University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

When Innovation Mimics Nature- The Results Can Be Astounding

by Shel Horowitz

Was Darwin all wrong about "survival of the fittest?" According to Joel Barker, the Family Business Center's featured speaker at its October meeting at the Log Cabin, research shows that the species that thrive in nature are not the most competitive but the most able to take advantage of—and sometimes adapt to—opportunities.

Barker pointed out that chemical systems are more complex than physical ones, biology in turn is more complex than chemistry, and culture is even more complex than biology. "Beyond culture? We don't know, but it will be more complex than what we had before."

One research project individually tracked over 300,000 trees in a forest, over a 15-year period (to see which plants captured the sunlight when a hole in the forest canopy opened up). Barker said the results of the forest study defied common Darwinian wisdom. "You'd expect the most competitive plants to capture the sun space. But most competitive had nothing to do with it. The most opportunistic won, even if the species was not highly competitive." Being first turns out to be much more important than being the best. "They win by default. Even a mediocre competitor has full chance to grow to fruition. This explains why we don’t have monoculture forests. The system is set up to produce diversity. You don't have to be the best to be very successful."

Both the complexity and the trend toward opportunism show up even in organisms as simple as bacteria. In another experiment, Paul Rainey of Oxford added bacteria to a vial of sugar water. After 10 days, the vial contained three distinct layers, each so different from one another that you would assume they were different bacteria. Instead, each single bacterium had adapted to conditions in its layer of the vial; those nearest the open air had evolved differently from those in the middle or on the bottom. And even though the vial was open to potential outside infiltration, other types of bacteria weren't found; this opportunistic bacterium radically changed its original “personality” to take advantage of the various microclimates.

And in fact, the more diverse an ecosystem, the better its chances for survival. Monocultures can easily be wiped out by an opportunistic infection or invasion. But if hundreds of species co-exist in a small land area, an organism that attacks, say, wheat has to fight its way through all the other plants in order to locate more wheat to attack.

Barker, founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Exploration, is a self-described "futurist, film maker, author." He also holds two patents and is known as the person who brought the idea of paradigm shifts into the mainstream.

Recently Barker has been exploring how to mimic those healthy ecosystems in human innovation. He defines innovation as not just invention, but combining invention with a group of people willing to accept that invention: in other words, a market.

In the biological model, nature tends to innovate when multiple ecosystems come into contact. And similarly, much human innovation takes place at what Barker calls "the verge": an intersection of differences. Often, it involves cross-pollination (to hold the biological metaphor even further) across different industries, or different strata within the same industry, such as secretaries, salespeople, and CEOs.

Complex systems are less susceptible to trauma and recover faster when it does strike, use resources more efficiently, and are more stable. Also, they have another big advantage: the waste of one organism can become food for a different organism. Just as trees and animals need each other to change oxygen into carbon dioxide and back again, so a diverse culture can convert one species' waste into new inputs for a different entity. As the culture evolves, this leads to what Barker calls "mutualism"—where, potentially, everybody wins. But the results can't be predicted ahead of time.

Mutualism, where different organisms combine their innate strengths to achieve a common goal, is better, says Barker, than evolution: one organism that adapts itself to have the same characteristics. For one thing, evolution can take 100 generations, and for another, mutualism, which is much faster, also produces a vastly greater number of possible combinations, thus expanding diversity.

An example from the natural world is a fungus that regulates the flow of carbon, across different species, so that every organism has enough. A human example is the design of the original Ford Taurus.  "Somebody smart at Ford said, 'let everyone who's going to sell and use it tell us what they want.' The designers screamed—but they listened"—and the car was one of Ford's most popular ever.

Over and over again, research shows that it only takes a very small number of individuals to spread change throughout a culture when that culture is at a time of transition. Moving from biological examples to human culture, some of these profound "level I" influencers include Buddha, Marie Curie, and both Gandhi and Hitler (not all culture change is positive). Level II influencers build on the level I developments to create a new consciousness; examples include environmentalist Rachel Carson and world leaders from such as Ronald Reagan to and Nelson Mandela.

Barker concluded that diversity has tremendous advantages for all who participat, and that the United States of America is the most diverse nation in the world. "Look at a high-diversity high-variety human ecosystem and you'll find all these advantages. There is no economic ecosystem more complex than the U.S. Our performance through wars, droughts—if we'd been homogeneous, you wouldn't have seen that. There is enormous power in diversity and variety and it pays off big time for the individuals as well as the system."

Barker asked three key questions:

How do we deal with an ever-more-complex and diverse world?

Within this complexity, how can we improve the process of innovation?

How can innovation achieve grater acceptance?

What kinds of innovations can this type of thinking lead to? Ink-jet printing technology adapted to extrude concrete into houses, or to "print skin" by squirting out new skin cells for burn victims…computers mating with music players or telephones to create iPods and iPhones: vastly complex devices that appear very simple and open up whole new categories…combining a paper bag with wrapping paper to invent the gift bag and save clumsy men from looking ridiculous when they can't neatly wrap a present…even goats who manufacture the key components for producing spider silk! These are just a few of the innovations that have sprung from those verges.

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