Flows, Fragility and Friction

From Edge Perspectives with John Hagel


Even though he doesn’t identify himself as such, John Hagel is one of the most advanced explorers in the field of infonomics – how people use and value information. Like those of us who have followed the same path, he has associated information with physics. With the addition of Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law, derived from thermodynamics, we have a powerful new concept from which to expand the exploration of information physics in human societies (and other life forms as well).

In his recent post, (linked above), John begins by discussing the shift from monetizing “knowledge stocks” (copyrights, patents, trade secrets etc.), to flows:

“The challenge in a more rapidly changing world is that knowledge stocks depreciate at an accelerating rate. In this kind of world, the key source of economic value shifts from stocks to flows. The companies that will create the most economic value in the future will be the ones that find ways to participate more effectively in a broader range of more diverse knowledge flows that can refresh knowledge stocks at an accelerating rate.”

However, flow systems have a ying and yang character – More freedom to morph their channels leads to more flow. However, unlimited freedom and flow can overwhelm the structures that define order, or as John describes it, “fragility” in societies. A completely constrained flow can only increase its volume by increasing the pressure within the channel, which ultimately can lead to the abrupt transition from order to chaos. Think of a fire hose with more and more pressure applied – eventually it either bursts (dramatically morphing its channel), or the pressure overwhelms the fireman holding it and it snakes around chaotically spraying water in all directions. Think Republican Party, election 2016.

John continues: So, how do we get more flow with less fragility? My instinct is that requires friction – institutional arrangements and personal practices that tend to slow down flows and reduce the likelihood that these flows will cascade into the breakdown of systems.

Indeed, when flows morph into new channel configurations, it is always to increase the efficiency of those flows, not necessarily the overall volume. With each new morphing, or branching, the energy of the flow comes more in balance with the friction of the channel, until equilibrium is reached.

In John’s social interpretation, “In the case of individuals interacting with each other, productive friction might come from welcoming others with diverse perspectives and experiences as an opportunity to challenge our own beliefs and evolve to much more creative approaches than would be likely if we just interact with others who have similar perspectives.”

Right on. As Adrian points out, “Greater access, easier life, greater efficiency are not more flow.” More diverse flow, greater cross-flow, lower pressure within the channels of the system. Perhaps what we are seeing in the edge-of-chaos two party political system in the United States is exactly an example of two over-pressurized fire hoses, when what we really need is lots of parties competing with garden hoses and water balloons – and laughing with each other.

John Hagel’s full post is well worth reading, as are his wide ranging commentaries on information in society – infonomics.

Mark Heyer

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