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The Constructal Law and access to content

I remember when I was a kid, and this great new invention came. The Movie Box! At the time, Video players were expensive and we couldn’t afford one. Movie Box solved the problem: You rented one, two or three movies, and you brought the movie box with you and connected to your TV at home, it worked for 24h. Awesome! We didn’t go to the cinema very often, so my guess is that the movie box at least quadrupled the amount of money our family spent on the movie industry.

A couple of years later, VHS was mainstream, and the movie box died. It had fulfilled it’s purpose and was outcompeted by something smarter. Today video recorders are replaced by Netflix, Blu-Ray players and whatnot.

This brings me to the topic of this post. Providing access to services. There is an interesting theory about what governs the generation of designs (patterns) in nature called The Constructal Law. It tries to explain design phenomena in nature, e.g. why do trees look like trees, why do rivers meander etc.

Image of meandering river

Alternative representation of the movie box's destiny. It was meandered and left only as a parentheses in the flow of content to end users

The Constructal Law states:

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

And I was thinking to myself, if you apply this to an industry or a company, for a second accepting the assumption that it fits the definition of a finite-size system, and we see the flow of currents as the distribution of services it provides, what does it tell us? It says that to continue to live it needs to improve the way it provides access to its service.

I’ve worked before as an eCommerce consultant, it is easy to draw parallells to the advent and acceptance of eCommerce as an established sales channel, and in the later years mobile access. By necessity, companies have to improve the access to their flows, or die slowly.

Kodak just went belly-up, why? They invented the digital camera in 1975, but failed to provide access to the masses. It seems to me like it was a conscious strategy to impose restrictions and try to control the access to the service, protecting it’s old analogue “core” business.

Applied to the music industry, it’s all about access to content. There are some really great posts out there that really helps visualize the current trends in terms of revenue streams, for example this one. The flavor of the day is streaming services, the CDs, LPs etc will slowly become more and more irrelevant. It is easy to argue that the growth of music piracy got a strong start much due to the resistance in the music industry to innovate and evolve in the digital space. Hopefully piracy, that started the competition with CDs, will become a meander due to the improved access of streaming services, iTunes and the likes. And the future will find a way to improve or replace the streaming services.

I am happy to see that streaming services now make up more than 50% of the revenues in Sweden. Pretty awesome. Maybe it will get to the 95%-or-so that CDs once had. But then something else will come. Eventually. The Constructal law will place it in the history, just next to the movie box.

With the above in mind, it seems like a sensible strategy to any business to look at how to improve access, and don’t settle for short term protection of old revenue streams. You’ll risk becoming a meander like Kodak eventually did. Talking about old industry structures, it seems appropriate to end with a quote from the movie Jurassic Park: “Life, it seems, always finds a way out”.

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  1. Cass
    February 5, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Where was the photo of the meandering river taken? Thanks.

    • February 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      Sorry, I don’t know. I googled meander over at images.google.com

  1. January 29, 2012 at 9:08 pm

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