Matt Staggs at Signature:
What do you, your town, and your employer all have in common? Scalability. According to physicist Geoffrey West, there are mathematical principles that govern the growth and longevity of complex organisms, crowded cities, and even corporations. West’s new book Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, introduces readers to this hidden, fascinating world.
In the following interview, West explains the difference between complicated and complex, what the rise of Donald Trump suggests about the state of the world, and why the company you work for could be living on borrowed time.
SIGNATURE: You’re known as “the dean of complexity theory”. A lot of our readers may not understand what complexity means and why you study it.
GEOFFREY WEST: Science has progressed, at least beginning with the physical sciences, by always being what’s called reductionistic: that is, reducing things to their primary elements, whether they’re electrons, atoms, molecules, or genes and so forth. That has been enormously successful, but one of the things that we’ve begun to appreciate more and more — especially in the last 50 years, certainly the last 20 — is that kind of paradigm has extraordinary limitations.
When you try to build up from these fundamental elements to the collective whole, you discover that the whole is much greater than, behaves differently than, and is structured differently from the sum of its parts. What you recognize in parallel with that is almost all of the major issues that we face on the planet in a tsunami of challenges and crises — everything from climate change and the question of stability in markets to potential questions about risk and how we deal with things like cancer, and the encroaching threat of global urbanization — are what we call complex. They’re not easily, or even potentially, reduced to the sum of their parts.