Metaphors be with you

In Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, produced in 1670, Monsieur Jourdain asks something to be written in neither verse nor prose. He is told, “Sir, there is no other way to express oneself than with prose or verse”. Jourdain replies, “By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”

The Rainforest concept introduced in the book by Victor H Hwang and Greg Horowitt, The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley opened up the idea of a Rainforest as a metaphor for expressing the innovation ecosystem concept. In this series of blogs we have rather taken this metaphor as understood – but have not placed it on the solid foundation it deserves in the science of innovation ecosystems.

Without going into too much detail, and giving a quick version of the meaning of metaphor which might horrify a linguistic specialist, we can probably agree that language, prose or poetry, is used to communicate with others and therefore must be meaningful to others. Much of language is metaphor. It has been said that metmetaphoraphor is the root of all transfer of meanings in speech. In metaphor or analogy a word is detachable from its original meaning and transferred so that the meaning no longer adheres to the original object. By using words in new contexts, new meanings and aspects of the word may be revealed. However, we should keep in mind George Orwell’s warning not to use metaphors without knowing their original meaning.

Metaphors use symbols (words or signs) which have intuitive meanings and are used within “a universe of discourse.” A universe of discourse is a context where the symbol has an understood meaning. Just as we would not describe a painting using terminology of chemistry, when using stories to communicate understanding we must not stray into universities of discourse having other accepted symbols. When I started working in international development I was confused by colleagues using the term “actor” – with a meaning familiar to sociologist but to a physicist (me) had me wondering how movies came into the picture.

It seems to me that this universe of discourse is really the same as the “phase space” introduced in our December 2013 blog. (For reference, our November 2013 blog first introduced complex systems concepts).

Metaphors are liberating; analogies can constrain.

If we use a rainforest analogy we would have to say the trees are like this and the weeds are like that, and so forth, and the poetic symbolism would be lost. If I reminisce about my youth and inexperienced using the metaphor of being “apple green” (an implied metaphor from Dylan Thomas’s poem Fern Hill) this metaphor has more poetic power that the analogy that I was like a green apple.

Metaphor opens up our imaginations.

The linguistic philosopher Wilbur Urban in analyzing metaphor wrote “it is the nature of the symbol to take the primary and natural meaning of both objects and words and modify them in certain ways so that they acquire a meaning relation of a different kind.” Thus, according to Urban a symbol has (1) reference to the original object – a rainforest in our case – and (2) reference to the object for which the symbol now stands – a complex adaptive innovation ecosystem in our case.

The rainforest metaphor as described by Hwang and Horowitt connects rainforests (the original object) to companies (the object for which the symbol now stands): “A company that seeks to manufacture cheaper, better, more profitable products would run operations like an agricultural farm. However, the community that seeks to generate high levels of innovation throughout the whole system would do the opposite …. not controlling the specific processes but instead helping to set the right environmental variables that foster the unpredictable creation of new weeds.” The metaphor is also a comparison of properties or traits. The trait concept will be revisited in future blogs when we say more about a neglected topic so far, namely, how innovation ecosystems change over time.

As noted in our June blog in this series readers should at least be beginning to see how the rainforest metaphor expands our thinking and leads us to understand that rainforest ecosystems not only have much in common with complex adaptive systems but that rainforest innovation ecosystems are complex adaptive systems. The rainforest symbol has acquired a new and different interpretation as a complex adaptive system. This realization opens up the large volume of research on complex adaptive systems to be used not only to understand but to analyze and predict the behavior of innovation ecosystems. Having grabbed our attention the metaphor remains as a comfort blanket as we enter the sometimes insecure world of complexity.

To parallel Monsieur Jourdain, we may be surprised we’ve been talking about complex adaptive systems without knowing it.

One Comment on “Metaphors be with you”

  1. […] Scorecard brings together the rainforest metaphor (see December 2014 blog) as described by T2VC’s founders Greg Horowitt and Victor Hwang in The Rainforest: The […]

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