Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 3 (March 2000)

Nature's Way

One of the most pleasant surprises I get when attending a computer conference is the chance to hear a speaker who can explain new discoveries from distant fields and suggest how they might apply to our industry. Such was the cast at the Daratech Plant 2000 conference held in January in Houston, where futurist Joel Barker spoke at an event sponsored by Intergraph Corp. and described how some of the latest findings in ecology research may shed light on recent trends in computer graphics and related high-tech markets.

Barker's thesis, which focused on nature's preference for diversity and collaboration in ecosystems, provides food for thought about precisely the same tendency among both computer graphics suppliers and users. Indeed, vendors appear headed toward greater diversity and collaboration, not only with respect to offering more open hardware and software, but also in terms of forming new alliances with former competitors. One of the most recent examples, in fact, involves Intergraph, which announced at the Daratech conference that it had formed a partnership with long-time rival Dassault Systemes to develop software for shipbuilding applications (see Spotlight News, pg. 9). The trend is also true among users, as evident in our January feature, "Group Efforts," (pg. 38), which examines engineering collaboration between team members in different countries and, sometimes, different companies.

Barker's discussion about diversity and collaboration goes something like this. Conventional wisdom says that simple, homogeneous systems are more predictable and, therefore, more sustainable over the long term than complex, diverse systems. But this is not the case in nature or in human systems. In fact, in terms of ecosystems, we find that over the past several billion years, nature has worked out some remarkably clever and robust survival strategies, all of which are characterized by complexity and diversity.

To illustrate the power of diversity in nature, Barker points to a recent study of hundreds of small, 4-square-meter "ecosystems," each containing a different number or combination of prairie plant species. Researchers found that when these plots were subjected to flood, drought, predators, disease, and pesticides, those with higher levels of diversity were able to withstand these "shocks" better, recover faster, and, in the long run, provide far greater stability for the individual species they contained.

Why is this true? Survival does not depend on being the fittest, but rather on being collaborative. To explain, Barker cites another new study in which ecologists discovered that excess carbon produced by deciduous trees receiving plenty of sunlight was being transferred to coniferous seedlings standing in the shade. Using radioactive tracings, researchers found that the carbon was being deposited through the deciduous trees' roots into the soil and then transported by a kind of fungus across the forest floor to the seedlings, which were then able to use the carbon for growth. All participants benefited individually-even the fungus received nutrients in the process-and all benefited collectively, by maintaining the diversity and, thus, the long-term health of the ecosystem.

Are there lessons for computer graphics vendors and users? Barker would argue that, intuitively, there are-though, in truth, nature's survival strategies may be more allegorical than directly applicable. In any case, as the industry grows more complex and diverse, the advantage will likely go to those who pursue diversity and collaboration. Going it alone may be a recipe for failure.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief