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The safest way or the way of innovation?

By Tsilla Boisselet. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2653058

The decision is bound to many criteria and not straight forward. It depends on the overall goal, and time is an essential factor. Are the risks immediate? Are the gains very hazardous? How big are the risks in terms of survival on the short term and the long term?

Under conditions with little change, it seems most reasonable to have a stable strategy, a well-established standard of operation that gives sure fruits. Small changes, with little risk for survival are not a sufficient motivation for ground-breaking innovation. The survival of the individual is good enough, the next generation comes under the optimal conditions, even if it has to wait a little longer to overcome a sub-optimal phase. Individual of all strength have their role to play to preserve the network. Small adjustments, which have higher chance of success, because they have time to be tried out, learned and transmitted are a good strategy for small, reversible or slow, gradual changes. The dense and stable cooperative network transmits that information.

Life-threatening changes instead, with potentially fatal short-term effects push towards a fast change. If the geographical change – escape the change – is not an option (may it be because the capacity of moving is limited, or the affected area too vast) – innovation becomes a necessity. However, the time left gives little chance to most single changes, as there is no time to try them all. Therefore, the multiplication of parallel, often random experiments is a common strategy among living organisms, spreading off-springs in great quantity with the hope of the survival of the species. However, the risk of complete failure is also enormous.

The choice becomes trickier when the situation is “in-between”. Are the changes potentially fatal if I apply my standard procedure? Or will a dormancy period be good enough? Are small adjustments sufficient or is a complete change of paradigm necessary? What is the line that differentiates two behaviors? That is individually different and can be observed at all life levels, from microorganisms over plants to animals. Is it possible to walk on the edge? Trigger innovation and give it at the same time enough time to be established and transmitted?

This is the sense of hybrid, progressive systems. Naturally, they exist in successions after radical events – as natural catastrophes, or human-made destruction. Even if we tend to focus on the story of the survival of single organisms, the whole story is involving many different strategies merging into a whole one, because many different organisms are involved. A bare place means it has been so radically changed that no one, or almost no one, has survived. A new situation has been created, and this will gradually shift until a new balance is reached. Pioneers come first, those who best survive as lonesome ones, or survive under the harshest conditions. They prepared the ground for many others who are slower, more stable and/or more sensitive, the whole succession who gradually transforms the place in that new stable one, coping with small or slow, gradual changes – until the next big change. A fast succession of changes will favor only pioneers – which is ok in a world of pioneers – until remember that not all pioneers live under the same conditions, and you wonder what if many need that stable place to survive until their next moment of glory. Maybe even pioneers need time to prepare the next innovation? Is dynamic stability the best way to guaranty efficient innovation?

A natural ecosystem is therefore not necessarily a stable, set immutable system. Depending on the scale it is looked at – both spatial and temporal – it is on the contrary constantly modifying itself and its environment. The misunderstanding about conservation is often a matter of scale. What always needs to be preserved is the capacity to regenerate, to mitigate effects, so the time is given to adapt, survive, transmit, produce and store energy- and be mature enough to react to the next change. The size (larger), the time (longer) and the diversity (larger) are all factors that influence this capacity. While some wonder about the sense of some conservation efforts claiming some species has no essential function forget about the succession dynamics. Moreover, the function or misfunction of the ecosystem, depending on time, space and diversity is given essentially by the existence – and quality – of the relationships.

This has to be kept in mind when time or space are not abundant enough to wait for natural succession to happen. Well-chosen diversity favors good relationships and accelerates establishment time; it can compensate for a remote area where missing partners have little access to. But a system is still under transformation and maturation. Whether it has been well-established of placed in an un-balanced way, ecological succession will play its role, one way or another. Conceive those systems as progressive, adaptable and growing.

On an anthropocentric perspective, we must remember that a succession plays on a scale that can reach far more than the single life-span of one organism. Paradoxically, most of the plants we rely on are single and short-lived; a good characteristic for adaptation, but which can be fatal if there is no balance from long-lived, networking species taking care of the long-term preservation of the soil and climate. To observe effects on the environment – soil degradation/regeneration, microclimate change – destruction of inter-species interaction, or adaptation of species to new environments – hotter, dryer, colder, wetter– takes more than one generation. What is the life-span of a tree compared to ours ….? Humans, that can count, comprehend time, be geographically flexible and observe so many different organisms, must understand that balance, trigger efficient innovation and buy time to adapt to changes whose long-term effects that are still difficult to grasp… We can accelerate time to establish more resilient ecosystems, we are able to choose and adapt plants to our needs, we can appreciate that we need plants in many more ways than for food, more than they need us. We can understand that we need more than plants: microorganisms – the most important biomass in terms of mass and energy turnover. We can recognize that we don’t even know all the elements of our present environment and might very well need them soon or later. We can understand that we need both stability and innovation, and that can coexist in a dynamic environment. We can realize also that good quality relationships are essential for a well-functioning ecosystem, so establishing good quality exchanges at all levels – from forests to cities – are the only way to survive – and thrive.