«Imitating imperfectly or
customizing the thing that is being imitated can be
a source of creativity»
An interview with
Eric Bonabeau, the scientist-entrepreneur,
is one of the world's leading experts in complex systems
and adaptive problem solving. Bonabeau change his life
and career when he falls in love with the amazing world
of swarm intelligence. He has a Ph.D, in Theoretical
Physics in Paris and was a France Telecom R&D engineer,
and suddenly became a research fellow at the Santa Fe
Institute, a kind of "Meca" for the complex
systems, chaos theory and co. world scientific community.
He is author of Intelligence Collective (in French,
edited by Hermes Sciences, in Paris) and co-author of
Swarm Intelligence, with Chris Mayer. In 2000 he founded
with Chris and others Icosystem, a start up with offices
in Boston and Paris.
Interview by Jorge
Nascimento Rodrigues, July 2004
|The Perils of the Imitation
Age (article at Harvard Business Review, June 2004 edition)
5 IDEAS BY BONABEAU
- Creative copycat or imitating with errors could be
an opportunity for innovation;
- Be second - correct, adapt, and customize your competitor's
- The homogenizing nature of best practices can destroy
value for corporations. Mindless imitation is value
- Some forms of imitation have its virtues, reaped financial
and other benefits for corporations: best-seller lists,
collaborative filters in the web, opinion aggregators,
mock markets, geographic clusters;
- The rise of imitation injects new uncertainty and
unpredictability into an already uncertain world.
E-mail of Eric: firstname.lastname@example.org
Are we in the Imitation Age?
Yes. Not because we have just started imitating but
because we have many ways of imitating today that were
available just a few years ago. We have many ways of
knowing what others do or think and we can act upon
Do we must be prepared for a zero-sum competition
environment, where everybody tries to replicate best
practices and success strategies of competitors? What
can we do to "run out" from this fate?
I don't think so but that is something to be aware
of. The reasons I think it is unlikely are twofold:
(1) not everyone imitates in the same way, which leaves
room for "creativity"; even those who do imitate
may not be able to replicate what they see -knowing
Dell's business model does not mean it is easy to imitate;
(2) some people simply don't imitate at all; even though
the non-imitators might be a minority, their mere presence
makes a zero-sum game unlikely.
Benchmarking is just that, a tool for comparing
relative performance, not a tool for creating strategy.
Obsession with benchmarking kills strategic innovation
Benchmarking is a dangerous tool for management
Benchmarking is a GREAT tool for management; it is
always good to be able to measure your performance with
your peers. Benchmarking, however, is just that, a tool
for comparing relative performance, not a tool for creating
strategy. Obsession with benchmarking kills strategic
innovation and creativity.
Paradoxically, you refer that copycat behaviour
and a self-referential society do not generate a stable
society, but amplifies the risk of instability and unpredictability.
There are two reasons for that:
(1) not everyone imitates in the same way, not everyone
imitates the same people, which leads to the emergence
of various clusters rather than just one big homogeneous
cluster; in other words, there is no global mixing in
(2) there is a form of saturation taking place, for
example when too many people have adopted a fashion,
it stops being cool; or people get tired of something,
so their propensity to imitate decreases; think of an
epidemic, the reason it stops is because many people
have become immunized.
Economic clusterization, as Michael Porter pointed
out since the 80's, is an exception, a "good"
output of a flocking behaviour?
I am not sure that economic clusters really fall into
the category of imitation-driven strategy. There are
many factors that may play a role as well, such as the
local presence of skilled labour. But yes, sometimes
imitation is good.
Creative Imitation is a good way, like the so-called
Japanese strategy since the 50's?
Absolutely, imitating imperfectly or customizing the
thing that is being imitated can be a source of creativity.
More than contrarian, I would say it requires the
ability to see beyond what others are doing.
Innovation is only possible with a contrarian behaviour?
That or errors in the imitation process. Actually,
more than contrarian, I would say it requires the ability
to see beyond what others are doing.
With the emergence of the so-called knowledge society
and economy, the self-referential fashion society will
boom or decline?
I think its importance is rising every day, but I am
not sure what the consequences are going to be.