Come home, Paul Krugman

Whether he knew it or not, Paul Krugman’s attempt to understand how cities work was part of an effort that has spanned centuries. People from Friedrich Engels to James Joyce have used art, math and science to try and crack the code of cities (the book “Emergence” by Steven Johnson has some fascinating stuff on this). And, finally, in 2010, the Santa Fe Institute gave us a glimpse of the city’s DNA by reprising some of Krugman’s work.

A team at the Santa Fe Institute led by Geoffrey West proved that we can predict how cities will grow — something Krugman had suggested 14 years earlier. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The researchers also found that by collecting massive amounts of data they could make predictions. For example, if given a single piece of data — say, the population of a city — they could tell you how many gas stations it had. Or, if you gave them the average amount of steps per minute the residents take, they could tell you the average wage of employees in the city. They found that all this data was interlinked and predictable. Their findings are nothing short of jaw-dropping. (For a better explanation, check out the “Cities” episode of NPR’s Radiolab or Geoffrey West’s TED talk.)

As far as I can tell, Krugman hasn’t commented on the Santa Fe Institute’s findings, nor has he shown any re-engagement with Complexity. And it’s both difficult and unfair to guess what he might think of the findings that support his work. But we’re left with some questions. Does Krugman still believe that economies organize themselves? Has his increased political engagement affected his views? And if he found himself caught between his political beliefs and scientific ones, why did he choose his political ones?

I believe that exploring Complexity could help inform policies, solve urban problems and give us a better overall view of the world.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, Paul Krugman can help. If he would just (intellectually) come home.

Craig Kirchoff is a complexity hobbyist and lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He will never win a Nobel Prize.