The physics law that will help you better understand your organization and make it thrive

My interview with Duke University Professor, physicist, engineer, author and multiple awards winner Adrian Bejan.

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August 5, 2021
New York

I’ve never been a huge fan of boundaries and how they divide things that should be connected, into separate entities (Yes, obviously, some boundaries are useful, but many of them are obstacles). It’s why I have always been intrigued by solutions and concepts that unite the arts, math, business, physics, etc. Traditionally, those disciplines tend to be regarded as completely different, but the truth is that they are all examining the same: human nature and its context.

A great example of this type of converged, boundaryless thinking is David Christian and his concept of Big History. I had the luck of interviewing him for our nexxworks Innovation Talks, if you’d like to hear more:

But perhaps one of the best illustrations of cross-discipline notions, is Duke University Professor, author and multiple awards winner Adrian Bejan’s constructal law:

“For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”

The constructal law might seem abstract at first, if you lack some context. But it explains the evolution of any type of system: from rivers and lightning bolts to trees, veins, streets, animals, technology, knowledge, language, culture, organizations and even innovation. It’s a beautiful law that governs life (and non-life) and can help us understand, and even predict many of the challenges of organizations and innovation.

The value of freedom

Adrian Bejan is perhaps one of the most original minds I’ve ever had the honor of interviewing. On top of everything else, he also made me realize that scientific work is irrevocably interlaced with the life of those who perform it. Or as he himself put it: “all research is autobiographical”. Adrian grew up in the harsh and unforgiving Romanian regime that was lead by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. And so it is perhaps not surprising that his law is an ode to freedom, flow and greater access. Things which were very scarce in communist Romania. Only the (once) unfree and suppressed understand the true value of freedom and the danger of stifling boundaries.

But back to the constructal law. It’s a non-denominational law of physics that builds further on top of the laws of thermodynamics (a discipline in which Adrian is specialized) and it accounts for the phenomenon of evolution of form or design throughout nature, in flow systems that can be both inanimate or animate. I love the fact that he sees connections everywhere, between the scientific disciplines - it’s why he’s such a fan of the renaissance man concept - but also between the flow systems themselves: “nothing operates in isolation; every flow system is part of a bigger flow system, shaped by and in service to the world around it” (Design in nature).

Adrian formulated his law because he felt that that evolutionary design - which happens naturally - was not covered in what he calls the “book of physics”.

Always evolving towards greater access

So what’s the law really about? Simply put, the urge of any flow system – which is any moving or ‘living’ system – is to flow more easily, to liberate the flow because that is how it stays ‘alive’. Its natural configuration has freedom to change. It always evolves in the direction toward greater access for what flows, resulting in easier and farther spreading. This could be the flow of heat, of a fluid or even that of a pedestrian crowd in a city. Or society and all its features: economics, communications and education.

The movement or evolution in a flow system can sometimes be incredibly slow, like in the case of rivers changing their course or roads and subways that transform or regimes that restrict access and freedom that will eventually end one way or another. But in spite of its possible slowness, the dynamic of facilitating the flow will always surface. Or as Adrian put it: “even the beaten path never stays the same”.

Invest in opening up the flow

So what can we learn from Adrian’s constructal law when it comes to business? Adrian advises company decision makers to invest as much as possible in opening up the flow inside and outside their own flow system, the organisation. According to him, this can be done in two ways: through people and through technology.

People, first. Adrian explained that CEOs need to attract the type of individuals who excel at opening up the flow and providing greater access: those individuals to whom new ideas occur and who have a talent for figuring out how to guide channels into flowing more easily. “Oddballs” who are not afraid to say the unthinkable and question the CEO, who – herself or himself – also needs to keep questioning the status quo, by the way. Examples could be to invest in a Head of HR who understands when to transfer which people to which department. Or in a CMO who knows how to create greater access to his company’s blog, podcast and all types of existing content. Or in a boundary spanner, the type of people who act on the peripheries of companies and are great at networking, because they know how to connect the different departments of an organization, as well as create useful outside partnerships.

But companies should also invest in technology devices that facilitate the opening up of the gates of new ideas and information: through better and faster connection, better communication or better transportation. An example could be German industrial player Bosch investing in 5G in order to create faster and better access to its industry 4.0 applications. Or Elon Musk who’s a fantastic example of how the constructal law works, according to Adrian: constantly launching new and daring ideas that will lead to breakthrough technologies. Like providing greater and faster access to city transportation with his boring company.

Innovation liberates the flow

Innovation, too, is a manifestation of the constructal law. “Innovation is a change that suddenly liberates the flow”, explained Adrian. It opens the gates of the flow and has the effect that everyone in the vicinity of the innovator can quickly and directly profit from his or her success, which comes from the greater flow. That’s why the partners and suppliers of very successful companies tend to thrive themselves as well. Or why – through the very local invention of the steam engine in Cornwall – its success quickly spread through the rest of western Europe. Success is not just about facilitating the flow, but sometimes even about proximity to that flow.

Another interesting application of the laws of thermodynamics in innovation by the way, is how opening up one gate, sometimes (partly) closes another. Like when a leak in a water pipe greatly reduces the flow of a faucet. Just like that, innovation can sometimes reduce the flow of the existing system: this phenomenon is commonly known as the ‘cannibalization of the existing business’. An example would be when a university would start investing in online courses, which are cheaper but can offer greater scale. Before the scale advantage kicks in, the online courses might cannibalize on the existing (and much more expensive and exclusive) on-campus business model.

What we think of as market dynamics, is all thermodynamics, really.

Everything that spreads, grows along a slow-fast-slow s-curve, explained Adrian. If a maturing system is not able to provide greater access to the flow, eventually it ossifies and dies. It’s the reason why pandemics, like COVID-19, always grow along an s-curve. Or why, when you spill coffee on the floor, it “has a small initial footprint, followed by a rapid finger-shaped expansion across the kitchen’s tiles, followed by a final phase of slow creep”. Or why certain natural shapes repeat themselves and mirror each other: from the design of a lightning bolt to a river delta or a subway map:

Economics, too, are subject to the constructal law. “There is a one to one proportionality between gross domestic product and the amount of movement during that year, for which the amount of fuel burnt is a proxy”, explained Adrian. For instance, Western Europe has a high GDP and a high consumption rate of fuel. (Yes, we did talk about the impact of burning fuel on the environment and Adrian believes that the system will self-correct when we will have no other choice than to evolve from there.)

Obstructing the natural flow comes at a cost

The constructal law works ‘in reverse’ as well. It cannot just predict how a system will evolve, but also how a system will become toxic when it isolates itself and the natural flow and the access are willingly limited. This will eventually lead it to fossilize and die. I had to think about filter bubbles in social media, of course, where the free movement of information is limited and instead orchestrated by algorithms that push ‘sameness’ and commercial content. The result is a design that nurtures polarization, extremism in any form and capitalism. It might have taken a while before the public caught on (but remember, the natural tendency of a flow system is not necessarily fast), but Facebook, for instance, is now confronted with an enormous image problem and the younger generation shies away from it.

Obstructing the natural flow comes at a cost.

Another ‘how not to’ example would be a company with a highly siloed structure where the natural flows of information, communication and collaboration are closed off. Companies can survive a while this way, as we all know, but eventually mismanagement, miscommunication and lack of innovation will follow, resulting in certain death. The law is also an illustration of why putting up walls and fences against migration does not work: you can’t just obstruct natural flows because you don’t like them and then expect they’ll go away.

What I perhaps appreciate most in Adrian’s work is how he forces us to see that basically everything on earth follows the same dynamics. We love to believe that human cognition and human structures are somehow special. That they follow they own, almost magical rules. That mind always trumps over matter. But organisations or governments are not just purely ethereal intellectual designs. They are not a separate part of nature but are fully embedded in it. And they follow the same laws of physics as the rest of the flowing natural world, animate and inanimate. If we start to acknowledge that, we might actually benefit from it. Whether it’s for our companies, governments, environment or society as a whole.

Feature picture of Adrian Bejan: courtesy of Juan Mejia.

Next to his scientific work, Adrian Bejan has also written several books for the general audience:

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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August 5, 2021
New York