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Innovation that Mimics Nature Can Lead to Amaaing Things

It’s a big challenge to the Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest": research shows that the species who thrive in nature are not the most competitive but the most able to take advantage of–and sometimes adapt to–opportunities.

It’s a big challenge to the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest”: research shows that the species who thrive in nature are not the most competitive but the most able to take advantage of–and sometimes adapt to–opportunities.

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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.

Last night, I attended a life-changing presentation by Joel Barker, founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Exploration, and self-described “futurist, film maker, author.” He also holds two patents and is one of the people widely credited with bringing the idea of paradigm shifts into the mainstream.

And Barker looks at 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 biology, nature tends to innovate when multiple ecosystems come into contact. And similarly, much human innovation takes place at–to use Barker’s term–“the verge”: an intersection of multiple industries. 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–just as bacteria send rings of their DNA out into the world where other bacteria can absorb them, and thrive.

What can this lead to? Ink-jet printing technology adapted to extrude concrete into houses, or to apply medication to damaged skin…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…even goats who manufacture spider silk!

Implications not only for innovation, but also for social responsibility are huge. Think on it a while.

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I did visit Barker’s website, hungry for even more than the two-and-a-half hours he’d given us–but I have to say I found it confusing. Might just have to hunt up one of his books or videos.

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