It's Alive

It's Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology, and Business by Christopher Meyer & Stan Davis.

I'm a third of the way into this book and want to record a few ideas to plant them in my head before continuing on.

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common sese, "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the twenty-first century--it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). Ray Kurzweil

If you can figure out how adaptation is embedded in biological systems, and then broaden this knowledge into a theory of general evolution, you can effectively apply the theory to many complex systems--including business.

How would a business measure successful adaptation? In biology, the metric is "fitness," measured as the relative ability of an organism to breed successfully in a given environment.

Code is code.

This is the same lesson as the bio-info-nano-cogno convergence that Jim Spohrer's paper referred to. Crack the code, and you make gains in multiple realms.

Create, connect, evolve.

Just as physics has core principles, so do adaptive systems. The basics involve:

  1. Agents. atoms, software, people, the DMUs
  2. Self-organization. autonomous order.
  3. Recombination. don't start from scratch; have sex instead
  4. Selective pressure. Fitness is judged by the environment.
  5. Adaptation. for better performance
  6. Co-evolution. When the frog evolves a sticky tongue, flies get Teflon feet. Competition and other players define the game
  7. Emergence. mix self-organization, recombination, selection, and co-evolution and you get an ecology--or an economy.

This is bottom up. The ecology arises from the atoms up. The past fifty years have shown conclusively that distributed decision-making does a better job of satisfying demand than a centralized approach. Nonetheless, many of our businesses retain a suprisingly "Soviet" management style, using approaches developed in an assembly-line era that have more in common with a top-down mentality than with a bottom-up one.

Of course, I'd suggest that it goes back to our original programming, the fact that humankind thinks with the default settings of the brains of cave dwellers.

"The molecular world is completely outside the normal common-sense range of thinking," says Alan Kay. It is this molecular sense that, over the next decade, will become our common understanding.

The connected economy is accelerating change, raising the bar for survival, and requiring a higher degree of adaptivenss from all of us. In particular, business needs to develop a new mental toolbox based on adaptive principles and an evolving economic and social environment. As stated recently in the journal Sicence, "Our quest to capture the system level laws governing cell biology in fact represents a search for the deeper patterns common to complex systems and networks in general."

Simulation is becoming a new scientific instrument, a "macroscope" allowing us to see the structure that dtermines the behavior of human-scale systems the way the microscope began to reveal the cell.

All forms of evolution arise from the interaction of independent agents follwoing a few simple rules. See "Boids". It's not a predictable world of command-and-control but, rather, a world of constant surprise and volatility, created by the interactions among low-level rules, acting form the bottom up. Translating sex into silicon, genetic algorithms allow us to redefine our objectives, replacing narrow individual "efficiency" with a boader concept of population "robustness"--the ability to cope with a volatile environment.

Often human programmers don't understand why a solution works, only that it does. Whether in vitro, in silico, or in vivo, what matters is what emerges, not the underlying mechanisms that got you there.

Is this more than warmed over Kevin Kelley and the hive mind? I think so. For one thing, Meyer and Davis provide oodles of examples. There's the goat injected with spider genes whose milk contains "BioSteel," a lightweight compound so strong the military plans to use it as armor. Lots of folks are running bio-like sims to study organizational behavior, stock market fluctuations, and traffic patterns.

The remainder of the book promises to deal with adaptive management. I'm looking forward to it.

Stan Davis has a thing for matrixes. He was once a fan of the matrix organization. His prior books have wonderful 3 x 4 tables that make things so clear. I love these, because I can glance at the matrix and have all the ideas behind it come flooding back. Guess what? We're going to look at some matrixes. (I hate the plural matrices.)

First of all, to everything there is a season. Note the scale on this graph: 250 years. The industrial era is history.

Today the life cycle of the information age has just peaked. It's all downhill from here. Over the next ten years, the molecular age will hit its growth phase.

Chris and Stan find a pattern in the lifecycles of economies.

They take the technology adoption cycle to a higher plane. Here's the tech version, describing both markets and the culture required to thrive in each.

Learn by Search & Replace. Make these substitutions...

    Visionaries = Scientists
    Pragmatists = Technologists
    Control = Business
    Collaboration = Organization

...and you get a predictive model. Wow.

Finally, here's what you can do about all this.

Posted by Jay Cross at July 27, 2003 10:59 PM | TrackBack

Interesting stuff!
You mention "bio-info-nano-cogno convergence that Jim Spohrer's paper referred to." Can you provide a link or more info this paper?

Posted by: John Hathaway at July 28, 2003 09:48 AM

Sure, John.



Better than science fiction!

Posted by: Jay at July 28, 2003 02:52 PM

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