Minneapolis: How do we partition a city into sub-systems?

By Matt Johnson

So far we’ve established the (3) systems’ axioms; we’ve touched on the notion of systems’ boundaries by using examples of cities; and we’ve established what a system’s behavior is by analyzing the labor force, average weekly wages, and unemployment rate of Minneapolis. Today, we are going to begin to partition the Minneapolis system into its respective subsystems and we are going to do it by ward.

In the next blog, we will decompose Minneapolis by zip-code. And in a future article, we will decompose Minneapolis’ wards into their respective subsystems – neighborhoods – which will introduce us to the notion of systems’ levels.

Minneapolis is a city with 413,651 residents as of July 1, 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Furthermore, those 413,651 residents obviously live in different parts of the city. Those parts of the city are called wards and Minneapolis has 13 Wards. According to Minneapolis City Government data, each ward contains about 32,000 residents, which of course varies every few years.

This means that each ward in Minneapolis contains about 32,000 residents; those residents interact with each other; and each ward has a function, which in this case is to provide political opportunity in voting and representation, and allocation of resources.

Thus, we have just shown that all 13 wards in Minneapolis satisfy the (3) systems’ axioms:

  1. A system consists of a set of elements.
  2. Elements in a system interact.
  3. A system has a function, or purpose.

Besides illustrating that these 13 wards are systems, we have also established that these wards are themselves subsystems of the general system of Minneapolis. This is because we have shown they satisfy the systems’ axioms, they are contained within Minneapolis, and they have established boundaries, i.e., political boundaries.

And this is a great place for us to dig a little deeper into the notion of boundary. Boundaries can be fuzzy or concrete; and boundaries can be regular or irregular. In the case of political boundaries, which are the wards we are observing, they are concrete and irregular. If we look at any of the 13 wards in Minneapolis, we can observe that the boundaries of the wards are well-defined, i.e., concrete. And we know this is because of the Minneapolis City Charter. But we can also observe that these boundaries are irregular. That is, they are not squares, rectangles, triangles, or circles.

In this short blog, we established that these 13 wards are subsystems of Minneapolis. We also established, with the help of the map, that the boundaries of these wards are concrete and irregular. As we keep moving forward, we will see that our new-found knowledge of systems will pay dividends when we begin to compare and contrast the different wards, neighborhoods, zip-codes, and other Minneapolis subsystems. And we will do this by adding a new tool to our systems’ took-kit – systems dynamics.

Let us now, as we have done before, attempt to disprove our systems’ notions and work in the tradition of natural philosophy until the next blog.


Matt Johnson is a blogger/writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News. Matt has a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science, with focuses in applied mathematics and economic systems, from Iowa State University. 

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Photo Credit: The Systems Scientist






Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist


Minneapolis: How is the city’s economic system performing?

By Matt Johnson

Over the past couple of blogs, we have illustrated the power of the (3) systems’ axioms (we will review the axioms very shortly) and we have introduced the idea systems’ boundaries. But in our quest to understand what a system is and how we can use system’s knowledge to find real-world applications, we must endeavor to keep testing the validity of our ideas while we add new notions to them.

In today’s blog, we will test the idea of an economic system against our (3) axioms with respect to Minneapolis. We will do this by introducing the notion of systems’ behavior via data and graphical representation. And in doing so, we will ask three questions to facilitate this discovery. First, does Minneapolis satisfy the (3) systems’ axioms? Second, does an economic system satisfy the (3) systems’ axioms? And third, what is systems’ behavior?

In our previous blog, we illustrated that Chicago satisfied the (3) systems’ axioms:

  1. A system consists of a set of elements.
  2. Elements in a system interact.
  3. A system has a function, or purpose.

That is, Chicago consists of a set of elements in the form of approximately 2.7 million residents. Chicago’s residents also interact with each other in various ways on a daily, hourly, minute, and second basis. And one of Chicago’s functions is the ability to increase utility and stability while decreasing crime and instability.

Thus, homicides are concentrated in specific neighborhoods and so it follows that the economic, political, and social systems will behave much differently in the Austin neighborhood, which has experienced 43 homicides this year, than they do in the Edison Park neighborhood, which experienced no homicides this year, for example.

Using the template that we used for Chicago, we can illustrate that Minneapolis will also satisfy the (3) systems’ axioms. This is because we know from U.S. Census data that Minneapolis had 413,651 residents as of July 1, 2016, which is our set of elements.

Graph 1

We also know that residents interact with each other in various ways. And finally, we can think of a half-dozen possible functions that Minneapolis might have. For example, we can think of three economic variables that will tell us if utility is increasing or decreasing in Minneapolis: labor force, wages, and unemployment. We know that these three variables can be systems’ functions. Thus, our (3) systems’ axioms are satisfied once again.

Now we can show if an economy is an economic system in a few different ways, but in this case we will use a similar approach to that of our city examples.

Indeed, not all of the 413,651 residents participate in the marketplace. In reality it is those residents who are 16 years of age and older. And frankly, that’s all that is needed – a set of market participants. It could be 50 percent of the population. Those 50 percent, or 200,000 and some, are a set of elements.

In addition, these participants interact with each other various ways. Some of the participants are employees; some participants are even unemployed; and some participants are business owners. No matter the capacity of these participants, they are still interacting in the marketplace in one form or another. The point here is that they are interacting.

Graph 2

And finally, does the economic system have a function? If Adam Smith and his books The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations are to be a guide, than economic utility (stability and vitality) is to be the main function of an economic system.

Indeed, this notion of economic system is more abstract, but the (3) systems’ axioms are still satisfied.

Now if economic utility is our function and we want to illustrate that function for everyone to see, how do we do it? Simple. We’ll do it graphically via data.

As we stated before, the functions of the Minneapolis system are labor force, wages, and unemployment. We also stated the function of the economic system is utility. Adding in the title of this blog How is the city’s economic system performing? we can now address the systems’ functions and question in one sitting through the notion of systems’ behavior.

Systems’ behavior – how a system’s performance changes over time – will tell us how a system is performing. In other words, if the economic system of Minneapolis is performing well, then we ought to expect to see an increase in the labor force, an increase in wages, and a decrease in unemployment over time.

Graph 3

However, if the economic system of Minneapolis is not performing well, then we ought to expect to see a decrease in the labor force, a decrease in wages, and an increase unemployment over time. For sure there are other economic variables we could consider, but for now, and for brevity, we will concentrate on these three variables.

If we take a look at Graph 1, it will tell us how the labor force of Minneapolis has been behaving over the past decade. So what are we observing? What is the graphical data telling us about the labor force in the economic system of Minneapolis?

Well, we are seeing a steady, albeit stochastic (probabilistic), increase over time, correct? Aren’t we observing an increase of about 20,000 participants in the labor force since January of 2007? If our observations are correct, we are seeing an economic system that is performing well in regards to the labor force over time.

What do we see when we observe the wages of Minneapolis in Graph 2? Doesn’t it appear that the average weekly wages for Minneapolis have increased by about $300.00 since the 1st Quarter of 2007? If so, then we are observing an economic system that is performing well in regards to wages over time.

And finally, what do we see when we observe the unemployment rate of Minneapolis in Graph 3? We see the unemployment rate decreasing from more than 8 percent in early 2009 to a little more than 3 percent in late 2016. Again, and just like the first two variables, we are observing an economic system that is performing well in regards to unemployment over time.

So with respect to the systems’ functions of the Minneapolis system, the systems’ behaviors via our graphical representations of the labor force, wages, and unemployment are telling us that the economic system in Minneapolis has been increasing in utility for the residents of the city, in general, for some time now.

Thus, we have shown that Minneapolis is a system, the city has an economic system, and that the economic system is performing well based off our established parameters.

Let us now, as we have done before, attempt to disprove our notions (systems axioms, boundaries, and behaviors) and work in the tradition of natural philosophy until the next blog.


Matt Johnson is a blogger/writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News. Matt has a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science, with focuses in applied mathematics and economic systems, from Iowa State University. 

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons






Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist

Chicagoland: Systems Axioms, Boundaries, and 2017 Homicides through June

By Matt Johnson

Last year, Chicago experienced the highest number of homicides since 1996. There were 786 homicides in 2016. In 1996, there were 796 homicides according to the Chicago Tribune. So why did homicides begin to increase after a couple of decades of decreasing?

This blog will not address this question or the reasons behind the sudden increase in violence. Rather, this blog will focus on applying the systems’ axioms to this issue. In addition, this blog will focus on introduce and apply the notion of “boundary” from systems science to Chicago.

Photo Credit: www.thesystemsscientist.com.

This notion will be important because it will allow us to differentiate which parts of Chicago are experiencing these homicides and which parts of Chicago are not experiencing these homicides. Indeed, this idea of partitioning different parts of Chicago seems obvious, but these systems science notions will help us to zoom in on the boundaries of these sub-systems and illustrate the differences between these sub-systems and their characteristics in greater detail. Being able to compare and contrast sub-systems will be a powerful tool for us. But first a little review will be necessary.

In our last blog, we illustrated the three axioms of a system. We used the House of Representatives as our example to satisfy all three axioms. Now let’s see if Chicago satisfies our systems’ axioms. For those readers who are new, here are the axioms:

  1. A system consists of a set of elements.
  2. Elements in a system interact.
  3. A system has a function, or purpose.

First, does Chicago satisfy the first axiom; that is, does a system consists of a set of elements? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Chicago as of July 1, 2016 was 2,704,958. In other words, the set of elements, or residents, of Chicago was a little more than 2.7 million. Thus, the first axiom is satisfied.

Second, does Chicago satisfy the second axiom; that is, do elements in a system interact? This axiom is a bit more difficult to visualize because the human brain cannot imagine 2,704,958 people interacting with each other on a daily, hour, minute, or second basis.

And of course two natural question derive from this lack of perception. First, do all of the elements need to interact with each other? And second, is it possible for all of the elements to interact with each other? Eventually these questions will be answered via recognizing sub-systems from their respective general (prime) systems; and mathematics will be necessary to answer these questions. For now, the second axiom in this case will be accepted as true without mathematical proof.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. Austin Neighborhood. Wards 29 and 37.

Finally, does Chicago satisfy the third axiom; that is, does a system have a function, or purpose? In this case, Chicago could have several functions: ecological, economic, political, and/or social. In this case, the function, or purpose, of Chicago will be accepted as the ability to increase utility and stability while decreasing crime and instability. Thus, the third axiom is satisfied.

Now that the axioms are satisfied, let’s address the second question: what are the boundaries of Chicago? We don’t have to go far to find the answer to our question. We only need to visit the City of Chicago for such information. It is the city government that is responsible for setting such boundaries including the boundaries of neighborhoods and wards.

There are 50 Wards in Chicago, which are parts of the Chicago system that make up the whole system. Moreover, each part of the system, or ward, is represented by an alderman (city council member). And as stated before, each ward also has its own geographical area. For example, the “Chicago aldermen…voted to set new boundaries for the city’s wards” in January of 2012. In systems science, these type of boundaries are called political boundaries.

These political boundaries, as this interactive map from WBEZ 91.5 Chicago demonstrates, are concrete and irregular (an example of a regular shape would be a square, rectangle, triangle, or circle). This interactive map also illustrates the political constraints of the Ward within Chicago, for instance Ward 29 and Ward 37, that have their own political boundaries. This is because these wards are also political sub-systems of Chicago.  Again, these boundaries are set by the city representatives, or aldermen, who pass policy for the City of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. North Park Neighborhood. Ward 39.

As stated before, Chicago experienced 786 homicides in 2016 and 329 homicides this year. But these homicides did not occur equally throughout the windy city. For example, there were 88 homicides in the Austin neighborhood in 2016 according to the Chicago Tribune. This is important to know because the Austin neighborhood overlaps both the 29th and 37th Wards of Chicago. And this year, the Austin neighborhood has experienced 43 homicides through June 30th.

In contrast, North Park, which is in the north central part of Chicago and in the 39th Ward, experienced no homicides in 2016, or 2017 so far, according to data pulled from the Chicago Tribune. The same can be said for the Edison Park neighborhood which is in the 41st Ward and the north-west part of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. Edison Park Neighborhood. Ward 41.

And so what can the boundaries of the city and wards tell us about the general system of Chicago and the sub-systems of the 29th, 37th, 39th, and 41st Wards?

First, Chicago experienced 786 homicides in 2016 which was the most in two decades. Furthermore, we know that these homicides were not distributed equally. We know that more than 11 percent (88 of 786) of homicides in Chicago occurred in the Austin neighborhood in 2016; whereas, no homicides occurred in the Edison Park and North Park neighborhoods in 2016.

Second, these sub-systems will probably have a different set of ecological, economic, political, and social characteristics. For example, the aldermen of the 29th and 37th Wards are dealing with an extraordinary level of violence and ought to contribute to the lack of economic and social utility in the sub-system in the form of higher than average unemployment, lower than average median and family household incomes, and lower than average housing values.

In contrast, the aldermen of the 39th and 41st Wards are probably dealing with competitive levels of median and family household incomes, lower than average levels of unemployment, and higher than average housing values.

When we look at Chicago as a whole, this information will be lost to us. However, if we partition the Chicago system into sub-systems with concrete boundaries like wards and neighborhoods, then we will be able to see the different parts of the city in greater detail. We will be able to see that homicides really do happen in certain segments of Chicago and not just Chicago in general.

Article Questions:

Until the next blog, think about where a boundary would start and where a boundary might end. One example that might be useful is to think about where Earth’s atmosphere ends and outer space begins. Perhaps there is another example that is more localized and easier to visualize? Where does one neighborhood, or ward, begin and where does another neighbor, or ward, end? Or where does one culture start and where does one culture end? Find an example and test it.


Matt Johnson is a blogger/writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News. And he has a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science, with focuses in applied mathematics and economic systems, from Iowa State University. 

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Photo Credit: Pixabay






Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist

What is a system?

By Matt Johnson

What is a system? I posted a similar question on The Systems Scientist Facebook page last week. I asked the following question,

In your own words, explain, or describe, what you think a system is?

In response, I received a lot of good and interesting answers from Facebook followers. One Facebook follower stated,

A limited framework of interrelated processes that work toward a mutual output or outcome.

As the reader will see, this answer hits the third axiom of what a system is, and the answer also touches upon the structure and processes of a system as well.

Another Facebook follower hit the mark on two of the systems’ axioms on the first try: the first axiom and the third axiom. As the follower explained,

A system to me is a set of parts, each with a different function, that work in concert, complimentary way towards a common goal.

All together, there were a lot of really good answers and everyone who commented pointed out that a system has a function, or purpose. And many of the Facebook followers added that systems consist of parts and those parts are what compose the system itself, which is correct. So what is a system?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Seattle, Washington

To answer this question, we will utilize Donella Meadow’s three conditions from her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer to propose the systems’ axioms, we will be using going forward. And by axiom we mean a statement that is true and will follow our thinking and logic from thusly. Here are the axioms we will be using:

  1. A system consists of a set of elements.
  2. Elements in the system interact.
  3. A system has a function, or purpose.

At first, these axioms seem so obvious and simple, and that’s good, but these axioms are subtly profound. This is because they can be described through mathematics and tested via the scientific method. But perhaps putting the math and science aside for the moment would be beneficial. Instead, a familiar example will suffice.

Again, in order to have a system, the three axioms must be satisfied. For instance, does the United States House of Representatives satisfy each condition?

For the first axiom, all we have to do is count the total number of members that serve in the House, which is 435. In other words, there are 435 elements in our example. Thus, we see that axiom (1) is satisfied. For the second axiom, we should ask ourselves if the members of the House interact with each other?

Is there another answer to a question that has ever seemed so obvious? From the debates on the House floor to Twitter wars, the members of the House of Representatives do indeed interact with each other. There are a plethora of examples to illustrate this point in the form of C-SPAN, MSNBC, FOX, and CNN. Thus, we see that axiom (2) is satisfied.

And finally for the third axiom, does the House of Representatives have a function? It definitely feels like they don’t have a purpose on most days. But they do and this purpose of course derives from the United States Constitution. Thus, we see, although begrudgingly, that axiom (3) is satisfied.

Photo Credit: Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Milky Way Galaxy

Over time and as these blogs progress, we will see that these three axioms will be extremely useful for us. They will allow us to explore cities and economic systems, and most importantly they will allow us to construct describable phenomena via mathematics, test observable data, and make predictions that might not otherwise be accessible through cluttered language, hyperbolic rhetoric, and undefined terms.

One final thing, these three axioms are not the totality of a system. Systems have inputs and outputs, a structure, environment, behaviors, processes, boundaries, and other properties. Together, all of these characteristics are what make a system. But these axioms are a good start and will allow an interested party into the world of Systems Science.

Until the next blog, do the classical science thing and test these axioms for yourself. In other words, try to disprove them. If you can manage to find an example, please do share it in the comments section below so the other readers and commentors can validate your findings.


Matt Johnson is a blogger/writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News. And he has a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science, with focuses in applied mathematics and economic systems, from Iowa State University. 

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons





Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist



Comparing Minneapolis wages to wages in North Minneapolis

TSS Admin

As Aristotle explored in his Metaphysics: Book Delta, the parts of something, say the parts of a city, are divisions of the whole that can be differentiated from one another by quantification or by qualification. In the sense of quantifying, North Minneapolis can be differentiated from Minneapolis by observational data, for example, unemployment rates, education rates, and wages.

In the sense of qualifying, North Minneapolis can be differentiated by recognition of area. But it should be noted that the geography of North Minneapolis is still the geography of Minneapolis. It is just a recognition of a specified area, which is not Northeast Minneapolis, South Minneapolis, or Southwest Minneapolis.

Furthermore, North Minneapolis is broken down further by quantification and qualification into area codes: 55411 and 55412. Thus, the 55411 and 55412 zip codes are distinguishable by name and specific geography, this is obvious, and by observational data.

For example, previous articles in this blog have shown the 55411 zip code to be the zip code with the highest number of reported crimes in North Minneapolis; whereas, previous articles in this blog have shown the 55412 zip code to be the zip code with the highest number of foreclosures over the past decade.

Graph 1

Utilizing this systemic approach, the wages between Minneapolis and North Minneapolis, specifically the 55411 zip code, can be differentiated and analyzed.

Thus, are the dynamics of the wages (how wages change over time) shown to be relatively equal to one another? Are the dynamics of the wages of the 55411 zip code shown to be greater than Minneapolis? Or are the dynamics of the wages of the 55411 zip code shown to be less than Minneapolis?

As Graph 1 illustrates, we can see that the wage rate of Minneapolis is steeper than the wage rate of the 55411 zip code in Graph 2. And we’re not just eyeing this. We can see this distinctly via the linearization equations in Graph 1 and Graph 2.

The linearization equation in Graph 1 (y = 6.4152x + 1083.1) shows a rate of 6.4 and the linearization equation in Graph 2 (y = 2.2805x + 823.6) shows a rate of 2.3, if both rates of change are rounded-off. Obviously, 6.4 is greater than 2.3, and by quite a bit. Why is this important?

Graph 2

Dynamically (how wages change over time), this shows the wages of Minneapolis are growing at a greater rate than the wages of the 55411 zip code. Of course, these equations also show that the average weekly wages of Minneapolis are between $250 and $300 higher than the 55411 zip code.

This little bit of information ought to provide policy makers with some much-needed direction to create and apply economic policy. Of course the operative modal verb is “ought to.”

So do you think local policy makers would consider differentiating between the part and the whole when creating economic policy? Or do you think local policy makers would just create and apply the same policy for both the part and the whole?


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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons






Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist

Chicagoland: 2017 Homicide totals so far

TSS Admin

Nothing brings visitors and views to mainstream media websites quite like homicides in the windy city. When homicides are up, mainstream visitor traffic is good.

But don’t expect to hear from the mainstream media anytime soon. This is because homicides are down from last year at this time. Yes! It’s true.

Normal Distribution, Wikimedia Commons

According to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune, there were 260 homicides through the month of May in 2016. That was up significantly from 2015. In contrast, there have been 235 homicides so far this year. For those keeping count, that’s a reduction of 9.6 percent from last year.

Hopefully, Memorial Day weekend will stay relatively quiet this year and homicides will remain at 235.

Of course, the warm summer months are always the busiest time for crime in general, including homicides. Historically this has been the trend, and this is exactly what the data sets are saying.

If the trends hold, then homicides in Chicago should follow a normal distribution, i.e., a bell-curve, although the 2016 distribution of homicides skewed left.

Skewed-left distribution, University of Florida

This means that roughly about 68 percent of the homicides should happen within the warm months of the summer, or one standard deviation from the mean as the normal distribution above illustrates.

Moreover, about 32 percent of the homicides should occur outside of the one standard deviation, or outside the warmer months.

Does this mean the warm months of Chicago in 2017 will see more homicides than the warm months of Chicago in 2016? It does not.

So far, homicides are down from 2016 and if this trend continues throughout the summer months, then homicides should remain down. But the reader should keep in mind that homicides are very difficult to predict.

The only reason it is being suggested that homicides may trend below last year is because homicides are down. If they were up, then the prediction would be the opposite. Of course, this method is an archaic form of bayesian statistics, so take it with a grain of salt.

What do you think? Do you think homicides will remain lower than last year? Or do you think homicides will explode over the summer months? Either way, please provide your reasons and explanations below.


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Photo credit: Northwestern University






Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist


Want the economy to grow? It’s time to look at cities and efficiency

The economy is a hot topic in the presidential debates and is among the top public concerns. But the “economy” is a loose and hazy notion and, for politicians, a convenient place to make promises. The Conversation

Even the solutions are pitched at a high level of abstraction. On the Republican side, the common answer is to reduce taxes, which also has the obvious attraction of aiding their donor class, and to cut back on government regulations. On the Democratic side, one response is to increase taxes on the wealthy, with the precise causal mechanism never explained or demonstrated.

The reality is rather more daunting and the answers could lie in place few politicians discuss explicity: cities.

Urban economics

There are of course real economic concerns of low growth, stagnant incomes and rising inequality.

Given that growth projections are limited, we need to be thinking more about productivity gains. That means we need to make our economy more efficient – generating more economic value with the same inputs. And one way to do this is to improve the productivity of our cities in various ways, including better land use, beefed-up infrastructure and smarter technology.

Metro areas in the U.S. now house 83 percent of the population and are the main site for innovation and job growth. The 100 largest metro areas hold 69 percent of all jobs and are responsible for three-quarters of the nation’s GDP.

The bigger, the more productive: Larger, denser cities are more efficient economically. OECD

If we are serious about growing our economy, then getting our cities to work better is just as important as tax reform or wage policy. The problem is that cities tend to be discussed in terms of redistributional issues, such as welfare or race relations, but rarely as a platform for addressing the “economy.”

Consider just some of the traditional inputs of land, labor and energy. Cities use enormous amounts of energy. So policies about urban energy use and urban transportation are not just urban concerns, they are matters of national economic concern.

In other countries, there is a closer connection in political discourse between the economy and the city. In Australia, where close to half of the population lives in the five largest cities, the idea of improving living standards and competitiveness by increasing urban productivity is now part of political discussions.

Traditional economics is not much help, as productivity is generally used with reference to individual firms or workers. Rarely is it used to measure the productivity of cities. Even when they do look at cities, economic theorists rarely move on from noting that large cities achieve agglomeration economies through the clustering of activities, labor pooling and knowledge spillovers.

This explains an economic rationale for cities but does not help us make cities more productive. How can we do that?

Bigger, denser, more productive

The good news is that more people are looking at this issue with more case studies that look at how productivity is related to educational levels and labor markets.

It turns out that we should be encouraging cities to become bigger and more dense if we want to improve economic performance.

Consider transport. There are significant cost savings in increasing the ridership of mass transit systems compared with constructing expensive new systems. Even small-scale policy changes have rolling consequences. Improving traffic light sequencing, for example, reduces travel times, emissions, fuel consumption and road accidents.

Buses don’t normally figure in talk of the economy, but a city’s transportation system can make a city as a whole – and thus the economy – more productive. lodekka/flickr, CC BY

Meanwhile, encouraging telecommuting, while reducing the benefits of face-to-face contact in real time, generates savings in terms of time and energy costs as well as the wear and tear on commuters slogging their way through traffic. The collective gain is a more efficient city and greater economic productivity.

Also, a single government authority in a large city is more efficient than a multiplicity of municipal governments. One study of cities across five countries found that a metro region with many municipal governments, has, on average, six percent lower productivity than a city with one metropolitan authority.

Cities are a target-rich environment for improving productivity because they are places where public policies have leverage. Dysfunction at the federal level, likely to halt any ambitious proposals discussed in the presidential elections, does not stop experiments at the city level. And here a combination of nonpartisan federal and local policies can achieve savings.

For example, new federal legislation has allowed companies to provide the same level of benefits for mass transit users and carpoolers as it did for parkers. Against this background, city authorities can enable more carpooling by setting aside designated spots for informal carpools.

Improving urban efficiencies has the added benefit of improving sustainability and helping deal with climate change.

Social issues and big urban data

Productivity has a cold-blooded sound to it, as if citizens are imagined just as labor inputs to be trained and moved around to increase efficiencies. But there is a meshing of economic and social concerns.

A more efficient land use and transportation system, for example, means people spend less time and money commuting. I was reminded of this when seeing the route map of a low-income worker in Atlanta, Georgia, whose two-hour journey to work involves 118 bus stops and a nine-minute train ride.

Can technology make a difference? We now have lots of data on the flows of energy, people, goods, capital and ideas. While big data on its own does not provide the solution, the intelligent use of these data can provide us with a real-time handle on urban productivity to provide benchmarks of performance and measures of progress. And once urban productivity is measured, it can be improved.

Big data could also help improve our infrastructure, which would aid productivity and reduce economic losses. Many bridges need renovation and replacement. But if we use good-quality data on how much repair they need as well as how much traffic they support, we would be in a better position to prioritize our infrastructure funds so that the most dangerous and the most frequented were targeted first.

We are still at a very early stage of using big urban data to provide smarter, safer, more efficient and more socially just cities. An important start is that we realize that more of our economic activity takes place in cities and improving urban economic performance is the road to economic growth and social justice.

John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


Photo credit: Gregor Smith/flickr, CC BY

Photo explanation: Traffic jams in cities, such as this one in Atlanta, have economic costs, including lower productivity.




This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.