RFF: Quantifying Municipal Growth

I’ve been pursuing several ideas as an independent researcher– some scratch an intellectual itch and others have the makings of new opportunities that require further exploration before they can be commercialized. I call this a request for feedback (RFF). Part of the exploration is throwing ideas onto the Internet and see what comes back, so I’m hoping that a few of you read and express your interest/expertise in some way. This follows the way my friend Steve Coast introduces new projects. Below is the first initiative for your consideration:

Urban environments are unique laboratories for experimentation and change–because of their inherent density, diversity, economic output and other factors, cities can evolve as small-scale laboratories with the potential for widespread impact. Paradoxically, cities tend to be poor at learning what ‘works,’ despite increased availability of raw data.

While performance statistics, KPIs and other metrics are increasingly available, they tend to not be comparable across cities due to data normalization constraints and broad availability of data. Examples of successful benchmarking are limited to a small self-defined peer group which leads to qualitative, rather than objective quantitative assessments.

A growing body of academic literature speaks to quantitative properties across urban environments. In a practical sense, this means a variety of inputs across demographic, economic, physical and other dimensions scale in a predictable pattern. The notion that urban environments are not arbitrary collections of people and resources means this predictability may be independently measured, leading to a rich set of opportunities to help measure, understand, evaluate, benchmark and improve municipal performance along a range of metrics.

In short, there are well-defined relationships between urban populations, physical infrastructure, economic activity, mobility, social patterns and other variables. Pioneering research from the cities, scaling & sustainability initiative at the Santa Fe Institute has demonstrated that power law applies, meaning these variables can be compared across cities, opening a tremendous opportunity to measure and compare the performance of cities along a multitude of dimensions.

This research proposal aims to further the work of the Santa Fe Institute by investigating additional data types and their relationship with population growth. It seeks to create a framework for global measurement of indicators that can yield insight to performance. By benchmarking areas of city performance such as transportation, crime, pollution, disease, emergency services, sanitation and tax performance, municipalities may emerge with a much clearer vision of what does work.

References
The Laws of the City (The Economist)
A Physicist Solves the City (The New York Times)
Professional Diversity and the Productivity of Cities (Nature)
The Origins of Scaling in Cities (Science)
Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities

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