Newton’s Laws

I have just ended my holidays this summer and I would like to share with you some thinking I did during those days when you are able to clear your mind from everyday issues and problems. I want to go back to basics with a new post on the Physics of Innovation, where I try to make an analogy between physical laws and Business Innovation. So let’s give some thought to Newton’s Laws…

But, why Newton this time? Well, I had the chance some time ago to spend a week in Cambridge as part of the Master in Business Innovation degree I undertook at Deusto University. I wanted to pay a tribute to this centre of knowledge where so many great scientific discoveries were developed . Many choices came to my mind from the discovery of ADN to the work of my admired Stephen Hawking, but I decided to go back to basics, as I said, so I could not think of a better choice that Newton, Sir Isaac Newton, the founding father of Physics. Newton did many things (and some of them while he was at Cambridge) but I would like to relate Innovation with the basis of Classical Mechanics, Newton’s  three Laws. As usual, my goal is just to make the reader think, to see if we can improve in our innovation practice by linking it with physical phenomena or physical laws.

So let us start with the First Law, which says something like “an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force”, while the Second Law defines that “the acceleration experimented by an object multiplied by its mass equals the sum of forces acting upon it” (check here for more details). In simpler terms, the First Law (or law of Inertia) says that things will remain moving as they were unless something is done to change it, while the Second Law defines that the rate of that change depends on the mass of the object (the bigger, the more difficult to change).

Can we relate these concepts to the business realm? Well, I am sure we have all seen the concept of mass and inertia very much used in business environments (and others as well), but I would like to bring a twist into it when I relate to the concept of Velocity. So, in the scenario I propose, Mass is the size of the company, while Velocity is the knowledge the company has. We can indeed relate knowledge to a vectorial magnitude (like Velocity) because not only you have an amount of knowledge, but you can focus it in different directions. Then, if we apply Newton’s First Law, the knowledge in a company will not change without an external (or internal) force.

So where is the relation with Innovation? Let’s go to the Second Law to think about it. The sum of forces affecting our company affect our velocity, but how? The bigger the company, its mass, the more difficult it is to change significantly its knowledge. We can think about the great behemoths in todays knowledge economy (Google, Apple, etc) as large masses moving with a great velocity composed from many directions. On the other hand, startups are small masses also moving fast, but normally with a single direction.

In this scenario, let’s bring Drag into the picture. Well, this is a force that due to the interaction with environment, will decelerate (negative acceleration) your company as your knowledge leaves or becomes obsolete, reducing your velocity and threatening to bring you to a complete stop. On the other hand, we can think about Innovation as Acceleration, a boost of knowledge which you can buy or develop, fighting the omnipresent Drag, but also allowing for changes in direction to “cleaner” environments with less “viscosity” (see my earlier post on this if you are interested).

With this framework in mind, we could ask ourselves some interesting questions like: Is constant acceleration/innovation possible? Well, we could relate to gravity to answer this question. There is a force pulling masses together (actually a curvature of space-time, but let’s not get technical!), so we could think about some ecosystems providing a constant innovation pull to anything in its vicinity (think about Silicon Valley, or our starting point in this post, Cambridge University).

Of course this is just a mind game, as reality is always more complicated, but I truly believe that simple analogies such as this are very helpful to provide a different and often clearer view about complex problem (Einstein himself said it). Try to think about you Innovation situation in this framework, it may help you! If you want to read some more on Inertia and Cognition, have a look at this post “Inertia: The Force That Holds the Universe Together”

By the way, what about Newton’s Third Law? Well, if this post (Action) generates enough interest (Reaction), I will write a continuation because the third law also has some interesting links with the Physics of Innovation…

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