Luís Bettencourt

Welcome (Opening Session)

Panel Member (Closing Session)

Presentation (Session 4) – PDF

The City as a System

Author: Luís M. A. Bettencourt

Santa Fe Institute

Cities were among the earliest applications of concepts of systems dynamics and of integrated analysis methods. Early studies and applications generated enormous enthusiasm and suggested novel solutions that identified sector interdependencies and the importance of feedback processes. However, in retrospect, these initial approaches remained too close to engineering to be able to tackle the main social and economic drivers of urban societies. In my presentation, I will discuss how a convergence of ideas and data from across a number of disciplines is creating a new and deeper scientific view of cities and urbanizing societies. This includes a deeper understanding of urban economies; of processes of human development and economic growth; and of the quantity and role of infrastructure and resources in supporting spatially concentrated socioeconomic dynamics. I will show how the general properties of cities can be measured across different nations with distinct levels of socioeconomic development, and how such properties can be predicted using new models of socioeconomic networks of learning agents, embedded in a space that is self-consistently constructed. This shows that socioeconomic mechanisms of collective learning and action are the essence of cities, and demonstrates how urban space, infrastructure, and services must obey certain quantitative properties. This integrated understanding of cities also helps us generate more realistic scenarios for sustainable development in a world that is increasingly urban.


Luís M. A. Bettencourt is a professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. He trained as a theoretical physicist and obtained his PhD at Imperial College London, UK in 1996, for research into statistical and high-energy physics models of the early universe He has held postdoctoral positions at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA, and at MIT—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—in the Center for Theoretical Physics, USA.

He has worked extensively on cities and urbanization. His research emphasizes the creation of new, interdisciplinary syntheses to describe cities in quantitative and predictive ways, informed by the growing availability of empirical data worldwide. His research interests also include the modeling of innovation and sustainability in developing human societies, the dynamics of infectious diseases, and aspects of general information processing in complex systems. He is particularly interested in the interplay between information, structure, and scale in setting the properties of diverse complex systems.


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