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 BLOG >> January 2018

Learning From Bees [Agriculture
Posted on January 30, 2018 @ 07:02:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I am 2 chapters into a book by Bernd Heinrich called Bumblebee Economics (1979).

bumble bee economics book cover

I knew Bernd from some of his other popular science books but was curious about what the concept of Bumblebee Economics might consist of. Bernd invokes a combination of economic, energetic, and societal factors to explain why, for example, a colony splits to form two colonies. When a colony reaches a certain size, the bees can become more aggressive with each other. The area around the colony can become too large to be efficiently foraged from one location or it may not have sufficient nectar sources. The objective of the queen is to reproduce her lineage so starting a new colony is generally part of the yearly mission. Factors such as these eventually lead a colony to the decision to start a new colony.

This may be an overly complex analysis of the factors driving the decision to start a new colony. Perhaps some chemical compound in the colony hits a certain concentration and this signals that it is time to split up the colony. In the absence of said chemical compound, however, you might have to resort to more complex socio-economic factors to explain why things are as they are in bumblebee land. Hence the need for an economic type analysis of bumblebee behavior.

If bumblebees can be said to have what amounts to an economy, then what is the currency? Pollen is necessary for reproduction of the colony and the reproduction of flowing plants. Nectar is used for energy and is stored in the form of honey after it is regurgitated from their honey gut. Perhaps bubblebees have two currencies, pollen and nectar, that are traded for different purposes. You might be able to construct a measure of colony growth by measuring the amount of pollen stored and traded among plants or the amount of nectar consumed and stored as honey by the colony and its descendants.

Natural economics deals with how economies worked before the invention of money, or when the use of money was a negligible part of the economy. Perhaps thinking about pollen and nectar as currencies is misleading because bees live in a natural economy rather than the artificial economies that humans create in which money is central. It is nevertheless interesting to think about the role of pollen and nectar in the bumblebee economy and the extent to which they might be considered units of trade.

Bumblebees are social insects that join together into colonies. A colony might be equated with a franchise business model where the goal is to create new instances of itself in order to exploit new niches.

Bumblebees are part of a network consisting of flowering plants that they get energy from and help to reproduce. Different varieties of birds consume the seasonal fruit set of the pollinated plants. These birds also help to propagate plants through the undigested seeds they release. The macro-economic system of bumblebees is affected by the abundance of flowering plants and birds in their ecosystem. Each actor in this network plays a critical role and if one is harmed or enhanced the others are likely to be harmed and enhanced as well.

Comparative economics studies "different systems of economic organization, such as capitalism, socialism, feudalism and the mixed economy". If bee behavior can be explained from an economic point of view perhaps we can add bee economics to the list of economic organizations that human economic organizations could be compared to. Why would we want to? It might allow us to come up with new ideas about how economies and firms could be organized.

Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. You can visit the examples section of biomimicry.org to read about such nature-inspired solutions. You could also read the book Honeybee Democracy to understand how honeybees collectively decide on where to locate their colony.

The author argues that honeybees provide a useful model (or reminder) of how democracies should be organized. You could also study bumblebee anatomy or physiology for ideas about how to design an engine or a new type of drone aircraft. Bumblebees anatomy and physiology is particularly interesting because bumblebees are active in colder temperatures that most other insects.

Deduction doesn't create anything new. You work from existing ideas, apply logic rules, and arrive at new ideas that were already implied by your existing ideas. Analogy is therefore necessary to arrive at new ideas. Taking an existing system and comparing it to another system can help you to think about the second system in new ways. If bees can be said to have an economy, a language, and democracy then they might offer us opportunities to think differently about economic organization, language, and democratic institutions. This means that we can study bees not simply because they are fascinating creatures but also because of the ideas they might inspire about how to solve complex human problems.

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The Adaptive Cycle [Growth
Posted on January 19, 2018 @ 08:20:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently came across a "tool for thought" called the Adaptive Cycle. The Resilience Alliance has a discussion and depiction of what the Adaptive Cycle looks like:


Source: https://www.resalliance.org/adaptive-cycle

This diagram offers a way to think about change and succession in the natural world and possibly also in the business world. The basic idea is that when a new niche opens up there are companies that are effective at exploiting that niche and a large cohort who are not. Some of the successful ones will eventually scale up, gather up more resources and occupy more land, and will become more complex to the point where a reckoning of some sort leads to a phase of release and reorganization in the context, perhaps, of a transformed niche.

As an example, we might think about a company like Facebook who were successful at exploiting a social media niche and building on that early success to become a dominant social media company. The complexity of the company only grows as it welds increasing influence in personal, community and political affairs. Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that there are problems with Facebook and made a resolution to "Fix Facebook" in 2018. Perhaps Mark is acknowledging the need for an adaptive cycle of release and reorganization in order to evolve the company to the next stage. He may also be anticipating that if he does not signal a willingness to "fix facebook" then powerful government organizations might make that decision for him. At any rate, we may be witnessing the midpoint of an adaptive cycle where Facebook will release and reorganize perhaps like Google did when it turned into Alphabet but with some deeper fixes as well.

What is true of Facebook and Google may be true also of smaller companies. In the startup literature there is the concept of a "pivot". A startup may launch with the conviction that a certain business model will be successful and eventually realize that the business model is not working. At that point they might persist in their folly giving it "one more chance", they might fold the company and call it a day, or they might "pivot" to a new business model that is more likely to be viable and test if that is so. The psychology of sunk costs often makes it very difficult to recognize the need for and motivation to pivot.

One suggestion might be that instead of framing these major decision points as exceptional "pivot" moments we might frame them as part of an adaptive cycle and expect to encounter multiple release/reoganization phases as a company regenerates itself in response to a changing niche or changing corporate objectives.

In conclusion, the Adaptive Cycle is a tool for through that is meant to help you think about how growth and succession happens. Nature appears to generally follow this cycle (i.e., animal or plant death and subsequent nutrient recycling are the release and reorganization phases in the diagram). The Adaptive Cycle concept may not have much usefulness for thinking about company dynamics but it is worth googling the concept a bit more before you draw that conclusion. I have not done justice to the extensive research behind the concept but decided to blog about it because I think the diagram is a potentially useful "tool for thought" for startups and more established businesses facing the challenges of growth and succession.

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Solar Panel Economy [Future
Posted on January 10, 2018 @ 11:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently came accross a site called The Next System. The reason was to find an article by Peter Victor and Tim Jackson called Towards a New Green Economy (November, 2016). I'm still in the process of reading that article.

Alot of the articles in this site are trying to articulate what the "the next system" will be. Much of it focused on what the next economic system will be.

I think it is an interesting question to ponder ... what the next system will be?

Adding the term "system" implies a level of interconnectedness among the components that rules out smaller innovations that affect us in more limited ways. 99% of innovations that are hyped probably fall into that bucket.

So the next system will be interconnected in certain ways that produces some massive, hopefully desired, outcome.

It might also be nice if the next system wasn't 50 years away, the closer in time the better.

One candidate for the next system would be a Solar Panel Economy. A solar panel economy is simply an economy where the solar panel area increases exponentially every year with a Gross Domestic Solar (GDS) index being used instead a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) index to measure the overall health of the material economy.

A solar panel economy may not sound as sexy as a new green economy which is a more abstract goal. What I am proposing is a very specific goal for the next system that would be measured by a specific growth indicator. The indicator may have usefulness only over a certain period to be replaced with some other indicator once we have achieved sufficient growth in solar panel area.

A solar panel economy is one that an increasing number of people can participate in as solar technology continues to get cheaper, better and more accessible.

A solar panel is the specific enabling technology for a larger solar power system that can be installed in homes, apartments with the right orientation, or sheds for motive benefit. It doesn't have to be a big installation and people with cheap outdoor solar lights are arguably slowly easing into that economy. They are gaining some experience and perhaps starting to see other opportunities for the deployment of solar panels.

I'm not suggesting that other sources of renewable energy are not important or significant or shouldn't be included in some calculation of the health of the material economy. Solar panel technology is arguably a bit different in terms of how accessible and deployable it is relative to other renewable technologies and for that reason should be highlighted in some way in how we measure material progress.

Part of what inspired this suggestion is my own tinkering with the main components of a solar power system: a 100 watt solar panel, a charge controller to trickle charge a deep cycle battery, an inverter to convert battery dc power to ac power that also has convenient electrical plugins attached to it, and some wires and car starter cables to interconnect everything. Trying to scale up solar power to just a 100 watt system opens up your eyes to what the next system could be in way that is difficult to appreciate until you have tried to assemble a small scale solar power system. The potential to be "off grid", for example, opens up opportunities for where you might build and what you might build.

Setting up a small scale residential solar power system is possible, it can happen now with off-the-shelf technology, and most people can begin to participate as long as they don't electrocute themselves. For these reasons, perhaps the solar panel economy will be the next system?

This probably sounds like cheer leading for the solar panel industry and to learn some of the downsides you should read the critical activism book Green Illusions (2012) by Ozzie Zehner. I am just putting the solar panel economy idea out there and suggesting that as more people start to assemble the next power system in their homes, apartments and shed and share their experiences then that could spark the solar panel economy that I am predicting is on the near term horizon.

Energy drives everything and when we start changing the energizing system for an economy to solar we should be measuring that growth using a Gross Domestic Solar index and perhaps eventually using GDS as a proxy for the health of the material economy. In the material economy we now require a decoupling of environmental impact from GDP growth that might only be possible with the advent of a solar panel economy.

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Invest In Nature: Part 2 [Investing
Posted on January 3, 2018 @ 06:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In part 1 of this blog series I argued that time, not money, is primarily what needs to be invested when one decides to invest in nature. Shortly after releasing that blog the Polar Vortex hit and I was reminded that investing in nature can be difficult, bordering on unpleasant, when the weather is harsh. This can test your resolve to continue investing just like down periods in any business will. Do you pull out of that investment when things get difficult or do you soldier on?

I think there is a compromise that can be made. You can invest in nature by being in nature but you can also invest in nature by learning about nature so that your experience of nature is more stimulating. So if you would ideally like to spend 2 hours a day in nature, you might spend the full 2 hours outdoors, but when the weather is not so hospitable, you could invest, say, 1 of those hours reading some books about nature that will enhance your appreciation of nature and perhaps motivate you to spend the other hour in nature.

Three books that am reading to help me appreciate nature more are:

  1. The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature (2012) by David George Haskell. About a biologist who revisits a square meter patch of old growth Tennessee forest (which he calls a Mandala) regularly throughout the year and records his observations and thoughts. This is local investing taken to an extreme. Where Henry David Thoreau travelled a great deal Concord, David Haskell has chosen to visit the same small patch of land repeatedly throughout the year to better understand how nature changes through the cycle of a year.
  2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (2005) by Tom Wessels. If you walk in a forested landscape, there are often signs that indicate what has happened in the past which resulted in the landscape you are currently seeing. This books provides you with ideas and clues of what to look for and what they mean. It will make walking in a forested landscape more stimulating.
  3. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (2003) by Bernd Heinrich. Bernd is one of the best scientific nature writers and in this book he discusses the many ingenius ways that animals survive under conditions that we would perish in.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are reportedly both avid readers who spend any free time they have engaged in reading. Where they may read books that help them to better invest their money, those who wish to invest their time into nature might prefer to read books that help them to enjoy their time in nature more.

On a different note, this painting titled Lake Superior Painting X by Lawren Harris fetched 2.47 million at an auction in 2014.

When I took the picture below the colors and shapes reminded me of Lawren Harris' more abstract nature painting which often featured dead trees that had a structural and symbolic beauty to them.

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