Some second thoughts on first contact

The concept of adaptive cycles can serve as a framework for a rich discussion on innovation. However, before diving deeper into the specifics of the concept, let’s look at the basic description of the adaptive cycles again and review some of the earlier posts on this blog: to what extent do those ideas fit with this concept? I’d suggest three perspectives to do that: an economic angle, a science angle, and a society angle.

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Starting from the economic angle, it is no big surprise that the growth and conservation phases resonate very well with economic considerations, both micro and macro. Whether the individual employee, the entrepreneur, the CEO, or even the Minister of Economics (or Finance), everybody prefers to stay on that upward slope forever. Hence it’s no wonder that most management literature centers around questions of growing and maintaining your business. It was Clayton Christensen who coined the terms of efficiency innovation and sustaining innovation to describe how innovation supports the growth of a business enterprise. More importantly though, he also took a very detailed look at the role of entrepreneurs who bring about disruptive innovation that challenges the established companies. Now obviously, this concept reinforces Joseph Schumpeter‘s idea of creative destruction: you can easily understand how the destruction of the release phase enables new creation in the reorganisation phase.

These considerations partially fit with the adaptive cycle, but they are still far from the cyclical description of economics as one human system. Rather, we see a business environment and the competition between two different systems, just think of it as two separate businesses: through growth and conservation, we can imagine a market incumbent to evolve, mature, and foster a strong position. In the release phase, a new market entrant pursues a disruptive business model that triggers the decline of the incumbent. And while that incumbent is pushed out of the market, it is the new entrant who goes through reorganisation and absorbs the newly available resources in a new growth phase.

For a more cyclical view of economics, the Kondratiev waves or long-cycles could serve as a useful starting point. Hence that topic is certainly food for future posts.

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From the science angle, the situation is considerably simpler, as Thomas Kuhn actually delivered a complete theory of how science works.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he describes how normal science progresses over time (through growth and conservation) to accumulate more and more knowledge (the key resource in this human system). In that process, more and more anomalies are observed that don’t fit with the existing paradigm. In the end, these anomalies trigger a crisis (into the release phase) that is ultimately resolved only when science shifts to a new paradigm (reorganisation), which gives way for a new period of normal science. While the idea of paradigm shift has become the trademark of Kuhn’s work, his description of science offers a full cyclical description of science as a human system that directly matches the adaptive cycle.

For technology however, the story is far less straightforward. While the growth and conservation phases seem to fit well with our observation of technology maturation and its widespread diffusion, the release and reorganisation phases don’t have an intuitive match in the technology realm: what are the resources accumulated by a technology, and how could those be released so that they be reorganised? This challenge is partially related to Brian Arthur‘s idea that technology domains co-evolve with society in a processes of mutual adaptation. Therefore we’ll need to tackle technology within its societal (and economic) context to develop a more cyclical concept of technology evolution. The grand scheme of General Purpose Technologies could probably be of use here, and the multi-disciplinarity of the adaptive cycles certainly will be. Either way, depicting technology evolution as an adaptive cycle requires some further research that I’ll seek to address in the future.

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Finally, from the society angle once again the growth and conservation phases are at the centre of many people’s consideration, as for example described in Ian Morris‘ work on social development. But in his research Morris went beyond the upward trends to investigate the forces that could potentially slow, stop, or even revert such development. What he found, he called five Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, epidemics, uncontrolled migration, state failure, and climate change.

These findings resemble the results of another investigator of societal decline. Thomas Homer-Dixon identified a similar set of five potential triggers that could send a society on a downward trajectory: population, energy, environmental, climate, and economic stresses. And he compared them to the strength and demeanour of geological forces:

The […] stresses affecting our world are just like tectonic stresses:
they’re deep, invisible, yet immensely powerful; they’re building slowly; and
they can release their force suddenly without warning.

Homer-Dixon understood the ups and downs in societies as evidence that adaptive cycles are at work. Still, he mainly focused his attention on the causes for historic and potential future downturns.

That is a perspective he shares with Joseph Tainter, who investigated societal collapse in depth. Tainted concluded that two combined factors would trigger collapse: one is a limitation in the available energy, the other is the ever increasing demand for energy, which is driven by our approach to solving problems. In his words, society uses complexity as a strategy for solving problems, and approach  creates further problems. Interesting enough, this idea is a direct paraphrase of Ian Morris’ Paradox of Development: “Success creates new problems, solving them creates still newer problems.” And that is once again an implicit reminder that no upward trend will naturally last forever.

Collectively, all those considerations contribute to our understanding of the ups and downs of human societies, and especially of the triggers that could send societies into decline. But they all describe first the up and then the down, with no indication of a potential comeback, of a story that moves from a down back to an up. We might take ideas from Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson and consider inclusive economic and political institutions as one potential path for a society to manage a turn-around, but once again, that’ll require some further thought.

Overall, across the economic, science, and society perspectives, the concept of the adaptive cycles shows good resonance; for science, the match is even close to perfect. All of that demonstrates the merit of the interdisciplinary approach that is woven through the adaptive cycles. And it makes this concept a useful tool for developing a deeper understanding of innovation.

At the same time, these early considerations on using the adaptive cycles in that innovation context already identified a couple of promising topics: What about General Purpose Technologies at the interaction between society, business, and technology? What about Kondratiev Waves in the economy? And what about long-cycle development in societies? These deserve further investigation once the description of the adaptive cycle is developed in full.

In the upcoming posts, I turn my attention to an increasingly detailed description of the adaptive cycles and its three dimensions: accumulated resources, connectedness, resilience. As the next step, let’s focus on resources and connectedness …


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