Lessons from Mother Nature towards sustenance of our techno-economic ecosystem

On the rare occasions I succeed to break away from things that fascinate me professionally I normally spend my free time in nature.  This time, again, I was left in awe observing the behavior of plants. I could not resist, though, drawing comparisons between what plants do and what I observe in my professional environment of technology management. Allow me to explain. 

Specifically, upon closer examination of the self-contained ecosystems mature trees tend to create, I started to think about a new ecosystem now found in modern organisations. I call this ecosystem the techno-economic ecosystem and it is occupied by the three-party combination of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the Chief Information Officer (CIO). 

Like the tree within its own ecosystem, the modern organization, taking into consideration its techno-economic realities, constantly must make business choices, because inaction will simply lead to demise. This function, this duty, persists for every second of every day, of every season of every year and of every natural cycle. It does so for the techno-economic ecosystem inasmuch as it does for the tree ecosystem. 

For the modern organization, omnipresent features of its environment are, of course, politics, economies, social circumstances and technological variables, with the latter now by some measure the most important. In comparison, for the tree, its surrounding environment determines the micro-climate in its immediate vicinity and moderates all life-forms, whether micro-organisms, insects, spiders, reptiles, birds, mammals and other forms of fauna; whether grasses, plants, shrubs, trees and other forms of flora. Much like the family patriarch or matriarch of old, the tree ecosystem serves as the foundry of wisdom and finality for its immediate surrounding environment. 

Trees and its ecosystems, however, do not have legs or wings to move along with favourable environmental conditions as fauna life typical tends to do, indeed as businesses tend to do as well. Generally speaking, plants themselves have no mobility whatsoever. Yet, how they direct their roots to compensate for this anatomical shortcoming now serves as convincing evidence of plant intelligence. In fact, the mechanisms plants use to innovate is an exciting new field of study for biologists. Biomimicry itself increasingly and in extraordinary ways serves as a source of new and sustainable technologies, and attracts attention from a wide spectrum of professions interested in natural recipes for circularity of productive processes and sustainability of consumption. Trees and their ecosystems, therefore, use their intelligence to thrive amidst conditions of scarcity and competition, whether desert or forest. The tree ecosystem indeed is a hothouse of creativity, of conception of new ideas, of implementation of those found working, and of rejection of those found wanting. I like to think about this as abundance without indulgence.  

In comparison, between their roles the trio of C-level officers occupying the techno-economic ecosystem typically have all the means to their disposal they could ask for. In fact, at this very moment in history the techno-economic ecosystem may be the most powerful capability organisations private or public ever had the benefit of. However, in order to succeed harnessing the immense capabilities they have access to, this trio must conceive of their ecosystem in holistic terms. By this I mean that they must contribute to the techno-economic realities in their ecosystem in a manner commensurate with the requirements of each new strategic imperative they may face.  Balancing inputs in a collaborative manner will help establish a healthy ecosystem which ultimately will be more sustainable than the sum of their individual contributions. 

It is not difficult to find lessons hereto in the tree ecosystem. On a hot day, information is transmitted to the branches of the tree, reaching the leaves which ultimately would close their gas exchange holes, known as stomata, in order to limit evaporation and exposure to the heat. In the winter, deciduous trees shed their leaves to survive weather conditions, but this means they must spend more energy during spring to make up for the loss. Were chemical signals not to find their way to the branches and the leaves, the tree ecosystem will perish. Each constituent part of the tree ecosystem performs a very particular function, but it does so in service of the whole ecosystem, and not to survive only as a constituent part thereof. The termite heap in the tree ecosystem similarly functions as a living biological organism, dealing with very much the same constraints. Yet, in the termite heap there is, respectively, a worker termite feeding the termite queen and the rest of the resident termite colony, a soldier termite fighting off intruders, and a builder termite constantly constructing and reconstructing the termite heap – which is why it may become so majestically beautiful as we know it from the typical image of the African savanna to be found. Every type of termite simply and intuitively contributes to the welfare of the termite heap as a holistic unit.  A particular functionality is embedded into their DNA.  Contributing to the wider ecosystem, waste is treated in an ecologically kind manner, and each new cycle of intrusion, destruction and rebuild over time builds upon the layers of previous cycles. Resources shed during the previous cycle are put to good use. Circularity is constantly the norm, and sustainability is constantly the outcome.

But, whereas the tree ecosystem for the untrained eye may appear unknown, unordered and often incomprehensible, those C-level officers representing the techno-economic ecosystem cannot afford looking at their market and business realities as if it simply is not ordered nor structured. And they need not to, because they have a very useful tool in the form of the functionality grid at their disposal.  This grid at once presents an orderly and structured suite of descriptors for the complete collection of process pathways relevant to matter, energy and information as these form the material bases for technology manifestations[1].

On this occasion, though, given the comparison with the tree ecosystem, I’d like to have the functionality grid serving as a generic diagram reflecting general systems design and functionality, which actually is where its roots are found. To the trio in the techno-economic ecosystem this toolset should also help to create new insights and conceptions towards a sustainable future for the techno-economic ecosystem. For example, the functionality grid at once offers an integrated view upon nine pathways for new technological innovations conceived of in this ecosystem, and helps with specific placement in the grid of any particular technological innovation requiring deeper analysis of its performance metrics and its sustainability metrics.  The intuitive manner through which this grid integrates all possible conceptions of technology, whether mechanical, electrical, mechatronic or informational, reminds the keen observer of the same overall integration between matter, energy and information found in the tree ecosystem, with much the same interaction manifesting there[2]

For the CTO, therefore, the duty is to further explore and apply the functionality grid in order to establish how new innovations across the technological horizon perform better, either by processing matter, energy and/or information more efficiently, by transporting them more efficiently, and or storing them more efficiently. The duty of the CFO in this particular regard remains that of classical analysis, focusing on management accounting indices that would assist the C-level trio with their investment decisions in a manner that would make economic sense across all capitals, whether financial, environmental, social, technological or otherwise. 

From among the trio of C-level officers, the duty of the CIO requires careful thought, though. Representing the Chief Information Officer role, the CIO acronym has now largely evolved into a misnomer, with leading organisations such as De Loitte & Touche and IT advisory firm Gartner, to name just two from among countless examples, persisting with the practice to describe technology leadership roles as that of the CIO, and loading upon the shoulders of the CIO this duty, together with that of information leadership, while at the same time either not recognizing the CTO role or not allowing it to manifest and evolve as it should[3].  It must be stated pertinently that to perform the emerging discipline of managing and accounting for information with the same enthusiasm, strategic intent and regulatory rigor and formality as would be the case for other capitals, the CIO job is cut out for him or her, and will not bear for much longer dilution or confusion of this role with that of pure technology roles. There may very well be counter-arguments for the above, in particular related to the historic development of the CIO role, but I must as yet hear a convincing submission having regard for the requirements and context of the new era of so-called infonomics we have now entered, and having regard for the proper unfolding of the CTO role to do justice to the powerful force technology now is.    

When, if at all, organisations succeed to clarify for themselves the distinction in roles between that of the CTO and the CIO, then the duty of the CIO is to continue to prioritize tasks involving processing, transmission and storage of data. For the processing operand, appointment of data architects, data scientists and data miners are key priorities. For data transmission, collaboration with the CTO and the telecoms team obviously stands out, and for data storage, given the rapid growth in data volumes, given data integrity priorities and given Cloud options, immediate priorities are to strategize, model and collaborate with the CFO towards selection of the optimal data storage strategy. To this end, the functionality grid serves as point of departure to use technology performance metrics per individual functional operand[4].

In the tree ecosystem serving as our benchmark for this submission, physical and mechanical roles are fulfilled by roots, trunks, and branches. They see to the processing, transmission and storage of matter and energy in the tree ecosystem. In comparison, informational roles are fulfilled by the chemical organization of the tree ecosystem. For organisms in the tree ecosystem, in keeping with the analogy, their very survival depends on their ability to properly, process, transport and store information across this ecosystem, they do so with perfect efficiency, and with unerring equality and predictability. Think about the remarkable symbiosis between trees and birds, bees and bats, how the selection of visitors is ingrained into the chemical stratum of the tree ecosystem. Think about the smoothness with which processing, transmission and storing of information happen between these organisms, each to its own, neatly designed and structured, and flawlessly executed. Think about the elegance with which intrusion is responded to, and think about how loss is gradually compensated for.   For the tree ecosystem, its sensory abilities comprise of a comprehensive radar screen that intuitively knows when to accommodate and when to defend.  For the tree ecosystem, no confusion is contemplated between the roles of mechanics and of information. Upon closer inspection of this ecosystem, one finds perfect equilibrium, perfect organization, perfect functioning and perfect balance of the constituent parts of that ecosystem with the whole it comprises of.     

In conclusion, observing nature closely offers to the wandering mind much needed rest, relaxation and fulfilment. But at the same time, it always serves as source of new insights and new knowledge, presenting itself as a timeless template of sustainability upon which professionals remain invited to pattern their business practices. I’d like to encourage all to think more about this topic as the world continues to race towards indulgence, waste, inequality, strife and suffering. 


Lochner, F.C. 2013. The concept of the functionality grid and technological literacy. International Journal of Disclosure and Governance, 10(4), 328-345. 

McGowan, K. No Date. How Plants Secretly Talk to Each Other. Wired, [Online] Available: https://www.wired.com/2013/12/secret-language-of-plants/ Accessed: 20 July 2018.

Smith, R.D. 2009. Chief technology officer: Defining responsibilities of the senior technical executive. Orlando: Modelbenders Press.

[1] I have not written nearly enough about this toolset in the past, and will be submitting on a next occasion a paper in this regard for my connections to read. Pending that, see under References the Palgrave journal article about this topic.

[2] To the curious mind the Linnaean system of classification serves as a similar frame of reference for placement of biological life forms found in the tree ecosystem.

[3] Consider to read about the CTO role as presented by an eminent authority on this topic – Smith, 2009.

[4] Guidance on this topic is available in the literature – consider in this regard to use the following keywords: strategic technology scanning.

Dr Ferdie Lochner heads up Independent CTO comprising of a small virtual team of experts collaborating in order to present to the market an ecosystem of CTO services and associated non-executive oversight roles focusing on technology strategies and decisions. Having served for thirty years as a public servant and academic, Ferdie took early retirement to launch a new ecosystem of services directed at technology strategies and decisions involving non-executive roles and Chief Technology Officer roles.

Skype Telephone +27 21 813 6970 | Mobile +27 84 444 3643 | email ferdie.lochner@yahoo.com | Web independent-cto.webnode.com

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