Is development a city, a corporation or something completely different?

The headline may sound a bit strange, but after Ran Prieur’s reflections on a longer conversation and essay by Geoffrey West it turns out to be a legitimate question after all. I came across Ran’s summary first before reading Geoffrey’s essay:
West is a physicist who tried to find universal laws for biology, and he discovered that a bunch of things scale exponentially with size, and the exponent is less than one, which means as an organism gets bigger, certain things get smaller in ways that you can mathematically predict. [...] Then he started looking at human social systems, and he discovered that cities scale with an exponent greater than one, which means a city of a million people will have more production and innovation than ten cities of a hundred thousand. Also it will have more crime and disease, and people will walk faster! [...] Then West looks at corporations, and finds that they operate like individual organisms, not like cities. So a billion dollar company will have lower profits and less innovation than ten hundred-million-dollar companies. And there's a great bit, [...] about how cities have more diversity as they get bigger, including niches for crazy people, while corporations have less diversity.

The obvious question for this blog is: Where does it leave the development enterprise? West’s essay is long, theoretical and I do not claim to have understood it all. But what I find so fascinating is that ‘development’ seems to be an entity that has the potential to engage with, shape and evolve within both cultures: The ‘city culture’ as well as the ‘corporate culture’. Development is a set of ideas, practices and people and cities is often where it ‘takes place’ (and is often criticised because ‘real development’ apparently happens in ‘the field’). Here’s West on the key function of cities in the future:
Cities are the cause of the problem, and they're also the cause of the good life. They are the centers of wealth creation, creativity, innovation, and invention. They're the exciting places. They are these magnets that suck people in. And that's what's been happening. And so they are the origin of the problems, but they are the origin of the solutions. And we need to come to terms with that, and we need to understand how cities work in a more scientific framework, meaning to what extent can we make it into a quantitative predictive, mathematizible kind of science.

West continues to look at communalities of cities across geographical spaces and cultures and finds, maybe not surprisingly, that people and social networks are key in understanding them. Given the global, transnational scope of ‘development’ and its people, I am quite intrigued by the thought that ‘development’ may not just be some sort of expansionist, capitalist business model, but also a vehicle for ideas, new social networks and emerging clusters of knowledge and practice that can make life more sustainable. Maybe this already happens in Nairobi. Or maybe in Geneva? Here’s West again:
This is true for any metric you want to think of and across the world. If you look at Japanese data or Chinese data or data from Chile or Colombia or the Netherlands or Portugal or the United States, it all looks the same. Yet these cities have nothing to do with one another.
It says that geography and history played a subdominant role as it did in biology in a sense. And so if you tell me the size of a city in the United States, I can tell you with some 85 percent accuracy how many police it would have, how many AIDS cases, how long the length of the roads are, how many patents it's producing and so on, on the average.
Of course, you can use that as a baseline for talking about actual individual cities, how they over and underperform relative to this idealized scaling number. But the question is, where in the hell does that come from? What is it that's universal that transcends countries and cultures?
Well obviously, it's what cities are really about, not these buildings and the roads and things, but the people. It's people. What we believe is that the scaling laws are a manifestation of social networks, of the universality of the way human beings interact, what we're doing now, talking to one another, exchanging ideas, and doing tasks together, and so on.
It is the nature of those networks and the clustering — very importantly, the hierarchical clustering of those networks, the family structure, the way families interact, and then all the way out through businesses and so on, that there's a kind of universality to that that is representative of the kind of scale at which humans interact.

Maybe this is too abstract, but West’s reflections on corporations may be more applicable to development organisations and their challenges to learning and managing knowledge. Actually, West seems quite pessimistic about bureaucracy taking over the company and I wonder whether it applies to development organisations as well:
Indeed, if you go to General Motors or you go to American Airlines or you go to Goldman Sachs, you don't see crazy people. Crazy people are fired. Well, to speak of crazy people is taking the extreme. But maverick people are often fired.
It's not surprising to learn that when manufacturing companies are on a down turn, they decrease research and development, and in fact in some cases, do actually get rid of it, thinking "oh, we can get that back, in two years we'll be back on track."
Well, this kind of thinking kills them. This is part of the killing, and this is part of the change from super linear to sublinear, namely companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, and unfortunately, it's necessary. You cannot run a company without administrative. Someone has got to take care of the taxes and the bills and the cleaning the floors and the maintenance of the building and all the rest of that stuff. You need it. And the question is, “can you do it without it dominating the company?” The data suggests that you can't.
Conclusios: Why I find West’s essay fascinating

The first thing I find fascinating is, because it is part of my research, how ‘development’ is shaping cities, e.g. in post-conflict scenarios when peacebuilders and their organisations and discourses arrive and ‘liberal peace’ is created. We often see how big cities, especially the capitals, grow and become a space for everything from businesses to innovative local NGOs. The discourse of development is contributing to the growth, but growth also means, according to West, more spaces for ‘crazy people’ and more diversity. My big question is whether West’s findings apply to cities in developing countries and what role ‘development’ really plays. Research into planning and changes in urban developments in post-conflict cities offers a complex picture as the term
UN Urbanism implies, but it is focussed more on the physical infrastructure and less on the ideological space, as Kai Vöckler's presentation on the Politics of Identity-The Example of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina indicates:

However, one of the most crucial factors affecting a city after a conflict is the rapid population growth that occurs within the shortest possible period of time, due to the large influx of rural emigrants and returning refugees. Cities like Prishtina or Kabul have had their populations triple or quadruple inside a few years after the arrival of foreign intervention troops. Rapid population growth results in an unregulated, informal construction boom, since there is a strong demand for housing. It is not only the reconstruction of a city, the rebuilding of ruins, which influences the city and its identity in post-conflict situations, but also, to a great extent, the erection of new urban structures. When it comes to rebuilding, international aid strategies usually tend to neglect the fact that it is the urgently needed new buildings that create the framework for future development and help to shape the city’s identity.
The second issue concerns development organisations themselves and Prieur’s thoughts will probably resonate well with those who are already engaging with systems thinking and innovation in this area:
Why do cities scale differently than corporations? Because they have an emergent or "bottom up" structure rather than central control. Can we design businesses, governments, economies that are less centrally controlled than the ones we have now? Yes, and we have barely started.

In the end, urban planning needs architects as much as anthropologists and many other disciplines to fully unleash the development potential of cities, especially in post-conflict spaces.

What I take from these reflections is that a) development organisations need to work harder on their ‘bottom-up’ structures; b) that ‘development’ (organisations, aid money, local and expat lifestyles, consumerism, culture etc.) needs to engage more with the cities and spaces it is working in, not just treating them as spaces where
‘real development’ is planned and c) that researchers (myself included) need to learn more about the relationships (especially the positive ones) between development, innovation and cities both in the global North and South. Maybe the workshop culture in, say, Brussels or the expat lifestyles in, say, Kathmandu have a more positive impact on development than we/I previously thought...


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