On a trip to the Galápagos Islands the economist John Kay pondered over their most famous residents. The giant Galápagos tortoises have survived millions of years, whilst legions of other creatures have become extinct, not because they're part of a tortoise master race but because they’ve adapted best to a location with mud, plentiful vegetation and a dearth of mammalian predators. Success in complex, natural or man-made, ecosystems is not determined by the organism’s perfection but by its adaptability to evolve in local conditions. Evolution concludes Kay “is smarter than you are - and you have to be smart to understand the implications of that.”
Evolution is a process of trial and error, driven by a feedback loop between an organism’s capabilities and its ecosystem: when they match the organism survives, replicates and thrives. Yet, what works well in one environment often translates poorly to another - though the reasons are often opaque. This grey area in man-made ecosystems is often populated by business gurus (so ubiquitous as so few people can spell charlatan) claiming to have divined the secrets of transplanting success lock, stock, and barrel. Yet ‘best practice’ is always past practice lifted from a different context - with different starting conditions and displaying different capabilities - meaning it has decreasingly limited utility in other contexts. On the savannah the lion may be king; but in the mud it's the tortoise.
Our more complex world - driven by technological advances, a data deluge, disruptive demographics, new rivals, business models, regulations and risks - is in a state of continual emergence, making fortune fickle, as perfection is an ideal configuration to a temporary set of circumstances. Dinosaurs may have been perfectly adapted to a hot early earth with abundant giant fauna, but they quickly became ill-suited to a cooler plant, which favoured smaller, warm-blooded mammals. In a complex ecosystem, the ability to adapt (resilience) rather than perfect (robust) is the optimal strategy. “Among the few certainties” argued Kaushki Base, chief economist of the World Bank “is the need to adapt to external change. Our challenge [therefore] becomes that of the industrial revolution era moth, which adapted to its new soot-laden ecosystem by becoming darker and thus better able to hide from predators.” (Moscow Times, May 6, 2013)
Surviving and thriving in a complex world requires loosening the rigidity of perfection and embracing change by using threats as signposts calling us forward. It requires learning - imitating the way the world around us adapts, evolves and prospers. The evolutionary success of the giant Galápagos tortoise and the industrial-era moth contain lessons to guide our own development - if we are able to adapt them to our own environments.
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