Why do cows live longer than birds?

Why do cows live longer than birds - image for article by Greg Alder

Is your circle of friends killing your business?

Where did your childhood go wrong?

And what do these questions have to do with innovation in regional communities?

Let’s start.

About 100 years ago, scientist Max Kleiber discovered a mathematical pattern. He was trying to determine why, as animals and other life forms get bigger, their metabolism slows down. Why do whale hearts beat so much slower than birds? Why do elephants live longer than mice?

What Max knew was that there wasn’t a scalable correlation between body size and heartbeat. A horse might weigh 500 times more than a rabbit, but a horse’s heart doesn’t beat 500 times faster than a rabbit’s.

He did an enormous amount of testing and eventually discovered a pattern emerging, a phenomenon that adhered to a mathematical formula that he called negative quarter-power scaling.

This was massive news. What it meant was that he’d discovered that there’s an inverse, measurable and predictable ratio between metabolism and mass to the negative quarter power.

So what did this mean in simple terms? What Max had discovered was a formula that showed that a cow, which might be 1000 times heavier than a rat, will live 5.5 times longer and its heart will beat 5.5 times slower than the rodent.

This was exciting for Max. He kept researching – moving beyond animals to bacteria and plants – and found that the same rules applied to all living organism.

Okay, so much for biology. Let’s move forward to the work of physicist Geoffrey West, who decided to see if Kleiber’s theory applied to human-built cities. Did the metabolism of cities slow as they got bigger? Was there a measurable pattern?

He and his team analysed data from dozens of cities. And yes, what they found was that cities generally follow Kleiber’s equation, just as if they were flies or elephants.

Except …

What West and his team discovered was that there was some data that didn’t abide by the negative quarter power rule.

Every piece of data relating to creativity and innovation (such as patents, inventions, creative professions, research and development) DID follow a quarter power rule, but this time it was positive, not negative.

A city ten times the size of another wasn’t ten times more creative. It was 17 times more creative.

The average resident of a city of 5 million was three times more creative than the average resident of a town of 100,000.

The inescapable fact is that cities generate ideas.

In spite of all the noise, crowding, anxiety, distraction and pollution in a city, West’s research showed a level of creativity and innovation in big cities disproportionate to their population.


The answer is in external stimuli. We simply see more stuff in cities – stuff that is unfamiliar, intriguing, challenging and ultimately inspiring.

These are the things that trigger an idea …

A musician sees birds sitting on power lines and wonders if he can create music from their position on the cables. (View Birds On The Wires to see the result.)

A designer wonders if he can get more people to use subway stairs by turning them into piano keys. (Watch Piano Stairs.)

So where does this leave all of we business owners who’ve set up shop outside a major metropolis?

If we are going to thrive, we need to innovate. (As do ALL organisations.)

If we’re going to innovate, we need help to overcome the disadvantage of our location.

If moving to the city is out of the question, what can we do?

Well, we could get a new set of friends.

Here’s another interesting piece of research. Attempting to understand one of the influences on creativity, some researchers looked at the social networks of a broad cross-section of people.

Here’s what they found.

People whose social networks are broad but shallow (that is, they mix with people from diverse industries, with diverse experiences and knowledge) are 3 times more likely to be creative than those whose social networks are narrow but deep – that is, people who mix mostly with people from their industry or town.

Creativity thrives on diversity. The more diverse your universe, the more chance of fresh ideas.

The other thing we could do to innovate is return to our childhood.

And here’s why this is a good idea.

A few years ago psychologists went into kindergartens. They asked the kids in those classrooms to raise their hands if they thought they were creative – if they thought they were good at singing and dancing and drawing and acting.

Every hand shot up. Every six year old believed in his or her creativity.

The psychologists then went into classrooms of 7 year olds. They asked the same question. But now, instead of 100% of hands being raised, only 95% of kids believed they were creative.

In classrooms of 8 year olds, the number fell again.

By the time the psychologists asked 14 year olds, only a quarter of them believed in their creative ability. Sadly, things don’t improve as we become adults.

So what happened to the creatively adventurous and expressive 6 year olds we once were?

Education, for one. Peer pressure. And experience.

Experience teaches us the fastest, easiest way to get a job done. We don’t look for an alternative, because that requires effort.

Experience also turns us from kids who never anticipate trouble to adults who are always on the lookout for it.

As neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, points out, our adult brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative.

We learn to recognise danger. We store memories of bad experiences so we don’t make the same mistake twice.

This negative focus makes us feel stressed and unhappy. There might be a lot of positive things in our lives, but we don’t see them because we are focused on the negative. We are looking for things that reinforce our negativity.

Bad news outsells good news for exactly this reason. It reaffirms our belief that the world is dangerous, life is unfair, people are evil.

By looking for the negatives in every new thing we encounter or imagine, we cripple ourselves.

We have an idea – we start thinking: What if it doesn’t work? What if people don’t buy it? What if I lose my house? We focus almost exclusively on the risks, the downside.

We have an idea for a startup. We read a story that says startups have a 1 in 54,000 chance of success. This fits our negative world-view.

What happens? We stop ourselves before we even start. “Why bother? It’s only going to fail.”

To innovate, we need to replace our inner policeman, the one who says you can’t do that, with our lost inner child – the one who presumes everything is possible, the one with vivid imagination, the one who asks naïve questions without embarrassment.

What else can we do?

We can embrace digital.

Every innovation today relies on the Internet. It is a medium for collaboration. It connects the entire world’s knowledge. “Creativity is just connecting things,” as Steve Jobs said. Innovations in hardware and software abound. Innovators find funding online. If our organisation isn’t online and hasn’t harnessed the power of digital, we will be left behind. Our business and our town will slowly die.

We could find an innovation mentor, a coach. It’s not enough to know what we could or should do. Anyone can tell us that!

What we need is someone to help us do it – to show us how to think more creatively and how to innovate more regularly. Help us overcome barriers – internal and external, real and imagined. Help us come up with big audacious ideas, and then help us put these ideas into action – because until our ideas are implemented, they have no value.

Where I live and work is a beautiful part of Australia. The nearest beach is 8 minutes away. The valley and hills behind the hill on which I live are filled with sugar cane, macadamia, avocado and coffee plantations. From my computer I look at trees and the ocean beyond. As much as I love it there, I do not find it a particularly stimulating environment. As a writer and creative thinker, I have learnt to find inspiration in unexpected places. Technology gives all of you access to these same sources of inspiration.

Innovation starts with creative thinking – idea generation.

Creative thinking is a learnt skill. It’s not a gift. People in cities don’t have exclusive rights to it.

The stimuli for creativity might be more common in cities, but they can be introduced anywhere.

Many of us aren’t creative because we don’t believe we’re creative or because we don’t know how to think creatively. Creative thinking techniques can be taught in a matter of hours.

These techniques are easily mastered and can then be applied on demand – any time we want to get our creative juices flowing. They mean that regional business owners can be every bit as innovative as our city colleagues.

Every one of the great inventions of the last 200 years is the result of collaboration. The days of the lone genius are gone. Technology gives a person in a town of 300 the same opportunities to collaborate as someone in a city of 3 million.

There is absolutely NOTHING to stop the next big idea (or thousands of little ideas) coming from a small business based in a small town in northern inland New South Wales or a hamlet in rural Latvia.

There is nothing to stop a local SME or NGO or NFP defying the quarter power rule.

(This post is based on my speech at the Regional Inland Innovation Awards in Australia.)

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