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Ecosystem means self-organisation 2 July 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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tangleThe trope of describing the world – real or desired – of social enterprise as an ‘ecosystem’ has become popular, and was given poetic wings by the speech of Commissioner László Andor at the launch conference of the Social Business Initiative in November 2011 (inspired one may well imagine by Gerhard Bräunling’s fertile imagination).

When talking of recommendations for government policy, as in the Social Enterpreneurship Network, I prefer to talk of a “comprehensive support environment”. But the biological imagery sets one’s mind thinking. There are good grounds to draw analogies from the natural world when trying to describe the behaviour of humans and their organisations – after all the world has survived so far so by Darwinian principles it must have got something right. Therefore organisations that behave in the same way are more likely to survive. Hence for instance Jon Walker’s application of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model or Keith Richardson’s comparison of social franchising to flocking starlings.

Red in tooth and claw

The speech looked at all the good parts of an ecosystem. It invited member states and other actors to become enabling and ‘responsible gardeners’ which ensure water and fertiliser, facilitate pollination, minimise pollution, and tend to the life cycle. Responsible gardeners don’t try to drive evolution but rather to strengthen endogenous systems.

But ecosystems are not cuddly. One of the most basic concepts is the food chain – a system which has weaker and stronger elements ineluctably linked by the process of death and consumption. A second concept is that of dynamic equilibrium, according to which there will be a continuous process of death and renewal which moves forward through continuous creative destruction. We need then to look at what sorts of social enterprises will starve and die out (go bankrupt), which will be eaten up (taken over) and which will degenerate through an excess of inbreeding. Supply your own examples.

To cultivate biodiversity we ought also to try to prevent ecosystem collapse, where the environmental conditions become so harsh that life is wiped out. We ought to try to build ecological niches – safe havens where species can carve out enough space to live beneath the radar of more powerful competitors.

We should also be aware that innovation, like evolution, is slow and random: a mutation in a gene enables a species to succeed in a certain niche, and then other species rearrange themselves around this new kid on the block. But the mutation and the niche are not planned by a divine intelligence.


In some ways this atavism is misleading, because competition is at the heart of ecosystems, and what civilisation allows humankind to do is to rise above brute competition, and to promote loftier values. In the niches that social enterprises occupy, competition takes place in more than one dimension. Social enterprises strive to win hearts and minds as well as fill pockets and bellies.

If we want to shift the point of equilibrium of the banking and business system towards satisfying human needs then we should seek to strengthen self-reinforcing mechanisms – positive feedback loops. These principally comprise all the federal and membership bodies that go to make up a movement, which provide role models, share ideas, boost confidence, help through difficult patches and reward success. They include the more technical types of network such as through consortia and social franchising.

Public bodies should support such self-organisation, not view it as ‘rent-seeking behaviour’ or an unnecessary overhead. This is the thought breakthrough in Commissioner Andor’s speech referred to above.


1. cooperatoby - 2 July 2013

That’s an extraordinarily unscientific thing to say, Bob. The paradox of free will is that even though you may think you’re not a starling you may be compelled to act like one – i.e. in this case to be guided subconsciously by the actions of your fellows without having to stop and think about it.
All theories generalise and one can’t avoid doing that. Life is impossible if everything is an exception. System theories at least have the merit of doing a stakeholder analysis first, and thus trying to take into account the effects on the people whom politicians or others with big ideas might overlook.

2. Bob Cannell - 2 July 2013

Biological metaphors for human organisation are dangerously misleading. Non human systems are just that, collections of dumb agents related by predictable rules which encourages the ideology that human society has higher rules which we have little or no power to change, ie the necessity of rule by CEOs or a little further down that line, fascism.
Human organisations are full of free will. Humans are not predictable. Ralph D Stacey makes all this very clear in his theories of p post systems h uman organisation thinking.
I am not a starling or a data set in an algorithm!
Bob Cannell

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