Take a massively important underpinning of physics: symmetry and scale invariance are signs that there may be laws to be found. Apply this to biology and you get the astonishing result that Geoffrey West describes so well:
There’s kind of one mammal, and every other mammal, no matter what size it is and where it existed, is actually some well-defined mathematically scaled version of that one master mammal, so to speak. And that is kind of amazing.
In other words, the size of a mammal, or any organism for that matter, can tell you how long it should live, how many children it should have, how oxygen diffuses across its lungs, what is the length of the ninth branch of its circulatory system, how its blood is flowing, how quickly it will grow, et cetera.
Biology scales around a simple power law of 3/4 which means that creatures get more efficient the bigger they are (e.g. a size increase of 10^4 needs only 10^3 more cells), which is e.g. why big creatures tend to live longer and at a slower pace.
Then take this insight to try and make a science of cities and then of organisations.
Globally, cities appear to scale at an exponent of 1.15, e.g. you get massive returns to scale (vs economies of scale in biology – I had not really appreciated the distinction before):
If you double the size of a city from 50,000 to a hundred thousand, a million to two million, five million to ten million, it doesn’t matter what, systematically, you get a roughly 15 percent increase in productivity, patents, the number of research institutions, wages and so on, and you get systematically a 15 percent saving in length of roads and general infrastructure [over two cities of the smaller size].
The problem with this exponential growth is that it inexorably leads to collapse. We have been effective at resetting the growth curve thanks to technological and social changes, but the pace of this change is ever increasing (even the speed of walking in European cities follows the same power law!). It is possible that we humans may not be able to keep up with the pace required, but that’s for another discussion.
Finally, unpublished data suggests that companies show scale, but at the sublinear level: more like organisms than cities. This suggests that companies should grow and then stop growing and then die. Why so?
The great thing about cities, the thing that is amazing about cities is that as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases. And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I’ll use the word “dimensionality.”Â It opens up. And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people, and there are always crazy people. Well, that’s good. It is tolerant of extraordinary diversity.
This is in complete contrast to companies, with the exception of companies maybe at the beginning (think of the image of the Google boys in the back garage, with ideas of the search engine no doubt promoting all kinds of crazy ideas and having maybe even crazy people around them).
Indeed, if you go to General Motors or you go to American Airlines or you go to Goldman Sachs, you don’t see crazy people. Crazy people are fired. Well, to speak of crazy people is taking the extreme. But maverick people are often fired.
If you’re running a bigger company, you can recognize what the metrics are that are driving you to mortality, and possibly put it off, and hopefully even avoid it.
Otherwise we have a theory that tells you when Google and Microsoft will eventually die, and die might mean a merger with someone else.
Just brilliant stuff. Physics is the basis of everything after all, I thank you, I thank you.
It looks like the internet could also scale supra-linearly according to a McK Global Institute analysis. 2.4 to 2.6 jobs created for every 1 lost (PDF) feels pretty good.