Biology teems with examples of adaptive systems. The human immune system, for example, exhibits adaptation that enables it to cope with an unpredictable and virtually infinitely diverse set of pathogens. In spite of its sophistication, it can mobilize itself against threats by using “rules” and properties intrinsic to the system, rather than taking direction from the brain in a top-down manner. Some of those properties include the following:
- Diversity is enabled by modularity. The recombination of modular molecular structures enables a small number of genes to generate a vast number of different antigen receptors.
- Tight feedback loops facilitate rapid responses. When activated by a particular pathogen, specialized cells accelerate the production of large numbers of specific antibodies to counter a threat.
- Learning is built into the system. Far from operating with a rigid design, the immune system “remembers” previous threats and adapts its tool kit to increase its effectiveness over time.
- Redundancy is key. The antibody response described above is only one of several overlapping subsystems of the immune system that enable it to respond to different kinds of threats over different timeframes.
As we continue to learn more about biological systems, we are likely to uncover many more insights into how to structure, evolve, manage, and sustain advantaged and adaptive business systems.