Competition – a cautionary tale

The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities – communities that are designed in such a way that their ways of life, businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavour is to understand the principles of organization that ecosystems have developed to sustain the web of life”. 

Fritjof Capra. The Hidden Connections (London:Flamingo, 2003).

Our current understanding of learning from nature is to misquote Darwin, stating the ‘survival of the fittest’ will allow nature’s competitiveness to select the winners and that this will be ‘efficient’. Darwin actually spoke about the ‘survival of the fitting’ which gives a very different meaning and thus a very different engagement process. Our structures, reward systems, measurement tools all focus on how to measure individual winners. We have very little promotion of collective activity as another approach to getting things done.

Yet competition is a dominant strand in public policy making. “We need to restore competitiveness” is a frequent cry in the business pages of our newspapers.  Other experiences reinforce this: it seems to produce ‘excellence’ in sport, so why not ‘excellence’ in the ‘economy’?  We have “competition commissions and authorities”  but no comparable public bodies to promote cooperation and its attendant meanings and values. Indeed, the idea of co-operation is viewed with some suspicion as it is tainted with compromise, dilution and other supposedly negative ideas.

The academic environment does little to foster ideas which provide a counterweight to the ‘conventional wisdom’. The typical textbook spends many pages setting out (in tedious detail) the requirements and benefits of perfect competition, a theoretical construct which is never achieved  in ‘real life’.  Students study, absorb and regurgitate this stuff – often with only partial understanding – and then pass into ‘real life’ with only a vague notion of its being a ‘good idea’.

There are many adverse consequences of giving ‘competition’ a central place as a guide to policy making.  An interesting account of some of them can be found in a paper by the radical economist Neva Goodwin: What You Didn’t Learn in Ec 101, obtainable from the website

One she does not mention – but which is very striking in the context of Ireland – was the competition between banks to keep up with each over the financing of inappropriate development. The single measurement tool of economic profit blurred the wider consequences of the activities pursued in the drive to be competition winners.

Competition has its uses, but it should not enjoy an unquestioned status.  We need more than simple ‘price signals’; we need societies which are more equal in terms of the distribution of incomes and financial wealth; we need citizens who can thereby better discern good from pseudo-good outcomes, as well as be more aware of the out-and-out bad outcomes.

We need an economics which draws careful conclusions with an explicit ethical position, and economists, politicians and decision makers who can use such analyses.  We shall not get there in one jump – but we shall not get there at all by using crude economic terms such as competition and efficiency as uncritical descriptors of ‘good policy making.’

What this means for organisations moving towards sustainability


We are seeing emerge a promising way of conducting business that is more co-operative and collaborative. Some of this is driven by technology which is allowing us to connect widely with real time interaction – see the success of Dublin Bikes or Go-Car as examples. A lot of this new business development is exemplified by social entreprises across the country. Really interesting work is being done by community based organisations who work within a strict economic budget, adhere to very strong social and environmental ethos which results in improving the living conditions of all stakeholders.

We have seen the demise of co-operatives as a business model here in Ireland over the last few decades with the sale of the mutual societies to shareholder companies. This was promoted as necessary in the drive for competitiveness and efficiency. We have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater and neglected the good points of operating within a co-operative structure.

The current programme for government has vowed to examine the legislative framework for co-operatives which are out of date and hamper the development of new entities. Places like Spain, Quebec and New Brunswick have developed new, more fitting structures to meet the changing needs.

Cooperation’brings to mind two further concepts with powerful implications: synergy and symbiosis.  In biology, these terms have particular meanings:

Symbiosis: Association of two different organisms which live attached to each other … and contribute to each others’ supports

Synergy: the combined power of a group of things when they are working together which is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately

In adapting these to the world of work we can read ‘businesses or community’ for ‘organism’. We have a lot to learn from natural systems if we are prepared to be humble enough to allow for real change.  Although the distinctions blur a little, reflecting on them yields a wealth of possibilities.

To illustrate, consider a simple example. Defunct and obsolete electrical and electronic equipment is a large component of the waste stream.  Some can be repaired, some are irreparable.  All have some value. Meanwhile, we have people unemployed and under skilled.  Perhaps they could be trained to test and repair this equipment? Or to strip it down, safely, so as to recover usable components and materials? This could be used as an input to some businesses and as a cost reduction for others. The SMILE resource network in Cork is a fine example of loose co-operation between firms focussing on exchanging ‘waste’ materials.

So now we have some synergies: valuable tasks to be done, ‘human and social capital’ (if one may use these terms) to be developed, the waste stream to be reduced.

There is also an educational aspect to this. We need to learn – from many examples – that nothing can be ‘thrown away’.  There is no ‘away’.  So the work can raise awareness about obsolete electrical and electronic equipment: the scale of its contribution to the “waste” stream and its potentially harmful effect on the environment; an understanding of the value of some of the materials which can be (and should be) recovered; the potential for repair and reuse and its disposal.  And so on. A simple ‘gallery’, which allows a viewing of the work and its achievements, can contribute to raising awareness.

The experience of such an enterprise needs to be shared openly. We need to learn how these collections should be organised, we need to  gather technical advice on repair and refurbishment of the equipment and many more. So opportunities arise for a ‘consultancy’ arm to the work.  We are now into ‘win’ in at least three ways. Ways which require the diversity of talents among us to be used and valued! We have seen how open collaboration can work using technology in the form of Wiki’s and other platforms. How willing people are to co-operate and share, if given the opportunity.

Unfettered competition suits the ultimate winner but loses many and wastes alot in the process. Many organisations can develop co-operative or collaborative ventures around their core activities. This can be done with the efficiency of the whole system as the beneficiary. It takes brave innovative thinking, some courageous enquiry and a clear determination to build synergies with symbiotic partners.

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