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Urban Science and Practice

Much of my research and service are presently dedicated to the scientific study cities and associated practices to help make our societies more just and sustainable. The guiding vision is to approach cities with epistemic humility towards a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon involving the lives of billions of people, deserving to be appreciated and understood.  A number of recent discoveries show that cities are a natural phenomenon with predictable properties and dynamics, and reveal associated processes of natural design. They explain how cities can naturally enable open-ended human collaboration and invention, while improving access to basic services, education, health, and political participation. New forms of practice and policy are emerging from these insights, supporting human agency across scales, collaborative institutions, novel approaches to design and new uses of technology towards sustainability and human development.  

I direct the Urban Science Laboratory at the University of Chicago, dedicated to the science and practice of urban development, using 21st century evidence, policy frameworks and methods. I also serve in a number of other organizations supporting  the science of complex systems, emergent engineering, civic engagement, community organization, and architecture and design incubating new ideas and practices for sustainable development, more just societies and more joyful innovation.

Newest Publications:

Scaling of urban amenities: generative statistics and implications for urban planning

T Kaufmann, L Radaelli, L Bettencourt, E Shmueli - EPJ Data Science, 2022.

Why the Internet Must Become More Like a City (July 3, 2022).

L. Bettencourt, The Crisis of Democracy in the Age of Cities, Edward Elgar Publishing. Ed. Juval Portugali.

Statistical dynamics of wealth inequality in stochastic models of growth

JT Kemp, L Bettencourt - Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 2022

Scaling of Hunter-Gatherer Camp Size and Human Sociality

J Lobo, T Whitelaw, L Bettencourt, P Wiessner, Michael E Smith, Scott Ortman- Current Anthropology, 2022. 

Human Development in US Cities and Neighborhoods

S Sheth, L Bettencourt (preprint)

Evidence and theory for lower rates of depression in larger US urban areas

Andrew J Stier, Kathryn E Schertz, Nak Won Rim, Carlos Cardenas-Iniguez, Benjamin B Lahey, L Bettencourt, Marc G Berman  - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021


Introduction to Urban Science (2021) 
Available via MIT Press

Expertise & Research Interests:


Complex Systems

The study of complex systems is a unified scientific approach to life and society. It embraces formal comparisons and contrasts between different kinds of systems, such as organisms and ecosystems, human cultures and cognition, firms and markets, cities and politics. Complex systems research strives to create articulating predictive theory across these systems, challenging, extending and interconnecting existing knowledge in the physical, biological and social sciences. My work is primarily dedicated to the role of information, along with energy, in creating the structure and dynamics of different complex systems. From this lens, I show how fundamental properties of complex system can be understood and predicted, including their diversity, pervasive cooperation, innovation and productivity. Along with theory development, my practical goal is to develop science-based strategies for sustainable societies, while promoting human development and life-centered design.  

Two boys using a banana leaf as an umbrella

Cities and Urbanization

Cities are the greatest sources of growth and change in human societies. This has been true from the beginning of history to today, when most people live in urban environments worldwide.  The scientific study of cities forces us to confront some of the deepest questions about human nature and society: How does culture develop? Why do behavior and cognition change in cities favoring hyper-sociality and longer-term planning? What sets the balance between cooperation and competition? What defines good policy and design across scales? How does  technology change society? Is inequality an inevitable consequence of growth?  Is a sustainable and prosperous future possible? 

Understanding life in cities in ways that are fundamental and generative is essential to answering any of these questions. It is critical that we urgently transcend policy parochialism and siloed social theories, which remain inadequate to the tasks of inclusive sustainable development in the 21st century. Urban research is a process of discovery, co-production and innovation with diverse people everywhere in the world. New data, international comparative studies, and methods pave the way to fundamental new discoveries and practices that will change the world. 


Evolutionary Theory

Evolution is the theory of life and diversity, dealing with some of the most profound and meaningful open questions in science and society. It is also the theory of natural design, challenging and inspiring the limits of human agency and creativity. Evidence and practical uses for evolution continue to explode from epidemiology, to drug discovery and to design, but theory development has lagged. Recent developments emphasize formal and mathematical bridges between evolutionary population dynamics, statistical learning and artificial intelligence models. They also emphasize our incomplete understanding of levels of selection across scales,  the dynamical balance between cooperation and competition  and the role of informational structures in major transitions from genes to culture.

My research seeks to deepen our understanding of what evolution is as a mathematical and predictive theory, guiding both a deeper knowledge of nature and society and new applications.  My work compares and contrasts evolutionary theory with statistical mechanics in physics, economics, design, and theories of statistical learning and artificial intelligence.  I am particularly interested in issues of cooperation, collective dynamics, levels of selection and diversity playing out across ecosystems and complex human societies.

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