The Magic of Cities, with Luis Bettencourt (Ep. 5)

Luis Bettencourt, Pritzker Director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, discusses his research on complex systems and how he’s combining science and policy and using data to capture “the magic of cities for the common good.”


Show Notes

Luis Bettencourt is a theoretical physicist by training, but rather than study black holes or string theory, he uses data to better understand cities in new and predictive ways.

Bettencourt has spent his career studying complex systems—first as a researcher at the prestigious Santa Fe Institute and now as the inaugural director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. Those systems encompass any linked group of things, from ant hills to financial systems, and Bettencourt said cities are some of the most interested complex systems of change, the likes of which have rarely been seen in nature.

Read more:


Andrew Bauld: Hey, everyone, this is Andrew. I wanted to let you know that, this is the final episode for season one of Knowledge Applied. If you’re a first time listener, check out our past episodes and subscribe on iTunes and leave a review and rating, if you like what you hear. But stay tuned for our second season, coming later this year. We’ll feature a whole new lineup of stories about the research reshaping everyday life.

Andrew Bauld: Until then, you’ll get your fix of UChicago Podcasts with the launch of our new series, Big Brains, it’s hosted by Paul Rand, who heads communications at the University of Chicago. Big Brains feature some of the leading researchers at UChicago, sharing the stories behind their transformative ideas that will change the way you see the world. We’ll share a trailer later in April, so make sure to subscribe. Enjoy the episode.

Luis Bettencourt: There are many cycles of using data in cities, that have been, in many ways, destructive. The most famous example was to think about efficiencies in fire department in New York City, to start rationalize their fire response in a data-driven way. And so, the idea is, well, maybe you don’t have to respond here because property values maybe are lower, so the cost you incur is lower and so forth and the Bronx burnt down.

Andrew Bauld: In the 1970s, fire raged through the Bronx, leaving behind blocks of ash and rubble. In an effort by the New York City government to increase efficiency, they relied on flawed data to measure and adjust fire response time. The result was destruction for some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Luis Bettencourt: I think a lot of the human dimensions of the problem were completely forgotten, because one was measuring efficiency in some relatively simple and crass way. So, I think that that’s, sort of, a warning for the uses of data-driven approaches. But I think also, we should be less naive about this and really supplement what may be hard facts that can be measured with close and continuing contact with the human experience.

Andrew Bauld: Luis Bettencourt believes that, in order to avoid the problems of the past and capitalize on the promise of cities in the future, we need to understand how to use the new wealth of data now available more effectively. And to do that, we need to change our definition of what makes a city, a city.

Andrew Bauld: From the University of Chicago, this is Knowledge Applied, a podcast where we go inside the research reshaping everyday life, I’m Andrew Bauld. Luis Bettencourt studies cities, how they function, how they grow, what makes them similar and what makes them unique. For over a decade, he worked at the prestigious Santa Fe Institute and recently, he was appointed director of the new Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, here at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in major outlets, including New York Times, the Atlantic and the podcast Radiolab, detailing his use of new data to devise ways to describe cities in quantitative and predictive ways.

Luis Bettencourt: Cities are really the places where people come together and where change is generated. Very broad change, in many aspects of life, as well as in the built environment and our relationship with the natural environment. And so, cities really are these nexus, these inventions by which humans can amplify their capabilities and create a lot of change. And so, I became very interested in cities, I always had been as a person. I think we live, actually historically, in an extraordinary time, where the whole world, whole countries, whole cities, are changing quickly.

Andrew Bauld: Cities aren’t just a collection of skyscrapers, they’re complex systems of change created by humans, the likes of which have never been seen before in nature. Through his analysis, Luis has uncovered the special way cities grow, creating larger and denser networks of interconnectivity that push people living in them to learn more and depend on each other in deeper ways.

Luis Bettencourt: And what you tend to see is that cities, essentially, accelerate the rate at which things are being produced as social products, by condensing people in space, by creating higher densities, higher densities of interaction. Which are both, sort of, general, that cities are generally denser but also, structured, in the sense there are places of interactions, like public spaces, places of work, that are dedicated to certain kinds of interactions to make them more productive.

Andrew Bauld: While he might sound like a philosopher, Luis comes from a very different academic background in theoretical physics.

Luis Bettencourt: Well, personally, I’ve always been interested in people and the way in which human societies can change quickly and for the better. But then, as a theoretical physicist, the story there is that, I was also very interested in science, very strict definition in science, in the sense of, where is it that science best describes aspects of the world? And I think, arguably, physics is one of those places where we’ve had classical theory, for a long time, that is increasingly described aspects of the world and now the entire universe. And I thought that I wanted to learn that and if I didn’t learn that through my formal education, I wouldn’t learn it ever.

Andrew Bauld: But Luis found a way to combine his two passions by studying complex systems. The philosopher Aristotle said, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s a good way to think about complex systems. At their most basic, these systems encompass any network of linked things, from ant hills to financial systems, a single living cell, to the entire universe. And the complex system Luis studied was the city.

Luis Bettencourt: I started looking at a lot of new data that was coming from cities and using my modeling and theoretical skills to try to make sense of it. And I was all naive at the beginning but I think, actually, it’s a sign of the times that we can know a lot more about cities and we know a lot more about human societies, because of this increased torrent of evidence. And so, it was a time that was very fertile for people like me, try to make sense then of classical theories of the social sciences, of geography and to try to create, essentially, knowledge that applies to cities throughout the world, throughout history. And at the same time, respects what’s particular and wonderful about each one of them.

Andrew Bauld: Luis’ research calls cities a new kind of human created complex system. And as cities grow in number and size, understanding how they function is key to making them more equitable and better places to live. And you need more than just physics to truly understand what’s happening beneath the hustle and bustle of city life.

Luis Bettencourt: You need to bring together knowledge from many traditional disciplines. You need the modeling and data analysis but then, you need the domain knowledge of disciplines that are close to it. So, in cities, geography, economics, sociology, is very important, political science. I could go down the list, there are many. As a person living in a city, the fact that all these facets of life come together to create a life and a life through time. And that by taking this more global perspective, where many things are happening, that have different characters, at least, we’ve seen from a perspective of traditional disciplines, that by bringing them together, you can actually create a picture that’s actually simpler, in the sense that it makes more sense, it’s more predictable, than if you separate it, in terms of classical scholarship.

Andrew Bauld: Luis will be exploring a variety of aspects of cities as the director of the newly formed Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation here at the University of Chicago. It brings together a range of disciplines to better understand the processes that drive, shape and sustain cities.

Luis Bettencourt: The University of Chicago is particularly interesting because it’s both an institution that’s always seen itself as urban, it’s part of a big city, but saw its mission from beginning as a mission of being in contact with the city, in both an intellectual relationship and a practical relationship. And the Mansueto Institute is, in some sense, an effort to create an approach that uses all our scholarship, both practical and fundamental, in new ways to understand cities globally and through all this avalanche of information and to help create, essentially, this new discipline of understanding cities and the human condition.

Andrew Bauld: The growing access to data, on nearly every conceivable facet of city life, can be overwhelming. So, where does a researcher begin?

Luis Bettencourt: So, I think that’s the challenge for many of us who are doing research in cities but also, more generally, data rich complex systems. I think that the trick, I speak for myself, but I think it is a general strategy, is that you have to come at the data with questions. You can ask very simple and crass questions like, how much money do people make in a small city versus a large city? You can ask, how much of it is open land? How much of it is occupied by roads? How tall are the buildings? What kind of sectors are people employed in? What are the professions? And for all these questions there’s data but that you can see by looking today, in 2018 now, across cities of many different sizes, that gives you a certain perspective of what happens when a city gets large and what needs to happen, in terms of people getting more specialized, earning more money, paying more money, the built environment getting denser, getting often more sophisticated with public transportation and institutions that solve conflict and so forth, when things work and when they don’t work, these things explode.

Luis Bettencourt: And so, you start seeing the logic of cities in this way. So, that’s what I did is, basically, ask questions of what things that we generally expect, both from scholarship and experience and then, make those things as solid as possible, using evidence and seeing what patterns emerge.

Andrew Bauld: As new data provides greater insights into how cities take shape, you might imagine them looking very different in the future. But according to Luis, despite their changes, the core nature of cities will remain the same.

Luis Bettencourt: Because cities create so much change, that part of that change is changing themselves, right? So, cities are always changing, to some extent, but some of that character and even the built environment character, has commonalities, buildings that are built in different ways but you still have places where people need to work and live, so that persists. So, often the insights come from taking this functional perspective of cities, you need places to live, you need places to work, you need public spaces to move around, you need places of interaction, you need to have institutions that mediate conflict and allow people, strangers really, to come together and collaborate and exchange. So, all that’s going to be there, but the forms in which they appear are going to be very different in different places, with different histories and presumably, as technologies come in and change also some of the logic.

Andrew Bauld: One of the biggest changes happening in cities is thanks to technological advances that would’ve seemed farfetched only a decade ago, but now have completely altered city living.

Luis Bettencourt: So, you see a lot of this with the share economy, right? That you’d never let a stranger come into your apartment because you think that’ll be a bad idea, but if there’s a mechanism, mostly an informational mechanism, through reputation, that that transaction can be mediated, then you’re willing to do it. So, that’s just an example of how a bit of technology can change something quite fundamental, but that’s done historically through institutions, through culture and through other things. So, cities are always experimenting at what channels of interaction can be open, a lot of these are really about information. And as those are open, more possibilities of exchange, greater specialization, more innovation can be produced. So, because of that, I think, as long as we live in a world that rewards change, economic growth, innovation and presumably, ways of doing that that are equitable, then I think cities are inevitable. They’re the only way that we really have to do that well.

Andrew Bauld: The framework Luis has developed has practical applications too, especially for planners and policy makers, in helping them better understand the ways to increase human connection through things like transportation and electrical grids, while reducing obstacles, like crime and segregation.

Luis Bettencourt: It’s a very interesting time for all the reasons we already discussed. It’s a time where people are interested in cities because they’re now a global phenomenon. So, even though we always care about our own city and Chicago’s very important for us, it’s also a time where you can think about Chicago, vis-a-vis, many other cities in the world, compare them, learn from each other and so forth. And this is happening at the political level, it’s happening at a scientific level, it’s happening at the non-profit level, many different levels. This is creating really an extraordinary dynamic of global learning and change that’s very interesting, both in practice and in scholarship. And the fact that we have evidence about so many things that we could now study and act on, presumably better, but we have to be careful to act on the right things.

Andrew Bauld: Ultimately, Luis believes, with better understanding of how cities function, his theories can work with policy to create better environments for everyone.

Luis Bettencourt: It’s really that, no, there’s a logic to this. And if you want the system to keep on flourishing and working well, you need to basically create a way in which the resources that are being generated are supporting the openness of the city, the creativity of a city, the city as a place of opportunity, the attraction that the city has on most people out there, the way in which it can integrate people, such that they have a better life, but the city is also a better place. And unless you understand those processes well enough, then policy will always be trial and error. But I think if you understand this as a process of creativity, a process of value creation, a process of inclusion, a process of creating institutions that have this functional meaning, then you really have a way of having science and policy come together in a way that really speaks to the magic of cities for the common good.

Andrew Bauld: Knowledge Applied is a production of the University of Chicago. To learn more, visit us at You can listen to this episode and all of our episodes on iTunes, Stitcher and wherever else you get your podcasts. We’ll be back with the second season next year, but stay tuned for our next series coming this spring, it’s called Big Brains, where you’ll hear interviews with transformative thinkers, changing the way you see the world. Thanks for listening.


Episode List

The Magic of Cities, with Luis Bettencourt (Ep. 5)

Luis Bettencourt, Pritzker Director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, discusses his research on complex systems and how he’s combining science and policy and using data to capture “the magic of cities for the common good.”

Making a Smarter City, with Charlie Catlett (Ep. 4)

Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at UChicago and Argonne, is leading an effort called the Array of Things that aims to install 500 sensor nodes around Chicago and eventually setup a network around the world “to improve living and working in the city.”

Hunger in the Hospital, with Stacy Lindau (Ep. 3)

Physician-scholar Stacy Lindau shares how she decided to address what she called a “real humanitarian need” by leading a Chicago-area program to help combat hunger called Feed1st. The food pantries benefit families and hospital staff, and the program provides critical data for future medical study.

The Psychology of Trees, with Marc Berman (Ep. 2)

UChicago environmental psychologist Marc Berman shows that adding trees to a city can have a significant impact on a person’s health and happiness. His findings have shown that even just looking at pictures of nature or hearing nature sounds can have positive cognitive effects.

Smart Decarceration, with Matt Epperson (Ep. 1)

SSA Assoc. Prof. Matt Epperson discusses the history of mass incarceration, and the social and political changes that have occurred over the last decade that may make this the ideal time to begin shrinking the U.S. prison population.

Master of Liberal Arts