Of parasites and pests ….. and regulators?

A couple of days ago I read a headline in the Financial Times (strange, the things I get up to on vacation!):

Airlines and their regulator too “collaborative” says watchdog

You can find the article here. [For some reason, the headline in the print copy is not the headline in the linked article, but the change of headline is not germane to this post.]

The juxtaposition of the airline, regulator and watchdog took me on one of my traditional flights of fancy, and I thought I’d share it with you, and learn from your comments and links.

Many years ago, I worked at Silwood Park, an Imperial College research campus near Ascot, Berkshire. I used to travel in on the White Bus from Windsor (where I still live), serenely passing through the Great Park against the grain of the traffic before getting off the bus approaching Sunninghill.

Most of the passengers were regulars, as was Alan, the pipe-smoking genial driver. [I still see Alan in WIndsor every now and then, though he’s retired now]. Most of the passengers were forty years older than me, going about their morning errands and chores, shaven, shorn and dressed for the day; theirs was a generation of immense discipline and courage, and it showed in their retirement.

There was only one other passenger anywhere near my age, long-haired, bejeaned and Jesus-bearded. I cannot recall his name (this was over 20 years ago) but I do recall what he said he did.

And what he did was this: Using formal research methods, he sought to identify the parasite and the pest that went with a particular plant. Apparently, as human migration continued through the ages, we took our plants with us. And, usually accidentally, we took the related pest or parasite as well.

But rarely both. Since we didn’t know what we were doing, we tended to take plant+pest or plant+parasite, all by happenstance, and as a result the plant turned out to be unstable in the ecosystem it was transplanted into.

So this guy, and his colleagues, spent all their time trying to locate the precise pest or parasite that had been “disembarked”, with a view to repairing the ecosystem imbalance.

I found all this fascinating, and have spent time reading up on the different forms of symbiosis as a result, seeking to understand the difference between pests and parasites and their relationships and interactions with the “host”.

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s because I’m on vacation, but the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the “…regulator too collaborative…” headline was: plant: parasite: pest.

We have much we can learn from biology, but until now I did not consider regulatory models to be part of that set. Now, having considered this for a few days, I am intrigued.

Can we come up with a market model where participants are “hosts”, regulators are “parasites” and watchdogs are “pests”? Can we learn to model these things objectively, without reacting to negative connotations of the terms themselves?

Well, aqualung, (since you tweeted the question) that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How to create a better model for market regulation, one that creates a balanced ecosystem. How to learn from nature in doing this, in conceptualising it.

I won’t bore you guys with the rest, I’ve been working on quite an elaborate model: what I will say is that there is scope to build out many related concepts: the obligate relationship between the host and the parasite, the lack of an obligate relationship between the host and the pest; how the pest keeps parasite numbers down; how the parasite protects the plant from the pest.

Just the kind of stuff I like thinking about on vacation.

Comments welcome.

8 thoughts on “Of parasites and pests ….. and regulators?”

  1. and just as I thought, it was worth waiting for!

    How complex a model do you want to build? I’m thinking in terms not just of the symbiosis you describe but also the more complex situation where you have complementary symbioses (?sp) – where in nature you have plants which thrive together, do you get businesses/industries which do better together because of complementary parasites, for example?

  2. Ric, as I look into symbiosis I learn more and more. How many types of symbiosis exist. The roles of the actors in a “symbiotic market”, for want of a better phrase. The relationship between symbiosis and ecosystem.

    Ten years ago I was looking at something similar when trying to understand VC “incubator” portfolios, there seemed to be very similar lessons. In fact VCs like CMGi were building ecosystems within their portfolio, but the role of the pest and the parasite hadn’t been well understood.

    Incidentally, headline in today’s New York Times:

    A Lender Failed. Did Its Auditor?

    Interesting question. And what about the regulator? What about other market participants?

  3. JP – I too believe that there is much we can learn from the natural world and apply in society. Fascinating blog post, or at least the further thoughts you hint at. Thanks – Will.

  4. Very interesting thoughts. The work of the “original” cyberneticians, in particular Stafford Beer, laid a lot of the groundwork that proves the applicability of natural system models to human organisations. Beer’s VSM, which uses the human nervous system as the basis of the model, is worth a look – regulatory apparatus being built-in.

    I never understood why Beer’s work never garnered more practical applications. It is extraordinarily insightful stuff.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys. I will make sure I look further into Stafford Beer. Someone pointed me at Brain of the Firm quite some years ago, but I was put off at the price….. I pay for all my books myself rather than charge on expenses. But now that you bring it up, I think I will make use of the dollar exchange rate and buy up a job lot of Stafford Beer classics.

  6. Andy said, “I never understood why Beer’s work never garnered more practical applications. It is extraordinarily insightful stuff.”

    Praise be! Another Beer afficianado. I have been a huge fan since stumbling on his work when doing my doctorate some years ago. I was exploring optimised local autonomy on manufacturing shopflors, while maintaining simultaneously centralised control.

    It seemed to me that the VSM offered a set of guiding (regulating) principles to achieve exactly that.

Let me know what you think

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