Thursday, March 19, 2009

An Imaginary Mega-City

Last month's edition of The Atlantic had an interesting story by Richard Florida about what the recession may do to different American cities. Counter-intuitively, he says the places that sinned the most may still come out on top, and above them all, New York. This is because NY is the most important of the mega-cities, clusters of megalopolises:

The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent-clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can. There is no evidence that globalization or the Internet has changed that. Indeed, as globalization has increased the financial return on innovation by widening the consumer market, the pull of innovative places, already dense with highly talented workers, has only grown stronger, creating a snowball effect. Talent-rich ecosystems are not easy to replicate, and to realize their full economic value, talented and ambitious people increasingly need to live within them.

Big, talent-attracting places benefit from accelerated rates of “urban metabolism,” according to a pioneering theory of urban evolution developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers affiliated with the SantaFe Institute. The rate at which living things convert food into energy—their metabolic rate—tends to slow as organisms increase in size. But when the Santa Fe team examined trends in innovation, patent activity, wages, and GDP, they found that successful cities, unlike biological organisms, actually get faster as they grow. In order to grow bigger and overcome diseconomies of scale like congestion and rising housing and business costs, cities must become more efficient, innovative, and productive. The researchers dubbed the extraordinarily rapid metabolic rate that successful cities are able to achieve “super-linear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.” Places like New York with finance and media, Los Angeles with film and music, and Silicon Valley with hightech are all examples of high-metabolism places.

Later, he sums it up: dense and intense means creative and successful.

Let's run with his idea for a moment. Each of his mega-cities is larger than the State of Israel. However, if you postulate a cluster of cities from Beer-Sheva at the south of Israel's metropolis, up north to Beirut then east to Damascus and down to Amman, you've got an entity that does compare, in size and population, to some of his examples. Its diversity could easily equal many of the others, what with the kaleidoscope of Jews in Israel; Palestinians (not very monolithic they, and apparently the most enterprising of the Arabs) in Israel, Jordan and (sigh) Palestine; the crazy ethnic quilt of Lebanon, and the traders of Damascus if only someone would let them be part of the rest of the world.

I know, Shimon Peres already wrote a book about the "New Middle East", and we rightfully all made fun of him for it. But his underlying point was legitimate. If the Arabs who surround us were to decide competing with the modern world is better than hating it, and living with us is preferable to futilely trying to get rid of us....

Oh well. Just a thought.

1 comment:

David Boxenhorn said...

Israel is already a high-tech cluster.

From here:

"The distance from Jerusalem to Haifa, which contains most of Israel’s population, is approximately the same as the distance from San Jose to San Francisco, its population is slightly less – about 5 million – about the same as Massachusetts."