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June 24, 2020 58 min

Cities define the modern world. They characterize the human era and its impacts on our planet. By bringing us together, these "social reactors" amplify the best in us: our creativity, efficiency, wealth, and communal ethos. But they also amplify our worst: the incidence of social crimes, the span of inequality, our vulnerability to epidemics. And built into the physics of the city is an accelerating cycle of crisis and innovation that now drives our global economy and ecosystems closer to the edge of existential peril. 

Many economists believe that open-ended growth and technological advances can save us from destruction, but the scaling laws that describe the evolution of the city seem to suggest the opposite: that we are on an ever-faster treadmill and can only jump to even faster treadmills, until our unchecked growth precipitates collapse. Are we on a super-exponential runway to abundance, or are we trapped in a kind of test of our ability to understand our constraints and steward our limited resources? 

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and each week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week’s episode is part two of a two-part conversation with Geoffrey West, a physicist, Distinguished Shannan Professor and former President of the Santa Fe Institute.

In part one we set the stage for a deep, difficult examination of our current complex crises by reviewing some key revelations from his book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. In this week’s episode, we tackle the question of open-ended growth and whether complex systems science offers any insight into the design of a sustainable economy. 

Note that these episodes were taped before the murder of George Floyd, and now seem both strangely out-of-date and uncannily prophetic. Stay tuned in the weeks to come for conversations more directly touching on race, bias, inequality, polarization, counterspeech, and trauma, and follow us on social media for timely coverage of the science helping guide society toward fairer and saner outcomes.

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a recurring monthly donation at, or joining our Applied Complexity Network at Also, please consider rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. Thank you for listening!

Further Listening & Reading:

Geoffrey West’s Wikipedia & Google Scholar Pages

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

COMPLEXITY 04: Luis Bettencourt on The Science of Cities

COMPLEXITY 10: Melanie Moses on Metabolic Scaling in Biology & Computation

COMPLEXITY 17: Chris Kempes on The Physical Constraints on Life & Evolution

Visit our website for more information or to support our science and communication efforts.

Join our Facebook discussion group to meet like minds and talk about each episode.

Podcast Theme Music by Mitch Mignano.

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