a city with many buildings

Socrates believed that the only resources needed to learn were a sharp mind and the ability to ask the right questions. 

But that’s not the case in today’s universities, where expensive lab equipment, grant funding, smart people swapping ideas over burritos, and armies of research assistants are all needed to advance the world’s pool of knowledge.

When people discuss the trade-offs between large research universities and small liberal arts colleges, they generally take their size as given. But if we tried to find the “right” size for a university, what would it be?

Let’s start by looking at how cities change as they grow. New streams of research on urban environments have found that their growth follows predictable patterns and that they become more efficient as they grow. An article from The Economist summarizes the research:

“Big cities are thrifty versions of small ones. For a metropolis twice the size of another, the length of electric cables, number of gas stations and other bits of infrastructure decrease by about 15% per inhabitant… Income, patents, savings and other signs of wealth rise by around 15% when a city’s size doubles. In short, urbanites consume less but produce more.” 

This research finds that size – rather than factors like geography, design, or history – best explains and determines cities’ destinies. Cities seem to enjoy returns to scale of about 15% as they grow, both in terms of economic success and efficient use of resources:

“Larger cities produce wealth and new ideas faster. The underlying mechanism is that social interactions become more effective with city size: more economic specialization and division of labor, but at the same time more interconnections and increasing advantages in greater economics of scale, particularly in all kinds of city infrastructure.”

Universities are also complex environments that could seemingly accrue the same benefits from increasing in size. One of the most important and relevant ways is how the density of cities facilitates innovation and new ideas. Whether through formal partnerships and collaborations, or spontaneous conversations, getting more smart people in one place encourages the spread of ideas and the creation of new ones.

This doesn’t tell us a definitive “right” size that a university should be. What a young undergraduate wants in a college will often differ from what he or she seeks out 4 years later for graduate studies. But it does suggest a tentative answer from the macro view of performing research efficiently. 

Urbanists have long argued that cities’ large size and density helps them “foster the exchange of ideas.” Wouldn’t it make sense to apply that logic to the very institutions meant to produce new ideas?

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.