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Seasteading and the Constructal Principle

March 23, 2011

This is a guest post by our frequent contributor and fellow radical for rules, Max Borders–Editor

The idea of competitive governance arises, fundamentally, from a desire for exit. People want out of the systems they’re in. And systems, of course, are based on rules. But most people don’t want anarchy necessarily; they simply want new rules and new systems.

Seasteading, as I understand it, is meant to provide “metarules” for the emergence of various novel rulesets that will compete for participants. That is why Seasteading should capture the imagination of entrepreneurs and activists alike. Indeed, it’s in this desire for elbow room that we also find pent up entrepreneurial energy.

Unfortunately, much of this energy will have to be spent on realizing this “right” of exit. It’s not going to be easy or costless to start ocean communities. But at least the energy involved in creating a Seasteading Community won’t go to deadweight activism. It will go both to realizing a right of exit and creating something new through the introduction of novel rulesets.

In that sense, Seasteading could be just one instantiation of what may be an ongoing evolutionary process of human social organization. It is in light of that possibility I’d like to consider Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Principle.

A New Law of Nature?

An engineering professor at Duke University is an unlikely source for a new branch of biology, economics or physics. But Adrian Bejan shook up the science world recently when he claimed he’d discovered a new law of nature:

For a finite-size (flow) system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve such that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.

The initial response to Bejan’s principle was a furrowing of brows.

But Bejan’s ‘constructal law’ is now rapidly gaining converts in areas ranging from biology to mechanical engineering. Why? Because when Bejan says “system,” he means virtually any system. And Bejan sees this principle operating everywhere: “The constructal law can be seen as a universal principle of evolution, which applies in many fields, from physics to economics.”

Whoa. Darwin would be impressed.

I was still synthesizing the insights of complexity theory when I came across Bejan’s work. Little did I realize there might be more intimate connections between emergent complexity and what Bejan was trying to tell the world. The universe, it seems, is full of currents.

These flows have objectives (e.g., minimization of effort, travel time, cost), and the objectives clash with global constraints (space, time, resources). The result is organization (flow architecture) derived from one principle of configuration evolution in time (the constructal law).

Constructal theory predicts animal design and geophysical flows, and makes evolution a part of physics. In the social sciences, there is substantial literature based on the use of optima to deduce social, population and economic dynamics. The constructal approach … links social sciences with physics, biology and engineering.

If you really want to boil Bejan’s idea down to a simple phrase, I think something like this suffices: Systems evolve according to flow. And even some of the freest nations on earth are slowly-but-surely restricting flow due to demosclerosis, i.e. that social entropy documented in the public choice literature. But if the constructal law is correct, these systems will need to evolve or pass away.

As Channels are to Rules

One afternoon Professor Bejan and I talked by phone for the first time. He’d been traveling, so he was tired. Wearily he told me the story of a recent trip to Edinburgh. Bejan had been on foot, on his way to give a talk on an academic paper. But in a flash of insight, he got his own lesson that day. And as he started to explain, he seemed to shed some of the weariness.

“I kept bumping into people,” he said — the softest Romanian accent betrayed by a smoky, tenor voice. “Why was this happening? Then it occurred to me: people in the UK drive on the left.”

The natural inclination of Scots is to mimic the rules of the road in the relative anarchy of the pedestrian thoroughfare. Bejan had been breaking an informal rule. In order to find flow, he had to adapt to channels local to Edinburghers.

“Channels are analogous to rules,” Bejan said.

I was immediately reminded of new institutional economist Douglass North who speaks of the tendency of certain institutions (rules) to ‘reduce transaction costs.’ This, of course, is econ-speak for system flow.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, North said:

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (norms of behavior, conventions, and self imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics.

But do formal and informal institutions matter? You bet:

Together they define the incentive structure of societies and specifically economies. … Only under the conditions of costless bargaining will the actors reach the solution that maximizes aggregate income regardless of the institutional arrangements. When it is costly to transact then institutions matter. And it is costly to transact.

The rules of the game – formal or informal – are critical to economic prosperity over time. Likewise, channels within systems form over time and are critical to optimizing flow. Like fractals, you can see the constructal principle working everywhere. Bejan calls it “vascularization.”

The constructal law also predicts that ‘vascular’ designs must occur in nature, and that they must be stepwise more complex as they become larger.

To get our heads around vascularization, consider trees in terms of their form and function. In the air, why do they branch so? To ensure the inflow of carbon dioxide. In the soil, why do the roots bifurcate the way they do? To optimize the inflow of nutrients and water throughout the tree. Outflows of waste by trees ensure we get the fresh air (oxygen) we need in our human cardio-vascular systems–systems that mirror tree branches. These two sets of vascular systems have co-evolved (thank goodness).

In order to accommodate currents in the world, vascularization abounds. Tree-like configurations in everything, from river basins to the transportation networks that deliver your milk, are instances of the constructal principle at work in various domains. For any such system to persist in time, it has continuously to provide better flow.

Seasteading and Flow

I’d like to argue tentatively that seasteading, or something like it, will be a manifestation of the constructal law. That is, there are powerful human currents — the desire for elbow room, novelty and exit, as well as pent up entrepreneurial energies — that new rulesets will be needed. If territorial systems don’t evolve endogenously, evolution will occur from without.

What remains to be seen, of course, is whether the old systems will evolve to compete with the new systems, once formed. I think that’s the Seasteaders’ hope. But let me not get ahead of myself. We need to realize these new rulesets first. Seasteading is the best hope for doing that in the near term.

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. See his “Radicals for Rules” clip and full talk here.


  1. Michael Hartl permalink
    March 23, 2011 5:35 pm

    ‘Principle’ is misspelled in the title of the article.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      March 23, 2011 7:10 pm

      Thanks. That’s my fault. 🙂

  2. March 23, 2011 5:46 pm


    Love this post.

    One observation – even as the physical/biological/social worlds trend towards more vascular or dendritic branching, there seems to be a reverse process at work in the realm of information.

    The exchange of information among particular nodes regarding individual experience (ie that of our individual “twigs”) seems to lead over time to a confluence of agreement on beliefs relevant to a community’s “branch.” Exchanges regarding the application of beliefs in the branched communities in turn can lead to understanding of a coherent “trunk” paradigm or metasystem of understandings.

    I wonder if this reverse-Constructal process relates in any way to the insights on information and entropy in James Gleick’s new book, The Information? I have yet to read it, but am looking forward to it. I spent many afternoons as a kid over at the Shannon’s house, yet had no clue then that my friend Bob’s father was also father of information theory.



    • Max permalink
      March 23, 2011 7:03 pm

      Thanks a lot, Mark.
      I love Gleick’s Chaos. I just heard about his new book last week, so am saving up my pennies to get it. Absent that quality time with The Information, I wonder if you’re not right in any case. There are certainly “few large, many small” dendritic phenomena in the information space — like the fact of large, dominant websites, for example. Or power law distributions of top iPhone apps. But you’re talking about something very different from channel. So I’m going to try to follow your train of thought some more. But if I understand what you’re saying, it’s an interesting way of thinking about information and beliefs.

  3. March 25, 2011 10:23 pm

    I love the contructal laws you address so universally, Antonio Damasio discusses a similar concept that he calls mapping as referring to cognitive process as well as simple brain function in his new book, Self Comes to Mind.

  4. March 27, 2011 7:25 am

    The bit about the necessary complexity resulting from size reminded me of J. B. S. Haldane’s “On Being the Right Size“.

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