The Science of Cities: Is Urbanization Sustainable?

“Rapid urbanization is the fastest, most intense social phenomenon that ever happened to humankind, perhaps to biology on Earth. I think we can now start to understand in new and better ways why this is happening everywhere and ultimately what it means for our species and for our planet.” — Luis Bettencourt, Sante Fe Institute


It was only a century ago when 2 for every 10 people on the planet resided in a city. Before that time it was even less. Yet today more than half of the world’s population lives in a city, and by mid-century it's projected over 70% of all humans (with our growing population taken into account (expected to reach a homeostasis of around 10 billion people)) will be stationed in some sort of metropolitan municipality. This explosion of urban dwellers is a game-changer, and it’s important to understand why, and what else needs to happen for this shift to transpire effectively.

And this is precisely what some researchers at the Sante Fe Institute have been working on. SFI is like CERN for complexity research, a highly selective think tank where physicists, biologists, mathematicians and the like congregate in attempts to decipher how the world works. Two researchers in particular, Geoffery West and Luis Bettencourt, have been collaborating on something referred to as a “science of cities”. Their overhead reads: Cities, Scaling and Sustainability, and the goal is to create a “Grand Unified Theory of Sustainability” based on, amongst other things, empirical evidence they’ve collected that suggest a sameness in the DNA of a city’s makeup.

To these scientists cities are like super-organisms, and can be broken down and analyzed just like all other species in the biological kingdom. Geoffery West speaking in an EDGE.org interview postulates,

“Is New York just a scaled up San Francisco, which is a scaled up Santa Fe? Superficially, that seems unlikely because they look so different…On the other hand, a whale doesn’t look much like a giraffe. But in fact, they’re scaled versions of one another, at this kind of cross-grained 85, 90 percent level.”

West and colleagues tracking these dynamics of urban centers around the world have discerned therein lies laws containing a “universality” to them. For instance, “doubling the size of a city systematically increases income, wealth, number of patents, number of colleges, number of creative people, number of police, amount of waste… all by approximately 15%.” Additionally, this doubling effect “saves approximately 15% on all infrastructures.” These results have been observed in hundreds of cities and counting, all around the world.

Building on this idea in a recent paper in Science, West’s colleague Luis Bettencourt adds another dimension to the analogy, explaining:

“A city is first and foremost a social reactor. It works like a star, attracting people and accelerating social interaction and social outputs in a way that is analogous to how stars compress matter and burn brighter and faster the bigger they are.”

It’s as if the magnetic pull of people towards the city is built into nature, just like the gravitational pull of matter towards the star. A scintillating concept - backed by data - hinting towards a fractal dimensionality of life in the cosmos; suggesting a corollary between the prevalence of urbanization on our planet with the evolution of stars in our galaxy. But the question then becomes... how do we prevent our city-stars from going supernova on us?

And this is where West and Bettencourt’s ‘Grand Unified Theory of Sustainability’ comes into play. Since we can measure and understand the composition of a city, they believe we can formulate an all-encompassing blueprint for sustaining urbanization, and in doing so, life on the planet.

Time is certainly of the essence, however. Data shows that “the concentration of economic and cultural activities in larger cities lead to an acceleration of time — and greater rates of innovation.” Thus, alongside the expedient push towards the city is a clock ticking faster and faster. It is a velocity flirting with civilization’s terminal conclusion. In fact, the British ‘Astronomer Royal’ Sir Martin Rees goes so far as to call the 21st Century mankind’s “Final Hour” — estimating humanity’s probability of extinction before 2100 to be 50%… a mere coin flip!

So as the city becomes the bedrock of human activity on the planet, it may be our last shot at getting this sustainability thing right. A science of cities can provide the clarity needed for swift and accurate decision making. It's a transformation that fuses at the intersection of technology and ecology. Where big data illuminates problems and innovators design solutions. Where urban planners collaborate with biologists, and collectively we champion the holistic values essential for modernity to flourish. Armed with a universal perspective of the city, the old maxim “think global, act local” really begins to hold some weight. Indeed, everything may depend on it.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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