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Scale and Complexity [Books
Posted on October 12, 2017 @ 10:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday I started reading a new book by Geoffrey West called Scale (2017).

So far I'm learning about how the number of patents filed scales with city population size (superlinear - more patents in more populated cities), how the amount of infrastructure (e.g., length of roads, water pipes, electrical cables, gas stations, etc...) scales with city population size (sublinear - less infrastructure per person in more populated cities), how per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) scales with city population size (superliner - more GDP per person in more populated cities) and many other interesting scaling relationships. The book tries to give a more fundamental account for why such scaling relationships exist; an account that draws upon research in complexity theory. The book is very readable so far and there appears be virtually no math equations on display but appreciating this book will require you to master some basic mathematical concepts like what a linear, logarithmic, exponential, and power law relationship is. If you are rusty on these important mathematical concepts then reading the book to brush up on this stuff would be one reason to read it because he explains them well in the context of lots of examples and interesting discussion. Ultimately, where Geoffrey wants to get to is a "science of cities" that might consist of a fundamental theory that organizes alot of this scaling data.

I'm not that far into the book yet to give any final review.

The book does remind me of a popular business book by Verne Harnish called Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It...and Why the Rest Don't (2014).

Verne argues that companies need to "conquer complexity" (p. 24) in order to scale up and that "complexity generates three fundamental barriers to scaling up a venture" (p. 25):

  • Leadership: The inability to staffgrow enough leaders throughout the organization who have the capabilities to delegate and predict.
  • Scalable Infrastructure: The lack of systems and structures (physical and organizational) to handle the complexities in communication and decisions that come with growth.
  • Marketing: The failure to scaleup an effective marketing function to both attract new relationships (customers, talent, etc.) to the business and address the increased competitive pressures (and eroded margins) as you scale.

Verne argues that you have to keep solving these same problems, often in different ways, at different levels of growth (e.g., < $1 million, > $ 1 million, > $10 million, > $50 million) if you want to keep on growing.

I am looking forward to reading what Geoffrey West has to say about scaling up and the "science of cities" and how that might relate to what Verne Harnish, Toby Hemenway (The Permaculture City, 2015), and Richard T.T. Forman (Urban Ecology: Science of Cities, 2014) have to say about these topics.

Another person who is busy scaling up is the Sweden-based farming entepreneur Richard Perkins who shares alot of useful information in his YouTube channel. He has a recent two part video series on how he intends to use lean thinking to help him double revenue while also reducing his workload. I think they offer a useful case study on the type of planning one might engage in to "conquer complexity" to enable more growth and more free time.

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