Ancient Heliopolis in ruins, Baalbek (Photo: Will De Freitas via flickr)

Chiang Mai, Paris, Bogotà, Sydney, Santa Fe. Different cities — but how different? Under different monuments and landscapes, the skeleton of the modern city is remarkably consistent. We see roads, plazas, cafes, and pedestrians, but also intangible, potent forces: entrepreneurship, specialization, and art.

According to research from the Social Reactors Project, these similarities resonate both across the globe and across millennia. London in 1300, for example, is strikingly similar to New York today. In fact, says External Professor Scott Ortman (CU Boulder), who organizes the project's ongoing series of SFI working groups, “There’s not that much difference between a Neolithic farming village and a modern city.”

Named for the idea that human settlements function as “reactors” for innovation and change — the Social Reactors Project specifically employs archaeological and statistical methods to examine human settlements through time. Following up from a productive meeting last fall, the group’s meeting this April 5-6 delves deeper into the tantalizing case study of the Roman World. 

Remarkably, the technological innovation and agglomeration in Roman Western Europe led to rates of urbanization that would not be seen again until the eighteenth century. The rich archaeological evidence makes it an excellent potential candidate for computational analysis. What’s more, its textual documentation — from trade records to literary accounts — supplements the extant material culture. Having developed a rough mathematical framework for urbanization in ancient cities, the Social Reactors group hopes to challenge and refine the model using historical data.

In addition to extracting historical insights, the working group aims to build a multilayered understanding of urban life today, which may have applications in urban planning, sustainable development, and business ecosystems.

In the broadest terms, Ortman says, the group is looking for a theory that would do for social science what Darwin's theory did for biology — provide a uniform principle to explain human social dynamics from ancient settlements to modern cities.

Read more about the working group, "Social Reactors: The Fragility of Growth in the Past."

Watch Scott Ortman's presentation to the SFI community, "Settlements and human networks, past and present." (April 5, 2018)