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«Imitating imperfectly or customizing the thing that is being imitated can be a source of creativity»

An interview with Eric Bonabeau

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

Company website Icosystem
|The Perils of the Imitation Age (article at Harvard Business Review, June 2004 edition)


- Creative copycat or imitating with errors could be an opportunity for innovation;
- Be second - correct, adapt, and customize your competitor's innovation;
- The homogenizing nature of best practices can destroy value for corporations. Mindless imitation is value destruction;
- 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:

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 such knowledge.

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 and creativity.

Benchmarking is a dangerous tool for management practice?

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. Why?

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 imitation;
(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.

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