Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Architecture Elves

Have you ever heard of Kleiber’s law? It states that cookies made by elves will always taste better when dipped in milk. Wait - that’s Keebler’s law. Nevermind. Max Kleiber did a whole bunch of research in the early 1900s that dealt with the size of animals and their lifespans. Now get this - there is a correlation, and a fairly straight line correlation at that, that shows the ratio of animal size and heartbeats is consistent. Bigger animals tend to have slower heartbeats, but that the total number of heartbeats in their lifetime remains consistent.

A fly has a rapid heartbeat, and a very short lifespan. An elephant has a slow heartbeat and lives a long time. As Steven Johnson puts it, elephants have the same number of heartbeats, they just take longer to use them up. To be precise, metabolism scales to mass to the negative quarter power, i.e. the ratio of animal mass to their lifespan is almost a universal constant. Bigger animals have slower systems, and therefore live longer.

But the cool part is that it doesn’t stop there. As ANY organism becomes larger there is a slowdown in "metabolism." For instance, plants follow this pattern from grass to redwood trees. Even artificial organisms, such as human-made constructs, i.e. cities, as they become larger their ‘metabolisms’ slow down. As a city expands, the growth rate of gasoline stations, electrical power grids, street lights, urban communities, almost everything experiences a growth rate that conforms to the negative quarter power ratio.


As cities grow, the amount of grocery stores, cul-de-sacs, and elementary schools follows the natural pattern of a metabolism that scales to mass to the negative quarter power, i.e. as things get bigger the rate of activity slows, like an elephant’s heartbeat - except for the rate of innovation.

Innovation follows a similar dynamic ratio to size, but it moves in the opposite direction. Theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, wanted to see if the metabolism of urban life slowed down as one would expect using Kleiber’s law. What he found was that every datapoint that involved creativity - including innovation, patents, and research budgets not only increased in larger urban settings, but increased dramatically.

The quarter-power law was in effect, but in the reverse direction. Instead of larger cities having fewer innovations, they had more - and it wasn’t just a linear increase. A city that grows 10 times in size produces seventeen times more ideas. An urban area 50 times bigger than its neighbor would produce 130 times more ideas.

Our company just doubled in size - what should this mean in terms of our ability to innovate? Twice as many ideas? No, more like 3.2 times as many. Ideas get generated when humans share information. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar performed research in the early 1990’s to discover where new ideas actually come from by actually watching smart people whose job entailed new thinking. Most new ideas came from conference rooms where knowledge workers share the results of trial and error.

As your company grows, you should connect with people as often as possible. Share ideas - even the ones that seem to be poor. It is the sharing that matters, not necessarily having the best ideas.

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