and a sense of technology. By 10,000 years ago we saw the first cities. And the question becomes, for both villages and cities: why do people gather together?
The prevailing theory is that this is to save energy -- that by living together you can save energy. More recent research suggests this isn't the case: more people n one area require more travel to gather and concentrate food. So van der Leeuw suggests a new perspective on urban evolution:
Societies -- humans -- process matter, energy, but also information. Energy and matter cannot be shared -- either you have it or I do, but not both. Information isn't like that -- it can be shared. It's nonrivalrous. If I tell you soemthing, we both have it.
Villages and cities emerge as a tool to help process information.
The cycle works like this: People are confronted with challenges or problems. They solve them. But any solution has side-effects -- new problems. Unintended or intended problems, emergent phenomena. So now those have to be solved. And so on.
People depend increasingly on communication. Less on individualism, more on forming groups. Bringing people together physically, first in villages, later in towns, drives urban evolution.
Recent work at the Santa Fe Institute and at Leuphana in Italy, has concluded through analysis of modern cities and allometric scaling: comparisons of cities through different size ranges. As cities grow, they use less energy per capita, and more information per capita. It's that information processing which allows and drives cities to become bigger.
Imagine a community of a few thousand people who need to be fed. Eneergy and matter come from outside the city, from an every wider area. You manage this by organising the countryside around the city: burn down forests, remove stumps, make fields, cultivate grains, raise herds, etc., to provide foodstocks for the city's population. But organising the countryside itself is an information processing activity.
Cities and larger entities are effectively flow structures: energy flows in, drawn in by the residents of the city, but in order to continue and expand this activity, they need to process ever more information. Which leads to innovation. Innovation then is an absolutely crucial characteristic of cities. If a city doesn't innovate, it loses against other cities, loses contact with the surrounding world, and disappears (or its citizens disappear from it to go somewhere else).
That dynamic started 10,000 years, and continued until very recently. But the dynamic was slow, and the growth of cities was slow, leading eventually to structures such as the Roman empire, where the city became so large that resources and trade over vast distances were required for the city to survive.
Around 1800 AD a fundamental change happened: humans started using fossil energy. Until then, growth and evolution of cities was limited by available energy: human, animal, wind, solar, and plants.
With the introduction of the steam engine and use of fossil fuels, energy became cheap (EROEI).
That meant that people could develop many new things and many new technologies, which lead to the past two centuries of human development.
That changes the perspective on sustainability.
Most people in both politics and general society think that we need to innovate our way out of the sustainability problems that we're having. What we forget in saying this is that we innovated our way into this problem in the first place. By having two centuries in which, with very cheap energy, we could innovate anything we wanted, and didn't exert any control over what we were innovating. Especially in the past 60 years, where we've seen the proliferation of the consumer society where we've innovated ever more gadgets which are sort of useful to an extent, pleasant, but not really necessary.