Jonah Lehrer: Cities Are the Knowledge Engines of the 21st Century

Cities live forever, while companies die all the time. As Jonah Lehrer points out in this video, the design ethos of the city is human-centered. The kinds of interactions that happen in cities make us more productive, whereas companies tend to silo knowledge, rely on old ideas, and then die off.

With all of the crime and pollution, noise and overcrowding, why would anyone want to live in a city, when, after all, you don't have to? We possess the technological tools to once again live as nomads, working from anywhere, just as our ancestors did before the Neolithic revolution. And yet, urbanization is one of the trends that is coming to define the 21st century. According to UN estimates, cities are growing by over 60 million people per year -- or over one million people per week. 


As we have pointed out previously, the enormous demographic shift that is underway represents both a crisis and an opportunity. On the one hand, new urban centers, particularly in emerging markets, will soon be added to the list of so-called 'mega-cities,' those hot spots that currently generate about 60 percent of the the world's GDP. On the other hand, there is the concern that governments will be unable to plan for rapid growth, resulting in the proliferation of mega-slums. 

It is therefore vital to understand the key advantages of urbanization, and how we can use that knowledge to plan and design communities, organizations and physical spaces in a way that will maximize human productivity, not squelch it. 

What's the Big Idea?

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, which is a survey of science literature on creativity, we forego extra elbow room to live in dense urban centers because cities expedite the transfer of knowledge. Lehrer tells Big Think, "there is no better model for the virtue of a city than that conversation you have on the sidewalk or in the subway." Since we are all so "smashed together" as city dwellers, "cities concentrate those kinds of interactions."

If the design of cities fosters creativity and innovation, how can we apply its logic to other areas? Lehrer points to research by the Santa Fe Institute's Geoffrey West that suggests the 21st century city is a model for human interaction. Furthermore, West's data collection suggests that businesses need to learn from the way that cities grow if they hope to survive and prosper. 

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

As Lehrer points out, "cities live forever," while "companies die all the time." Cities have survived the Blitzkrieg, devastating earthquakes, even nuclear bombs, but they still come back. By comparison, companies are "very fragile and fleeting." To put it another way, cities are superlinear and companies are sublinear

Lehrer says it is in the very design of cities that we are brought together, and the friction that results from that interaction is very productive. As cities grow, knowledge spreads, and more patent applications are made. This is what Geoffrey West calls "superlinear scaling." So how are cities able to grow in a way that increases productivity while companies tend to grow in a way that stifles it? 

According to Lehrer, when companies grow (and especially in a climate when growth alone is the holy grail) they "end up becoming less innovative and so they become more reliant on their old ideas." 

They key difference between cities and companies, Lehrer tells us, is that despite what might often be the best of intentions, companies tend to silo knowledge by erecting "vertical hierarchies." A CEO tells his employees what to work on. A CEO tells his employees to brainstorm on a given problem, a practice that Lehrer is quick to point out "very clearly doesn't work." In fact, these vertical hierarchies are exactly what stifles interaction, and holds a company back.

So what does it mean to follow Lehrer and West's advice, which is to imitate a city? Well, for one thing, you can imitate Apple, a company that mastered the use of design thinking in growing its business. In terms of practical leadership, it means fostering horizontal conversations. It means embracing the concept of a city, which may appear chaotic and random. Yet as Lehrer points out, cities do a really good job of just letting us go about our business. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

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Yamagata et al.
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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
popular
  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

First year of life for six Swainson's Hawks [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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An Atlantic horseshoe crab in an aquarium. Photo: Domdomegg via Wikimedia Commons.
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