If we want to understand the importance of flows in our world, the new book Design in Nature released this week by Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane is a must-read. It will literally change how you view the world – everything from snowflakes to volcanos. As with most great books, this one is impossible to summarize in a brief blog, but I will try to offer enough of a glimpse to tease you into buying and reading the book.
This book illustrates the power of living on the edge. It crosses a wide array of disciplines, ranging from physics and biology to technology and urban studies, in its quest to define a universal law of flow. By pulling back from individual disciplines, it identifies patterns that were either missed or misunderstood in more narrow contexts.
Introducing the constructal law
The core mission of this book is to introduce us to the constructal law: “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” There is an imperative here: “The constructal law is a shout from the rooftops: Everything that flows and moves generates designs that evolve to survive (to live).
The constructal law has a very broad reach:
“The constructal law is revolutionary because it is a law of physics – and not just of biology, hydrology, geology, geophysics or engineering. It govern any system, any time, anywhere, encompassing inanimate (rivers and lightning bolts), animate (trees, animals) and engineered (technology) phenomena, as well as the evolving flows of social constructs such as knowledge, language, and culture. All designs arise and evolve according to the same law.”
The authors caution
“that nothing operates in isolation; every flow system is part of a bigger flow system, shaped by and in service to the world around it. The flow system we call a tree is also part of the larger flow system (that also includes rivers and weather patterns) for moving water from the ground to the air in order to achieve an equilibrium of moisture locally and globally.”
In fact, the authors suggest that, by teaching us that life is flow, the constructal law collapses the false distinctions between the animate and the inanimate, providing a single, universal law that accounts for all design and evolution in nature. The constructal law shows us that humanity does not stand apart from nature but is a manifestation of, and governed by, nature.” “ . . .the constructal law brings science in line with poetry. It reveals our deep connection. It illuminates the tendency that unites everything that moves.”
“Flow systems have two basic features (properties). There is the current that is flowing (for example, fluid, heat, mass, or information) and the design through which it flows.” Flow systems must deal with the constant tension between flow and friction. The design of the flow system seeks to facilitate flow within the constraints imposed by various forms of friction.
The importance of design in flow systems
As the title of the book suggests, the constructal law is ultimately a law about design. It determines which designs will survive and thrive over time. The constant interplay between flow and design drives the evolution of flow systems. The design of flow systems must evolve to enhance the flows within the system or they will die.
In focusing on design in nature, the authors realize they are treading on thin ice:
“Design may be the foundation of the built world, but it is anathema when the conversation turns to nature. Its six letters have become the four-letter word of biology and physics.”
The direction of design evolution
From the perspective of the authors, design is not static. It is continually evolving in a quest to find more effective ways to support flows. “This evolution occurs in one direction: Flow designs get measurably better, moving more easily and farther if possible. “ This evolution can be observed at all timescales. Rivers evolve at a different rate than a lightning bolt or snowflake. If a design ceases to evolve, it will quickly become a fossilized flow system, tossed aside to make way for more effective flow designs.
The authors assert:
“The constructal law does much more than explain the designs we see in nature. It articulates a law we can use to understand why designs emerge and predict how they will evolve in the future.”
In this regard, the book challenges at least one dominant view of Darwinian evolution:
“that there is no overarching direction to evolution. Proponents of that view claim that adaptations makes species better able to survive, but they never explain why these changes should occur and what they mean by “better.” . . . [The constructal law] expresses the meaning of “better” in unambiguous physics terms – change that facilitates faster, easier movement.”
There is a direction to evolution:
“[The constructal law] offers a scientific confirmation, a rational, testable basis for our intuition that there is a direction in time to the evolution of all around us, a purpose, a direction toward flow performance in all that goes on around us.”
While these may all seem like blanket and arbitrary statements, read the book to see the remarkable empirical evidence mustered to support this law in an incredibly diverse array of domains. It is particularly interesting to see how the constructal law is used in a predictive manner – anticipating what the design of a particular flow system might look like and then empirically testing it in various natural settings. For the full range of academic research on the constructal law, check out the Constructal Theory Web Portal.
The constructal law applied to society
The authors apply the constructal law to analyze the evolution of society:
“Civilization with all its constructs (science, religion, language, writing, and so on) is the never-ending physics of evolving flow configurations from the movements of mass, energy, and knowledge to the world migration of people to whom ideas occur.”
I am surprised in this context that the authors do not explore in more detail the growing role of cities in enhancing flows in society. Surely one of the key reasons that our world is growing more spiky, with an acceleration in the trend towards urbanization, is that cities are powerful amplifiers of flow. In this context the work of Geoffrey West and Bettencourt comparing the scaling and life spans of cities and companies would be a very interesting illustration of the constructal law in action.
Freedom enhances the evolution of design
This focus on the evolution of design also leads the authors to emphasize the importance of freedom. “A prerequisite, then, is for the flow system to be free to morph. . . . Freedom is good for design. Later on, the authors observe: “Freedom is what allows flow systems to configure and reconfigure themselves. It is what allows them to “get design” and get better. Without freedom there would be no design and no evolution.”
Moving towards greater potential and possibility
Overall, the book offers a very optimistic view of the future:
“What’s ahead? The short answer should be obvious by now: a multitude of flow designs that move more mass better – cheaper, farther, faster. On the world stage, you can place solid bets that the entire globe will continue spreading the rule of law, free trade, human rights, globalization, and all the other design features that guarantee more movement for us and our stuff. Sure, there are obstacles; dictators will not like this prediction. But the nature of the flow system composed of the huge numbers of individuals makes their reigns short-lived in the grand scheme – because of physics.”
As this suggests, the authors offer an inspirational view of the potential and possibility ahead of us as evolution drives us to ever more effective flow systems.
“Thus the constructal law suggests the idea of progress, conveys the promise of hope: Given freedom, flow systems will generate better and better configurations to flow more easily.”
Relevance to the Big Shift
I love this book for many reasons – its insight, optimism, breadth of scope and edginess. More immediately, it casts a new light on the analysis of the Big Shift that is re-shaping our global business landscape. Both our Shift Index and The Power of Pull explore the various dimensions of the Big Shift but one way of framing this shift is from a world of knowledge stocks to a world of knowledge flows.The Big Shift will lead to enormous wealth destructuion and even greater wealth creation.
Our institutions that emerged in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century were designed around knowledge stocks. The irony is that these institutions emerged in response to new transportation and communication infrastructures that facilitated flow.
Now that new digital technology infrastructures are emerging globally, we are witnessing a profound and disruptive shift to from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows as the source of value creation. With the benefit of hindsight, we may come to realize that the powerful institutions that emerged in the last century and continue to govern our lives – whether companies, NGO’s, schools or government – were in fact a very brief detour in the evolution of institutional design to facilitate flow.
Is knowledge flow different?
In thinking about the design of a new generation of flow-based institutions, there is much to learn from this book. At the same time, I would insert a word of caution that the concept of flow may need some further refinement in a social and business context, especially when we are talking about flows of knowledge.
Knowledge is not a finite quantity and in this respect it is unlike many of the other kinds of flows discussed in the book – e.g, river water or volcano lava – where the key is to enhance speed and efficiency of movement from one point to another point with minimal dissipation. Knowledge can and does grow as part of flow. What are the institutional mechanisms that can accelerate new knowledge creation as part of flow design? Those who answer this question will generate enormous wealth and drive a whole new wave of institutional innovation and design.
The bottom line
So, what does this mean for all of us? The message is simple and compelling. If we are not enhancing flow, we will be marginalized, both in our personal and professional life. If we want to remain successful and reap the enormous rewards that can be generated from flows, we must continually seek to refine the designs of the systems that we spend time in to ensure that they are ever more effective in sustaining and amplifying flows. As the authors observe, “it is not love or money that makes the world go round but flow and design”