The Age of Biology
Why Biology is the Ultimate Business Model
It turns out that the last generation’s Pandora’s box, Info Tech, the Internet, the Platform Economy, had another box inside it. That box’s name is Biotech, and in the next generation, it will eat the world. Just as we’re beginning to adapt and fully utilize the tools of IT (you’re likely reading this before/after a Zoom call), another wave looms on the horizon. With cheaper DNA sequencing, fully automated bio labs and faster molecular simulations, biotech’s barrier to entry is rapidly plummeting. Today’s college coders will be tomorrow’s bedroom biohackers. Today we move information but tomorrow we’ll be moving matter. This new wave has tons of promise: it promises everything from curing cancer, to shipping sustainable food, cosmetic, and packaging replacements, to creating neural prosthetics and microbial computers, to growing handbags from mushrooms, to storing data on strands of DNA at scale. But what are the risks, and how can we learn from biology itself to mitigate them?
Tech innovations are never quite what they’re slated to be. The personal computing, .com, and platform booms all came with their promises, successes, and disappointments. We were promised open source everything, redistribution of power, a global culture of collaboration and understanding, flexible work, and access to the world’s knowledge — and, in doses, we did get all that, but we also got “free” software that exploits using an advertising model, huge tech monopolies, nationalism via misinformation at scale, platform precarity, and access to unlimited distraction.
All that said, with the risks also come reasons to be optimistic. Tech alone is not enough, we have to shift our thinking to make good things happen. The pandemic has reminded us that we’re biological creatures, and the ongoing climate emergency requires a massive update to our ways of thinking and living. The good news is, biology has, along with technical innovations, a lot to teach us about how to think, live and do business. These insights, combined with direction and focus, have the potential to do worlds of good.
Biology is the ultimate business model. In their article on creating synthetic life, The Economist stated that “biological information and its implementation are inseparable. Life runs not on software and hardware, but in allware.” What this means is that the conception and execution of a biological program is one and the same. This is profound as our dominant guiding metaphor over the last decade has been one where these concepts are separate: computers. We’ve been making technology, businesses, and relationships as if parts of the system are siloed entities and don’t reverberate past a small sphere. This mentality makes it easy to skirt responsibility for things that happen outside your illusory border. We think a shift is in order. Companies like Apple started this train of thought by bringing unity to design hardware and software, but we can and should go further. Whether it’s creating architectural design software that includes data-driven urban context around the building being designed, creating a closed loop economy where resources and waste are accounted for and addressed, or updating our model for what it means to be human in the face of dissolving distinctions between man and machine, biology provides a great model for business to understand and build the future.
Biology provides a model for balance. Human history post-industrial revolution is a story of unbelievable progress. We’ve lifted billions out of poverty, put a man on the moon and connected the world. However, that story comes with a footnote, or rather, a footprint: CO2 emissions and the climate emergency. The rebranding of human nature as something above nature itself has left us with a blindspot, and thus in our race for linear progress we’ve forgotten about circular equilibrium. Nature and biology not only provide us with a model for how a world in balance might look, but also gives us the tools to make that happen.
Biology teaches us how to adapt. In a recent appearance on the AI podcast, biologist Manolis Kellis outlined how biology’s messiness allows it to adapt, how it is precisely biology’s imperfections that allow it to gain from disorder. For business, this doesn’t mean creating chaos, but building systems and narratives that can grow and live in harmony with an ever changing world. We’re stepping now into an age of adaptation, where those who can balance a unified vision (a skill of humans), contextual awareness (allware), and an ability to adapt (and evolve) will ultimately thrive.
For humanity and biology, the name of the game is symbiosis.