An Exploration of Non-equilibrium Open Thermodynamics in Technological Systems…and The Occasional Poopy Baby Diaper.
It was only a few weeks ago that I experienced one of the most beautiful feelings in my life. That was the birth of our baby boy, Sebastian. It is a feeling that can only be partially described through language and diction, but it is a truth that can only be experienced by the beholder. I have only cried two times in my life. The first being at the ending of the movie “Marley and Me” where they put the dog to sleep, and the second being the moment I heard the cries that signified my baby’s first breathes in this world. If it is in your cards, I highly recommend having a baby. It’s quite wonderful. It is absolutely sublime. It will definitely change the way you look at the world. You will look at the world with a new palette of colors, timbres of sounds, and a wider range of olfactory. It is the true definition of First Principles. A Kuhnian scientific revolution where completely new rules and values establish a new way of looking at the world. As Humboldt once stated, “what speaks to the soul escapes our measurements”, and this has never been more true when it comes to our new baby boy. Already in the short period of time he has been in this world, he has already taught us everything about love — and maybe a bit about the complexity all around us.
“Already in the short period of time he has been in this world, he has already taught us everything about love — and maybe a bit about the complexity all around us.”
One of the first things you learn when you have a baby is to change diapers. This is a skill that I had purposely avoided learning until our baby arrived because once you acquire this very trained art you become a viable option for diaper duty. The funny thing is, when it is your baby, you are automatically enrolled in the accelerated course for this unique discipline that is only passed down from master to apprentice since the age of time. Out of necessity you develop this skill, and you become a natural observer to the baby’s early childhood development at the frequency of each infant bowel movement. With a new lens to look at the world, one of the things I began to observe in the frequency of these poopy diapers, was that newborns exemplify dynamics that are ubiquitous in the world that surrounds us ranging from nature, society, and even our expanding universe. Just on a smaller scale. Babies need constant care, and that includes ensuring that the baby is fed and their diapers are changed. These are the same dynamics that occur in open thermodynamics that require an the importation and exportation of energy and matter to perpetuate form and order; but in the case of a cuddly puppy-eyed baby, that importation is milk and its nutrients, and that exportation is excreted metabolic waste in a diaper.
When speaking about technology or venture creation, analogies to nature and ecosystems are typically referenced. Usually to express a dynamic that is felt through intuition in an incomplete way. We talk about cities and communities of dense entrepreneurial activity as ecosystems; making the parallel between the different interdependencies of venture capital, incubation, research and development, technical support, and the individuals and institutions that contribute to creating commercially viable technology. These are dynamics that are felt and sensed through our experience with innovation and venture creation, but like music and art, it is one thing to enjoy a piece, but it is another to appreciate it. Music may speak to us in many ways, but form and process allows us to observe music from different angles; to appreciate the minute intentional details, as well as the brilliance of the logic of its composition. Speak to someone that may have studied music or music theory, and ask them about the repertoire of the music they appreciate. They will be able to pick out the fascinating mathematical precision of Bach’s counterpoint in his Goldberg Variations, or even the beautiful harmonic logic that tears longing in your soul in Mahler’s 5th symphony Adagietto. I am sure one would be able to give you a whole new appreciation to the rhythmic gestalt that occurs in Ghanese African drumming and Indonesian gamelan, or even the impressive harmonic color that occurs in the chord changes in spontaneous jazz improvisation. The masters of this art not only connect with music on a level that is intuitive, one that can only be felt, but they can do so because they can also respect the dynamics of art through the understanding of its form and order. These are the dynamics that speaks to the soul through an understanding of the frameworks and process that makes art absolutely brilliant. Exploring innovation is similar in that if we expect to be skilled in venture creation, we must also be equipped with the frameworks that allow us to appreciate the dynamics that are truly occurring. We have made the intuitive connection between venture and nature, but if we now go a step further, and really understand the similar dynamics that occur in technological systems, as well a genetic regulatory networks, biological systems, global economies, an expanding universe, or even a poopy baby, we can adopt frameworks that give us a deeper appreciation for the innovation process. In this case, we start to understand that the forms in living organisms and systems illustrate the same shared dynamics: 1) they are open thermodynamic systems, and 2) they are non-equilibrium. This also applies and holds true to the emergent behavior of an evolving technological system as we will explore here. What can we learn about the process of innovation if we understand that technological systems are also non-equilibrium and open thermodynamics systems? — and how will that inform how we invent?
“…if we expect to be skilled in venture creation, we must also be equipped with the frameworks that allow us to appreciate the dynamics that are truly occurring.”
Closed thermodynamics are systems that do not exchange matter with its environment or surroundings. Think about a refrigerator that circulates refrigerant chemical through its system without any additional amounts needed to be imported or exported, but it transfers energy in order to manipulate temperatures. A closed or isolated systems does not import or export matter with its surroundings. On the other hand, an open thermodynamic system is a system that interacts with its environment freely, importing and exporting matter and energy, and metabolizing material components. Similar to a newborn baby that eats and poops, all free-living organisms are open thermodynamics systems. All systems that are alive “eat” and take in matter and energy in order to expand, grow, and reproduce. Technological systems are also free-living systems in that they require energy to be produced to lower its entropy. The higher the energy, the lower the entropy, and higher the order in the system. The question we have to ask ourselves if we come to the conclusion that, like free-living organisms, technological systems are also open thermodynamic systems, what is the matter that is being imported and exported to create order? Technological systems are composed of a number of co-innovators and co-adopters in a value network that contribute to the evolution and definition of a technological system. We have seen new technological categories comprised of a number of individuals and institutions that contribute to the sophistication of technology. Each contribution, varying in degree and significance of the lifecycle play a part in the evolution of a system that may start undefined and stochastic, and eventually defines a system in order. This represents the evolution of technological value networks comprised of co-innovators such as adjacent technologies and material dependencies, and co-adopters such as channel partners, manufacturing partners, regulatory bodies, necessary for a technological system to be viable; This dynamic also represents the evolution of the composition and sophistication of those alignments that evolve over the life-cycle of that technological system. In the open dynamics of these systems, one could say that the imported matter are solution iterations. In my previous article about the innovation process, I referenced the Wright Brothers’ discovery of controlled flight through the sheer rate of iterations built on the learnings, contributions, and progress of other competitors such as Otto Lilienthal. We understand that in many ways innovation is the scientific method between iterations of hypothesis and learnings just like free-living systems iterate and create order between the iterations of exploration and exploitation. Watching our new born baby in his first days, this is ever more apparent. We observe his eyes and senses search the new world around him in exploration. Every day he starts to respond and recognize to familiar faces and sounds that allow him to know who mommy and daddy is. The neurons in his malleable brain start off in disorder, and through exploration he starts to explore freely, but when he gets feedback that informs that exploration, he is able to exploit that information and associations can be conditioned as well as other functions of consciousness. Similar to free-living systems that start to define order in something starts off stochastic, solution iterations are imported into a system, and contribute to the definition of order. What is exported, or excreted, in the process is non-solutions. The process of innovation is a process of elimination of non-solutions. The elimination of non-solutions that are no longer useful to the system leave only useful solutions that are naturally selected in the process. Just as a baby finds the nutrients imported through milk useful, its body will metabolize its nutrients to help develop growth and order in the system (e.g. muscles, motor skills, cognitive capabilities and more). What is excreted from system is waste that is no longer useful to the system. We have witnessed this same dynamic in other technological systems that have progressed through the process of trial and error. They have been able to iterate and fail enough times to know what not does not work and arrive to the definition of optimized solutions. As validated iterations are exploited, non solutions that do not contribute to the order of a technological system are the ones that are excreted in this open system.
“…in many ways innovation is the scientific method between iterations of hypothesis and learnings just like free-living systems iterate and create order between the iterations of exploration and exploitation.”
Free-living organisms are also non-equilibrium systems in that they are always expanding, and ultimately lowering entropy to create order. It is good that living systems and organisms are not equilibrium systems because, equilibrium equates to death. Just as a ball rolling in a bowl from side to side (in this scenario on the surface of the planet earth), the ball will oscillate and eventually start to settle at the bottom of the bowl trying to find the most stable state of equilibrium. In the case of chemical thermodynamics, two molecules that catalyze each other equally; say A molecule creates B molecule, and B molecule creates A molecule; would result in an equilibrium state where the net concentrations of molecules do not change [Ref. 1.a]. Technological systems are systems of interdependencies. Co-innovators and co-adopters alike, depend on each other for viability and sophistication, and are very similar to the catalytic relations that occurs in chemical thermodynamics. In this case, like free-living systems, these innovations take on non-equilibrium dynamics. These systems do no arrive to the most stable state like systems in equilibrium, but they develop asymmetrical concentrations that evolves and expands the system to ultimately create order from randomness. Say that in the scenario where A molecules catalyze B molecules, and B molecules catalyze A molecules, a non equilibrium state would occur when A molecules continued to be imported into a system at a constant rate, while a single B molecule was removed from the system at a rate proportional to its concentration [Ref. 1.a]. Such an open system would still have the same catalytic relationship where A would convert to B, and B would convert to A, but such a system would become non-equilibrium because of the constant importation of A, and exportation of B. Like other free-living systems that constantly grow and evolve, technological systems have interdependent and catalytic relationships that are non-equilibrium between their iterations of solutions and non-solutions. With the importation of solution iterations in the system, solutions that yield useful to the system are retained, and non solutions are exported [Ref. 1.b]. This occurs within the frameworks of exploration and exploitation of iteration collectively aggregated over the lifecycle and maturity of the system. Just as a single zygote cell that is ordinary, full of infinite possibilities starts to exploit feedback, it undergoes through about 50 cell divisions to create about 1 trillion cells that start to specialize in 260 cell types to develop organs, phenotypic traits, and ultimately a system with defined order. A system that is non-equilibrium expands and grows, and that occurs when iterations allow definition to aggregate with a net concentration that outweighs stochasticity. In the case of technological system this occurs when solution definition or sophistication starts to outweigh non-solutions. It is when the natural selection of solutions start to outweigh non-solutions that are exported and no-longer useful to the system and an idea with infinite possibilities start to be defined into reality [Ref. 2.a]. We have observed this in the pursuit of controlled flight, where there were many different hypotheses, approaches, attempts, and import of solution iterations that contributed to the order of the system. Over the course of the collective attempts and iterations, known non-solutions were identified, confirmed no longer useful, and exported. What was left over the lifecycle of the system was a larger concentration of possible solutions that were further exploited until a controlled flight solution was defined and optimized. The dynamic that occurs between exploration and exploitation with the constant importation of solutions, and exportation of non-solutions can only occur in non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems. This is something that is both experienced in technology innovation and other free-living organisms and systems.
“In many ways you can never force creativity or invention, but you can understand the constraints and frameworks that facilitate the possibility.”
In a world with multiple layers of interdependence it is important to understand how relationships affect the dynamics that occur. In the case of technological systems, we see that the same dynamics that allow them to expand, evolve, and grow are the same rules and order that occur in other free-living organisms and systems. These dynamics allow systems to evolve from stochasticity to a level of complexity that develops order. Technological systems share with other free-living systems the same dynamics that are, 1) open thermodynamic, and 2) non-equilibrium. If we are to understand the frameworks that help classify these shared dynamics, how will that influence the intentionality of how we create and invent. We know that non-equilibrium open thermodynamic systems exchanges with its surroundings with the import and export of matter and energy. What will we do to play our part in facilitating the importation and contribution of solution iterations? If the matter that is being imported into these open systems are solution iterations, and the matter being exported are non-solutions, then does that make energy the rate of iteration between exploration and exploitation? If we acknowledge the share dynamics between non-equilibrium open systems that evolve and grow, it can help us understand what levers we can manipulate and dial in as we participate in our systems. In many ways you can never force creativity or invention, but you can understand the constraints and frameworks that facilitate the possibility. At the very least, such frameworks can give us a new appreciation for systems that find a way to carry on living. When (if) you change a baby, you may never look at that excreted matter situated in that diaper the same. You may be thinking about the non-equilibrium dynamics that are occurring throughout that baby’s system that is causing him to grow up every day. You will start to witness it in his behavior as he starts to develop more complex motor skills. You will see it in the weight and mass of your baby as he starts to grow back to birth-weight and beyond. You will see it in his eyes and the way he looks at you as he will starts to recognize you as that special connection. The shared dynamics that occur in free-living systems ranging from technological systems to newborn babies are fascinating to observe and maybe such a view will give us a new appreciation when we witness them. That goes for technological systems, and most especially cute babies.