Managing the 10 to 15 per cent that matters

In an article published in the journal Nature, West and Bettencourt found that up to 85 per cent of the character of a city is determined simply by its size. Only about 15 per cent – perhaps 20 per cent at most – of a city’s character is distinctive, and that is often aesthetic or determined by a natural feature such as a harbour, river or mountain range.

”The majority of the organisation, functionality, even maybe its structure and dynamics is, to a large extent, determined, amazingly, independent of the details of the city,” West says.

This magical 85 per cent is made up of what West… calls ”social networks” – the clustering of human beings and the social interactions and hierarchies that flow from them. Basically, whenever a bunch of people get together in an urbanised, or even low-density sub-urbanised, form, they operate in a largely uniform way, regardless of culture.

”You see the same phenomenon, repeated continuously at all scales,” West says. ”The history, geography, culture, locality, much of the urban planning, is transcended by these network principles, which tell you it is roughly this 85 per cent level that is pretty much the coarse grain of the city. But there is this 10 to 15 per cent left over, and that is something the mayors and city fathers, designers, architects can influence.”

Organisations, I suspect, are like this too. 85% is all about scale and avoiding bad management practices that break the dynamics of the natural social networks that exist, but only something unique or by working on the remainder will bring innovation, differentiation and better performance.