Contributor: Ella Jamsin
Over the course of evolution, ecosystems have perfected their strategies for long-term prosperity, in particular by balancing efficiency with what makes systems resilient to perturbations. After over four billion years of natural selection and adaptiveness, the living world has found the sweet spot for durability, which is a universal characteristic of complex systems studied in information theory. We can now learn from this to improve the design of other similar systems, for example when it comes to economic mechanisms or agricultural practices.
An important part of business operations is about efficiency: how to improve production to maximise resources, such as primary material inputs, money, time, or labour. For example, lean manufacturing is a systematic method for eliminating waste in production processes. Inherited from a management philosophy developed by Toyota, it is now regularly taught in business education.
Successful businesses have also learned how to mitigate risk, often compromising on throughput: diversifying portfolios, planning extra inventory or leveraging a range of suppliers are examples of techniques used by companies to minimise risk.
The need to balance efficiency with resilience is essential for a system to thrive in the long run and is a strategy that ecosystems have perfected over the course of evolution.
This dynamic was explored and measured in detail in two inter-disciplinary papers. The articles discuss the example of alligators from South Florida that feed indirectly from prawns through three main intermediaries: large fish, turtles and snakes. The large fish are the most efficient of the three as they have the highest rate of carbon transfer from prawns. If ecosystems pursued efficiency alone, evolution would have seen alligators feed solely on large fish, yet instead, the species has been successful on a more diversified diet. This gives the reptiles the advantage of flexibility: should the population of large fish suddenly reduce drastically, they can rely on their other sources of food to survive.
At the same time, a part of the alligator’s evolutionary success as a powerful predator is identifying the most nutrient-rich food sources, if a species of alligator has evolved to feed on turtles, snakes and other less efficient sources, which is a more resilient model, it would likely be a smaller and weaker animal and they may have been outcompeted by other animals.
In nature, the ecosystems that thrive over long periods of time are the ones that leverage a diversity of scales building in efficiency and resilience. Examples of such a strategy abound: the circulatory system with its network of large arteries and veins and its large network of capillaries; the respiratory system, from the main trachea, splitting into the bronchi, themselves dividing into bronchioles; trees, from the trunk, to branches of decreasing sizes, into a multitude of leaves. This structure, where a similar pattern repeats across various scales, is well known in geometry – it is called a fractal.
This sweet spot and its connection to fractal structures is not specific to natural ecosystems, but information theory tells us that it is a universal characteristic of complex systems. This is, therefore, a point to strive for in the design of systems like agriculture, economies, or road networks to ensure long-term prosperity. Just scratching the surface of the possible applications, here are four bites of food for thought: leveraging biodiversity in agriculture, creating fractal economies, learning from slime mould to develop road systems, and leveraging flexibility as a source of innovation in organisations.
Leveraging biodiversity in agriculture
Food crops absorb on average less than 35% of water applied to the field, part of which creates the non-edible parts of the plants. So, potentially, there is a significant amount of water lost in the process. The same pattern holds for applied fertilisers, of which only 30 to 50% is absorbed by crops, which use nearly 25% of it for non-edible parts. The human body itself does not absorb all of the nutrients it ingests.
The logic of efficiency would suggest looking to modify crops so they absorb water and fertilisers more efficiently or develop larger edible parts. This approach has already been exploited for centuries through the selection of certain breeds, and modern technologies that now make it possible to directly modify the DNA of seeds. Following the same logic, new fertilisers are developed with the aim of a greater rate of absorption.
However, other approaches are possible if it is recognised that these perceived inefficiencies are part of what makes these plants well adapted to their natural ecosystems. What may look like waste within the scope of one food chain will be leveraged and used in another part of the system. In the living world, leakages are not lost and inefficiencies create room for change and adaptation.
The company Native is a large Brazilian producer of organic cane sugar that has radically changed its agricultural model to one that is much closer to the way plants grow naturally. For example, Native’s director, Leontino Balbo, developed a new mechanical harvester that cuts down the canes and sprays back the leaves onto the ground, where they restore nutrients, especially nitrogen, and form a mulch that helps keep weeds down. The tires of the machine are especially soft to avoid compressing the soil, which tends to prevent it from holding water. Balbo calls his method ‘Ecosystem Revitalising Agriculture’. It took a few years to start delivering benefits, but it eventually restored biodiversity, both in micro and macro-fauna, produced stronger canes and reduced the number of pests, as well as drastically increased cane sugar yields. And all of this while consuming less natural resources.
Creating fractal economies
The same way circulatory systems need arteries, veins and capillaries to function properly, economies need a balance of various scales of businesses to thrive in the long term. For example, food production globally has become largely dominated by a small number of very large players, while the smaller farms would be able to provide alternative supplies of food should a food security crisis occur. The same logic applies to the banking sector. Large banks have, over time, absorbed most of the smaller financial enterprises, so that when the 2008 financial crisis hit, governments had no choice but to invest massively in them to prevent the whole system from collapsing.
More generally, measuring economies by their GDP comes back to measuring the whole volume of the system, but ignores the structure of the underlying network. As a result, it is a poor indicator of its ability to sustain itself in the long term.
Learning from slime mould to develop road systems
An effective system of roads or train tracks requires a fine balance of a few highways driving the main traffic and a large network of secondary roads, to reach villages and offer alternatives when the main thoroughfares are stuck. As it turns out, slime mould can solve the same challenge. Researchers at the University of Hokkaido in Japan conducted an experiment, where slime mould is placed on a plastic dish surrounded with the food of its liking, oat flakes. The initial lump of mould is located in a position corresponding to Tokyo while the flakes are placed where surrounding towns would be on a map of the larger Tokyo area. At first, the mould grows into a densely packed web across the whole dish and then thins down to leave only a system of branches connecting all the flakes. Remarkably, this network reproduces very closely the network of main and secondary tracks of the Tokyo rail system. The researchers estimate that slime moulds can be used to determine the most effective routes around a city, which can be useful to design new urban centres in emerging countries, but also to improve existing ones.
Leveraging flexibility as a source of innovation in organisations
As discussed earlier, businesses do recognise the need to make compromises on throughput in order to mitigate risk. What is less commonly considered though is that some inefficiency can also help to make room for creativity. Some of the technology companies considered to be among the most creative in the world, such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, have some form of the so-called ‘20% programme’, in which knowledge workers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on a project of their own choice. How well the rule is applied in these companies is debated, but it is clear that these organisations are seeing the value of experimenting with ideas in order to innovate.
The path to prosperity in complex systems is a question of balance. Too much efficiency can create a brittle model, where a small perturbation can lead to collapse. Too much focus on resilience can lead to a stagnating system, stuck in its own complexity. Examples abound where a better balance could improve the ability of our systems to thrive in the long term. Four were provided above. Which other ones can you think of?
Ulanowicz, R.E., Goerner, S.J., Lieater, B., Gomez, R., Quantifying sustainability: resilience, efficiency and the return of information theory. Ecological Complexity 6 (2009), 27–36
Goerner, S.J., Lieater, B., Ulanowicz, R.E., Quantifying sustainability: resilience, efficiency and the return of information theory. Ecological Economics 69 (2009) 76–81
 Tero et al., Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design (2010) Science 10.1126/science.1177894
Ella Jamsin manages the research programmes at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Before joining the organisation, she worked in management consulting and studied theoretical physics (her PhD thesis explored black holes and hidden symmetries in higher-dimensional universes). Her favorite kinds of insights are the ones that reveal unexpected connections between fields.