Explaining the Symbiotic Economy

Explaining the Symbiotic Economy

An Alternative Economic Model

This past week I had the pleasure of attending an intriguing event hosted by Social Innovation Japan (SIJ). It was my first visit to one of their events, and I was happily impressed! SIJ’s mandate is to build up “Japan’s largest and most diverse platform of change-makers.” They seek to accomplish this by bringing together entrepreneurs, academics, nonprofits, corporations, and government workers. Given the scope and scale of the global problems facing society, this makes total sense.

Their latest event was called, “Building a Sustainable Future: Exploring a Symbiotic Economy.” Naturally, I was interested in learning more! The talk was launched with presentations by the two keynote speakers: Isabelle Delannoy & Tsuyoshi Kawakami.

Their address was meant to provide further insight into an alternative means of economic enterprise. One that actually takes into account the social and environmental elements of economic operations. The symbiotic economy does just that.

The Green Sloth shares a symbiotic relationship with algae.
Sloths are believed to share a symbiotic relationship with the green algae that forms on their fur.

What is The Symbiotic Economy?

As I understand it, the symbiotic economy is comparable to the circular economy, but takes it one step further. Whereas the circular economy seeks to satisfy its needs within a circular system and so generate little to no waste, the symbiotic model is actually regenerative. Indeed, the symbiotic economy, also inspired by the natural world, attempts to provide all those implicated within the process to a shared benefit.

This means that the individual contributors to this economy (be it society or the environment) can achieve complementarity and gain from the synergies produced by their exchange. Don’t be alarmed if this sounds pretty complicated. In reality, nature does this quite often. A symbiotic relationship emerges when the actions taken by one entity’s to satisfy its needs (for example bees collecting pollen), actually provide benefit for another entity as well (flowers get their pollen spread). It’s a win-win exchange.

The challenge then, is how does this translate to humanity’s predominantly extractive and financially oriented economy? How can we transform our present model?

Keeping it cool

What Was Said By the Experts

In a nutshell, the guest speakers believe this better economy is possible! We can in fact fulfill our needs, without advancing the destruction of the earth’s living systems. Given the current dramatic warming of the planet due to carbon emissions and grossly unsustainable practices, clearly we need an alternative. Isabeele Delannoy and Tsuyoshi Kawakami have one. It comes in the form of symbiosis.

SIJ_Isabelle Delannoy, "Building a Sustainable Future: Exploring a Symbiotic Economy."
Isabelle Delannoy is specialized in sustainable development. With a background as an agricultural engineer, Delannoy is an internationally recognized environmentalist, founder of Do Green, and joint screenwriter of the film “Home” (with Yann Arthus-Bertrand).

Isabelle Delannoy

Ms. Delannoy kicked off her presentation with what lead her to the symbiotic economy. It was after having worked on the film Home (which she co-wrote). After discovering so much about our planet, and the complex systems at work to support us, she was compelled to search for solutions to the current ecological destruction taking place. She spoke with countless scientists specialized in analyzing the environment and discovered how rapidly the earth was changing, and how quickly we need to enact change.

That is when she connected with this idea of the symbiotic economy. It’s a novel approach comprised of these 6 Principles:

6 Principals of the Symbiotic Economy
These points were taken down during the presentations.

Ingredients for Change

The elements can then translate into an alternative economic model by which industrial practices, social activity, and government functions can then provide a regenerative effect for the environment. How this could be achieved is another matter.

This part was less clear. To be fair, she is a predominantly French speaker and was occasionally searching for the correct words and meaning. Luckily she had images to help, and brought up examples of solar distribution in Germany or water management systems in Portland, Oregon (USA). They all indicated the same thing. Once a common vision was provided, various organizations and networks were in fact able to realize it together.

Ms. Delany ended her talk with some inspirational insight. After discussing the alternative economic model with reps from the financial sector, questions over investment and risk were brought up. At which point she highlighted that “the greater risk is not taking the risk.” Clearly business as usual cannot continue as it is, and the symbiotic economy has a lot going for it.

Tsuyoshi Kawakami speaking at the event, "Building a Sustainable Future: Exploring a Symbiotic Economy."
Tsuyoshi Kawakami is a Principal Fellow at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and a frequent contributor for Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. He is also a professor at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Sophia University. Click for more.

Tsuyoshi Kawakami

Mr. Kawakami offered us a different kind of presentation. He started off with notions of God, and the difference between the monotheistic (One God) views of the West, compared to the plurality found in the East (Japan). In fact, Japanese Shinto-buddhist traditions revolve around nearly 8 million gods (八百万).

At first, I admit I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. I thought we were perhaps losing the message to some translation/cultural gap, but over time his meaning came through. Japanese culture is one heavily based in co-operation and harmony between all the many gods, people, and of course the environment. As a result, Mr. Kawakami is convinced that Japan is fertile ground for the application of the symbiotic economy.

I believe most Japanese will find it {the symbiotic economy} quite acceptable, as it is very familiar to our culture.”

Symbiosis at Work

He also provided us with some examples of the this type of model at work in local villages. For instance, where a local currency (coupons) were provided to citizens/fisherman who would help cull an invasive fish species that was harming the local waters. These coupons were then used at local markets for food and supplies.

Clearly Mr. Kawakami was motivated to share with us his understanding of a symbiotic economy, even if it didn’t always come across that clear. His English was excellent, but he maintained his Japanese style of speaking which could be vague and contextualized rather than articulate and direct. Still, the takeaway was that multiple economic actors & contributors can come together and effectively work towards the greater good.

SIJ FB Pic - "Building a Sustainable Future: Exploring a Symbiotic Economy"
Event photo courtesy of SIJ’s Facebook Page. Click the image to check it out.

A Symbiotic Vision For the Future

The symbiotic economy certainly offers a brighter economic vision. We know that an economy of unlimited growth, and uncurbed resource extraction, pollution, & destruction is bringing out the 6th mass extinction. We know the climate is changing, and that we are the cause (see also Running Low On Time).

So why don’t we reconsider how we operate. Business, and the economy at large, can be a force for good. There is a way we can satisfy our needs without destroying our very life support systems, and the symbiotic model provides a hopeful alternative.


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