From an early age, the Swiss scientist Max Kleiber had a knack for testing the edges of convention. As an undergraduate in Zurich in the 1910s, he defied the conventions of the day by roaming the streets dressed in sandals and an open collar. After a time in the military, he failed to reappear for duty when he discovered that his superiors had traded information with the Germans, despite the official Swiss position of neutrality in World War I. His actions landed him in jail for several months. When he was released, Kleiber decided that he had had enough of Switzerland. And so he packed his bags and went where sandal-wearing, nonconformist, war protesters go—to California. Kleiber matriculated at the agricultural college in the University of California at Davis. “His research initially focused on cattle, measuring the impact that body size had on their metabolic rates, the speed with which an organism burns through energy. Shortly after his arrival at Davis, Kleiber stumbled across a mysterious pattern in his research, a mathematical oddity that soon brought a much more diverse array of creatures to be measured in his lab: rats, ring doves, pigeons, dogs, even humans. Scientists and animal lovers had long observed that as life gets bigger, it slows down. Flies live for hours or days; elephants live for half-centuries. The hearts of birds and small mammals pump blood much faster than those of giraffes and blue whales. But the relationship between size and speed didn’t seem to be a one to one relationship. A horse might be five hundred times heavier than a rabbit, yet its pulse certainly wasn’t five hundred times slower than the rabbit’s.”[1] After a formidable series of measurements in his Davis lab, Kleiber finally had a working model that could predict the metabolism and heart rate of all animals, based upon one single variable, mass! He found that if you double the size of an animal from 10 lbs. to 20 lbs., 50 lbs. to 100 lbs., it doesn’t matter the size, then you get a 15 percent decrease in metabolism and heart rate.

Exponential-innovation_Figure1

Amazingly, even though all animals on Earth have evolved in their own unique environments and with diverse evolutionary forces, all animals are constrained to lie on this same line. How can that be? The reason is networks. All animals are made up of cells; all animals are simply networks of cells, and all cellular networks act in the same symbiotic manner, no matter which animal you consider. That is to say, “All of life is controlled by networks — from the intracellular through the multicellular through the ecosystem level.”[4]

Years later, Kleiber’s law spiked the interest of another scientist, Geoffrey West, who was attempting to establish a quantifiable, predictive framework for the growth of cities. He wondered if Kleiber’s law applied not only to networks of cells, but also to networks of people, namely cities. He gathered population data, energy consumption data, infrastructure data, pace-of-life data, etc. on hundreds of cities. When all the numbers were crunched, West found that cities were constrained to the same linear pattern that animals are constrained to. Truly, a network of people benefits from the same economies of scale as a network of cells. This means that a city twice as large as another uses 15 percent less energy and 15 percent less infrastructure per capita. Therefore, if an elephant is just a scaled up mouse, then a city is just a scaled up elephant. Hence, when the mechanic, scientist, entrepreneur, teacher and waiter all specialize and work together, they create a more efficient, symbiotic metropolis. And, the more people that specialize, the more efficient the city.

However, one datapoint of West’s research did not follow this negative linear pattern. West found that innovation (in terms of patents, R&D budgets, “supercreative” professions, and inventors) follows Kleiber’s Law, but in the positive direction. That is to say, if a city is twice as large as another, it is not 15 percent less innovative, but 115% more innovative. This means that a growing network of people within a city will increase the collective capacity of its citizens to innovate.

Innovation through networks

If cities and innovation can be compared, we would assume that West’s Model would allow us to predict, with remarkable accuracy, the future pace of technological change based on a single variable, city growth. To make a prediction, let’s crunch some numbers of our own. According to the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), world, urban population will grow from its current number of 3.3 billion to 7.1 billion by 2060.[5] That is more than a doubling of world, urban population in 48 years. If we plug this information into West’s Model and assume that the average city more than doubles in size, we would expect to see two-and-a-half times more innovation in 2060 than in 2011.[6] More specifically, one year in 2060 would equal two-and-a-half current years of technological change. While this is interesting, it is hardly impressive. If we look at the current innovation trend data for the United States alone, we find that just in the last 18 years the number of patents granted to US citizens per year has doubled![7] See figure 2.

Exponential-innovation_Figure2

Current innovative trends already surpass anything that West’s Model might predict about cities. The truth of the matter is that West’s Model fails to predict the progress of innovation over time for the same reason that a city of one million in the year 1800 did not have the same level of innovation as a city of one million in 2011. The reason again is networks, but this time the reason is networks that are independent and run parallel to cities’ networks. This understanding should force us out of our myopic focus on cities as the only significant human network driving innovation and force us to contemplate what other networks are driving the current pace of innovation.

If we broaden our consideration of human networks beyond cities, we find that the most significant networking technology has been the television. When city-growth data and patent data are graphed we find that all the way up until 1960, American megacity growth[9] predicts 99% of the variation of patents granted per year. However, after 1960 we find that population data does not accurately predict the pace of innovation. See figure 3.

Exponential-innovation_Figure3

However, after 1960 we find that population data does not accurately predict the pace of innovation. (see Figure 4)

Innovation through networks

At the same time that population no longer predicts the pace of innovation, we see the emergence of the television as a popular medium. By 1950 only 9 percent of American households had televisions. However, by 1959 that figure had increased to 85.9 percent.[14] As we see in Figure 4, the pace of innovation after 1960 skyrockets. In truth, this should come as no surprise. Even at its birth, people understood the enormous networking possibilities of television. On April 9, 1927 when Bell Telephones conducted the first long distance use of television, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover commented, “Today we have, in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the world’s history. Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.” That day in 1927, Hoover had no way to know the prescience of his statement decades before it would change the course of innovation. From 1960 forward, the television introduced us to diverse ideas and captured the imagination of the world in a way that was more physical and unifying than ever before. For example, on July 20, 1969 the world witnessed the first and only manned, lunar landing. On that day 500 million people, three-quarters of which were not Americans, had one of the most memorable days of their life, simultaneously. They felt small and big all that the same time. They viewed our Earth as a small globe whirling around a far larger speck of light. That day the minds of philosophers, scientists, men of faith, men of power, story tellers, and poets united to contemplate the same questions, ‘What is out there? What is our place amongst these other specks of light that shine in the darkness of the night?’ In a way, all 500 million worldwide viewers became philosophers, if only for a moment. No other technology, before that time, was capable of uniting humanity in the way that television did that day. It was a proud day that unleashed our collective creativity, not just for Houston or for the United States, but for all of humanity.

As we begin to understand that human networks span beyond the city, we must consider that from the first constructed roads in 4000 BC in the city of Ur to the popularization of the internet in 1982 (see Figure 2), the human genius has destroyed the impediment of distance. And going forward, we will see the impediment of distance razed to the ground as we continue to build and strengthen worldwide networks. By understanding that all of life and all human networks follow the same networking patterns, we can conclude that if a city is just a scaled up elephant then television and the internet are just scaled up cities, and West’s Model can still help us predict the pace of innovation. Thus, if we compare Facebook with an active user population of 900 million to the population of the most innovative and largest city in the world, Tokyo, with a population of 34.5 million[15] we can infer that Facebook has the potential to be 59 times more innovative than Tokyo.[16] It doesn’t end there. If the internet were to reach every person in the world by 2060 and a worldwide network became possible, this network has the potential to be 1,100 times more innovative than Tokyo.[17] That certainly beats the 2.5 multiple increase over 48 years that West’s Model predicted when limiting human networks to cities.

The internet is truly our greatest tool to build a worldwide network; however, it should not be and is not the summit of our networking potential. The internet currently lacks the ability to fully involve all of our human senses in a worldwide network in the same way that the radio and telephone lacked what television had to offer. Relationships on the internet continue to feel superficial. Moreover, we cannot touch, smell, and taste on the internet. This lack of connection leaves us desiring more. However, that impediment can and will be overcome.  Our global, human network will become more meaningful, and the pace of innovation will exponentially increase. One need only pick up an issue of Popular Science to begin to envision the deep connections that will make up our worldwide network in the future. Computer screens as thin as wallpaper[18] and as cheap as a television will one day cover our walls, allowing us to sit in the same room with people thousands of miles away. Combined with simulated-texture technology, we will not only sit in the room together, but we will be able to reach out and touch that person. While a computer may never be able to fully simulate the feeling of a hug, it may not need to. Instead, technology will in the near future bring the computer screen to you instead of you to the computer screen, thereby enhancing our physical connections through augmented reality. Computer screens that fit on a contact lens will allow you to facially recognize strangers in the street and receive biographic information about them. Augmented reality lenses will enhance, enliven, and deepen our interactions. Imagine playing video games with friends in the backyard and interacting with characters as if they are in the real world. Imagine attending concerts, conventions, and tradeshows within a 3-D environment. Imagine training to be a mechanic and when you look at an engine, 3-D specs are displayed on top of it telling you what to fix and how to fix it. Once your imagination gets going, it’s difficult to imagine experiences in our life that cannot be deepened and broadened with augmented reality. According to Google, even our romantic relationships will be deepened. Google’s new commercial[19] for its soon-to-be-released augmented reality glasses, depicts a man performing a sunset serenade for his girlfriend as she sits at her home computer. Now, what could be deeper than that (tongue in cheek)?

While near-term technological possibilities are still lacking, the fact of the matter is that worldwide networks are deepening and broadening and creating a global consciousness that was not previously there. The more we continue to network, the more symbiotic our actions will be, and the more we will benefit from one another. In sum, these worldwide networks will be the engine that drives us to unthinkable, innovative possibilities—all thanks to West’s Law.

Dialog’s Network

Dialogs_Network


[1] Johnson, Steven (2010-10-05). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (p. 58). Penguin Group.
[2] At a more complex level, if an animal is 1,000 times heavier, then its metabolism, and heart rate are 5.6 times slower ( ).
[3] West, Geoffrey (2011-07-XX) http://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_west_the_surprising_math_of_cities_and_corporations.html?quote=1010
[4] West, Geoffrey (2011-07-XX) http://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_west_the_surprising_math_of_cities_and_corporations.html?quote=1010
[5] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2007-XX-XX) “State of World Population 2007.” (p. 6)
[6]  times more innovation
[7] the number of patents granted to citizens in 2011 in the U.S. (120,690) is two times greater than the number of patents granted in 1993 (60,883).
[8] Patents: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/h_counts.htm
[9] Megacity growth = the growth in population of the ten largest US cities
[10] Megacity populations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Largest_cities_in_the_United_States_by_population_by_decade
[11] US Population: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Census
[12] Patents: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/h_counts.htm
[13] Patents: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/h_counts.htm
[14] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1513870/Television-in-the-United-States/283614/The-year-of-transition-1959
[15] http://www.citypopulation.de/world/Agglomerations.html
[16]  times more innovative
[17]  times more innovative
[18] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4c2KnBKXu4&feature=player_embedded
[19] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSnB06um5r4
1 reply
  1. Adriene Valakas
    Adriene Valakas says:

    This design is wicked! You certainly know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

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