Superlinear Scaling and the True Impact of Creative Collaboration
There’s a level of comfort that comes with understanding. Our brain will always be skeptical and uneasy of abstract concepts. During evolution, that was a useful adaptation (“I don’t know if that bear is friendly, let’s not poke it.”) However, when it comes to taking actions in our lives today, that unease can lead to inaction. For example, you probably understand that you should work out more than you do, but you’re far more likely to do it if I say “you’ll lose ten pounds in four weeks.” vs. just “work out more, it’s good for you.”
The same goes for collaboration in creative fields. We all understand the vague benefit of collaboration, but it’s easy to sideline collaboration for the sake of efficiency and time. But recent research is showing that the value of collaboration is anything but vague and is actually reliably quantifiable.
It seems strange to start a piece on collaboration with the story of one man, but to truly understand the unusual effect of collaboration on creativity, you have to understand the rather dry work of Max Kleiber, highlighted in Steven Johnson’s book, “Where Good Ideas Come From.”
Kleiber was a swiss scientist, born and educated in Zurich, Switzerland in the early 1900's. He was an exceptionally bright student, with a knack for what I would deem and incredibly boring field of study. As the technological innovations of the 1920’s swirled around him in post World War I Europe, Kleiber was focused on the natural world, graduating from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as an Agricultural Chemist in 1920. He published his thesis The Energy Concept in the Science of Nutrition soon after.
After attaining his graduate degree, he made the move thousands of nature-loving folks like him would also make over the ensuing decades, and he moved to California. He moved to the Animal Husbandry Department of UC Davis in 1929 to conduct research on energy metabolism in animals. While his research was meant to be routine, he uncovered one of the most consistent and surprising patterns in nature.
Kleiber noticed that as plants and animals grow larger, their lifespans tend to be longer. These larger organisms also tended to consumer energy at a lower rate. Since most things in nature are governed by patterns, Kleiber set out to see if the size and longevity of living things was also governed by a pattern. What he uncovered came to be known as Kleiber’s Law. The law states that for the vast majority of animals and plants, the metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal’s mass. This is also know as negative quarter-power scaling. All life that has figured out how to distribute energy to survive follows this trend, even plants.
Put more simply, if you plot mass vs. metabolism on a logarithmic scale, the result is a perfectly linear relationship. Metabolism scales to mass at the negative quarter power, meaning as life gets bigger, it also slows down. A Horse weighs 1000X more than a chipmunk, and lives 5.5 times longer. We can measure this over the animals’ life, but we can also calculate it: the square root of 1000=31. The square root of 31 is 5.5.
This means that all living things have roughly the same number of heartbeats in their lifetimes. Smaller animals just tend to use them faster. Where this law becomes incredibly interesting however, is when we test it for organisms outside of nature.
Leave it to the theoretical physicists to really push the boundaries of a concept. In the early 2000’s, Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute set out to test if Kleiber’s law could also be applied to cities. As cities grow and expand, does their energy consumption also grow in predictable ways such as negative quarter-power scaling?
West and his team painstakingly researched all the aspects of a city’s consumption and output to determine if energy was metabolized by a city in the same way as an organism. What they found was that a city, despite being a man-made creation, matched Kleiber’s law perfectly. The rule of negative quarter-power scaling did indeed govern the energy and transportation growth of a city. This means that with no plan or focus on doing so, cities and developments tend to scale in predictable ways.
As somebody who enjoys uncovering patterns, I find this incredibly interesting. Virtually anything that needs to manage and distribute energy is governed by the same law.
But the most fascinating discovery that came out of West’s research was the elements of a city that did not follow Kleiber’s law. West found that every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation (creative professions, inventions, patents, etc.) followed a quarter-power law as well. The only difference was that the quarter-power law governing innovation was positive, not negative.
Every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation followed a quarter-power law as well. But this one was positive.
So a creative professional living in a city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more creative; they were seventeen times more creative. This is known as superlinear scaling. A person collaborating with 50 people is exponentially more creative than a person collaborating with 5. Not figuratively. Literally.
I’ve written a number of times about the value of collaborating. It’s something most creative professionals know we should be doing more of. We have a vague understanding of its benefits. We have a vague concept of why we should do it. We only have a vague feeling of guilt when we don’t do it. That level of subjectivity is a killer for motivation. That’s why superlinear scaling is such an exciting concept.
In researching cities, scientists have also uncovered the real, quantifiable value of collaboration. We know why collaboration makes us more creative. Exposing ourselves to new perspectives and ideas is a creativity booster. It’s that we don’t know exactly how much more creative it makes us. It’s not just that two heads are often better than one. It’s that a professional with an extensive network for collaboration will always be more creative than their less connected peers. It’s science.
Seeking out different perspectives can be hard. It takes work to build a network. It slows down the process to add different voices and gather input. But science supports that the benefits of collaboration are real and shouldn’t be ignored by anyone looking to grow, learn, improve, and flourish.
An important distinction to make is that the results won’t be seen project to project. The end product may not always be better, even if you put all the collaboration in the world into it, and that’s not the point. The point is that the collaboration itself makes YOU better. You as a creative. That in turn impacts your work.
The collaboration itself makes YOU better.
Bringing new ideas, new relationships, and new perspectives into your workflow has an exponential effect on your creativity. Go out and build your network. Ask coworkers for input. Learn from somebody new. These little acts of collaboration have an enormous effect on your growth as a creative professional. It’s not opinion. It’s science.
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