Are start-ups counter to nature?
If start-ups and nature have their own ecosystems, in other words populations of organisms and organisations that interact, they are quite distinct. A start-up today is created within a fantasy of hyper-growth and market domination. The fauna and flora, on the other hand, look only for survival and reproduction and preserve their environment for it to last, without seeking to dominate it.
Between hyper-growth and natural equilibrium
In the start-up universe, it’s all about getting off the ground (start) fast (up) in order to be the first – and only – to fill a market niche. In three years, you must demonstrate capacity to generate return on investment. The downside? Out of ten investments, it is known that seven start-ups will collapse, two will survive and one will take off. This search for fast and high performance, which excludes sustainability, becomes a destructive force where only the toughest make it through intact. In nature, it’s the opposite.
“It’s the richness and harmony of an ecosystem that make its populations thrive”
Like biologist Cléa Bauvais explains it, each species in a given ecosystem has a limited number of individuals and interactions. As soon as one population becomes dominating, the system deregulates. A predator that exhausts its own prey can itself be condemned to extinction. That’s what perma-economy specialist Emmanuel Delannoy shows, highlighting the surprising discovery of enormous amounts of reindeer skeletons by explorers of the Bering Strait islands. In fact, the reindeer were introduced to the islands by chance and grew exponentially as there were no predators. Gradually, the population lacked food and went extinct. This story teaches us that it’s the richness and harmony of an ecosystem that make its populations thrive, not the grabbing of resources by one species only. The mesh, and repeated interactions on a very local scale, give strength to the ecosystem.
What is an ecosystem?
Like Cléa Bauvais reminds us, ecosystems constitute organisms and flows of information, materials and energy that combine to form a meta-structure of sorts. Organisms interact with the environment, but above all among themselves, forming a mosaic of interdependence in which no single individual dominates over the rest, or would kill off the entire food chain. Today, we use the word ecosystem freely and without a set frame, even though ecosystems are very specific and geographically bound, underlines Alain Renaudin, expert in biomimicry. For example, the Poitevin wetland forms a very specific ecosystem with clear borders. It has its own unique harmony.
“Standardised globalisation does not exist in nature”
Another aspect of the hyper-growth dogma of start-ups is the quest for global domination. Among living beings, only the local environment counts, providing materials to build a nest, mates for reproduction and food to eat. All of this within the goal of transferring one’s genes hence protect the survival of the species… “We have never seen a beaver do 2000 km to fetch wood”, highlights Alain Renaudin. Globalisation, as well as its standardisation, does not exist in nature.
The Kingdom of inbreeding
Another difference between start-ups and nature is the inbreeding of the former and the richness and diversity of the latter. Alexandre Mézard’s experience from the start-up world confirms this. “At Station F, we can see a kind of cloning, where we all share the same metrics and tools, in a closed loop. We often come from the same schools, grew up in similar contexts and develop a culture detached from real life. Inversely, in nature, the more varied the ecosystem is, the better it thrives. For Alain Renaudin, the “ecotones”, which are the border zones between ecosystems, is a good example. In these environments, like for example estuaries, the meeting of different ecosystems and their species creates an even richer biodiversity.
What do we refer to when we talk about “nature”?
For long defined by its opposition to culture, the latter of which is intrinsically linked with humans, nature is today often defined with refence to living beings and the biosphere. In this view, nature and humans are parts of the same whole, the same biotope.
For Alain Renaudin, innovation arises in our social ecotones, where places and people at the edge of several worlds and disciplines intersect: entrepreneurship, academia, industries, science…. These are zones with great human and social prosperity, as well as creativity and resilience. The invention of the Shinkansen is quite telling in this regard. This Japanese high-speed train is bio-inspired: its nose was conceived by an engineer and amateur in ornithology, modelled after the Eurasian kingfisher. Without the capacity of the researcher to mix disciplines and to start a dialogue between engineering and biology, this innovation would never have seen the day.
Today, it’s rare to find start-ups that stand out because of their truly disruptive innovation capacity. Let’s look at the example of the French underwear brand “Le Slip Français”, a flagship among French start-ups. For Alexander Mézard, “Using local products and having a French supply chain is not disruptive innovation… It’s good common sense!” What if inbreeding puts a brake on the capacity of start-ups to innovative in a truly radical way?
Did someone say “start-up”?
A start-up is a young enterprise that strives for hyper-growth. But above all, it’s a myth and a bunch of fantasies about the (young) entrepreneur, the innovator, the pioneer, the unicorn... To the extent that today, whoever starts a company – innovative or not – claims that it’s a start-up. This is because in the minds of most people, the start-up label does not have the same value as starting an SME or association.
Moving from the cowboy period to the age of permaculture
If diversity is not inherent among start-ups nor in economic, social and political spheres, how do you cultivate it? How do we reinforce our capacity to innovate while creating stronger connections with ecosystems that we hardly ever see or interact with, since they are far removed from our jobs and our social and geographic environments? For Emmanuel Delannoy, this can only be achieved by reclaiming an attitude of listening and paying attention to the world around us. To move from the cowboy period, from notions of conquering and mastering, to an age of permaculture, whose practitioners cultivate and learn. It’s not easy since we are not trained to listen to one another”. But according to Delannoy, the key is to intervene as little as possible in order not to threaten the natural equilibrium if the ecosystem. With the best intentions in the world, like for example I the case of certain operations reintroducing species where the ecosystem is not necessarily ready to accommodate them, you risk creating more harm than good. Ecosystems adapt, but you have to leave time for them to do so.
“Innovation cannot be ordered”
If we consider that you can’t pre-order innovation, which is rather an observed or facilitated process, who would the best permaculture practitioner? The biggest or the smallest of organisations? Through intrapreneurship and incubation programmes, aren’t big organisations looking for spaces to breathe, for the capacity to listen and to pay attention – things that smaller structures tend to do more naturally?
Agility is one of the characteristics of living beings. Alain Renaudin gives the example of gorillas and their sensory hairs. These hairs allow the gorilla to sense the smallest brush of air caused by the arrival of a predator, notably a very specific spider. When the sensory hair detects a danger, this provokes a neural feedback loop ordering the paws to activate ´to remove the threat. The nervous impulse does not go all the way to the brain for the animal to act but stays localised in the paw. This is embodied hyper-reactivity! But if nature and adaptive capacity blend well, is agility key also in the world of start-ups?
Agility at the test of nature’s timescales
For a start-up that wishes to serve the “common good”, to be agile also means having to endure the hyper-fragmentation of tasks. It’s having to pivot very frequently and risk losing sight of its main objective and original vision. Because in the economic system surrounding start-ups, the only indicators that count are performance and profitability. Alexandre Mézard explains how, after having founded his start-up, he quickly forgot the original objective due to the short-term pressure to deliver against performance indicators. Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber expressed this in his book Trop Vite (“Too Fast”):
“It’s like the current economy is a racing car moving faster and faster, but whose headlights reach a shorter and shorter distance” (freely translated from original)
Confronted with this phenomenon of time acceleration and lost meaning, it’s time to reintroduce long-term thinking and convictions. Like Cléa Bauvais remarks: most breakthrough innovations did not appear from one day to the next; they followed from years of research and development. What’s interesting with biomimicry is to dedicate time to search for information, to understand patterns and to put several disciplines together. This is important in order to give sense and define the direction for innovations.
For Alexandre Mézard, after the age of dematerialisation, we have to rediscover our relationship with the tangible and the material. We need to set roots, to re-specialise our organisations and projects and reclaim collective frontiers. This implies betting on local ecosystems – territories, actors and their interactions - to respond to locally faced challenges, rather than looking for responses elsewhere. Like Alain Renaudin underlines, this is also about finding alternative economic models that are not based on hyper-growth but on resilience. Finally, it’s about proposing new imaginaries for our relationships with other living beings, human and non-human, and to envision the possibility to launch, already tomorrow, start-ups inspired by nature.
This article was originally written in French following the debate "Start-ups vs Natural Ecosystems - what innovation models for tomorrow?", organised by Ouishare on 27 November 2019 during the week of public innovation in France.
The experts participating in the debate were Cléa Bauvais (biologist, Big Bang Project), Alexandre Mézard (founder of POI, start-up incubated at Station F and currently pursuing a PhD on cognitive biases in the digital space), Alain Renaudin (Founding director of NewCorp Conseil and founder de Biomim'expo), Emmanuel Delannoy (founder of Pikaia). The debate was moderated by Edwin Mootoosamy (Innovation & prospective @SNCF, Ouishare alumni).
Translation by Stina Heikkilä