Symbiotic Economy: innovate to serve the common good

The symbiotic economy is a term coined by Isabelle Delannoy in her book “Symbiotic economy: Regenerate the planet, the economy and the society” published in 2017. 


In our series “Unlocking the locked, and the possible”, we are going to meet several concepts the author strongly uses to build her argument, and it’s in this spirit that I would like to rely on her book, taking it as an alibi to talk about permaculture, circular economy, the economy of functionality and sharing, social and solidarity economy, complementary currencies… As many ideas of which she proposes a synthesis, drawing a peculiar line of thought from it. 


Let’s first, as we should always do, attach ourselves to the primary meaning of the word composing her coined concept. Economy comes from the Greek “oikonomia”, of which is deriving “oikos”, meaning the house, and the word “nomos”, meaning to administrate, manage, especially a house or the goods related to it. The Economy would then mean administering a house, the goods, and possessions of someone, and by great extension, an entire system such as a country. On the other hand, symbiosis comes from the Greek “sun”, meaning “altogether”, and “bios”, “life”. It is referred to as a sustainable association between at least two entities entering a prosperous and lasting relationship. 


A symbiotic economy would be a way of organizing and administering societies allowing to keep life, its components, and its necessities, sustainably, and proactively altogether. Indeed, the proposed concept is based on the idea of a symbiosis between human intelligence, the power of natural ecosystems, and the technosphere (the tools, in a broad meaning as the Greek defined the “teknè”). By finding the right balance between the three, it would be possible to produce without depleting resources, but by regenerating them. In regenerating, the circular economy plays an important role: we will spend an entire episode exploring it. 


Delannoy’s book presents solutions that are emerging around the world and mitigate the ecological crisis.  Coming from citizens, companies, communities, they have to do with the circular or collaborative economy, ecological engineering, functional economics, biomimicry, permaculture, agroecology, complementary currencies, open-source, etc. Under the diversity of terms and appearances, they proceed from the same logic, but none is sufficient in itself: they are complementary and come into synergy, which is the core of the “symbiotic” reference. 


Citizens are a key in initiatives towards sustainability, according to the author. In Germany, for example, 51% of renewable energy production has been created thanks to the involvement of citizen cooperatives initiated by residents, communities and farmers. People and their territory are the center and the mechanism of change: the economy should start from the territories where most of the resources are available. The latter can become, with particular ecological engineering techniques, autonomous or close to autonomy on all essential needs: food, materials for construction, supply of pure water, waste treatment, goods equipment, etc. On a global level, according to her, it is rather goods with high added value that should be traded, while we should relocalize and recentralize our economies on goods available locally. 


But today, the capitalist economy is based on the extraction and depletion of natural resources, polluting and refuting any serious environmental responsibility: then, how could a theoretical idea like this one pretend to change an entire global organization? Yet Isabelle Delannoy doesn’t pretend nor wish to change the system. She advocates the process of creating a new system and ultimately a metamorphosis of the current one. The elements in the pot are the same, simply they are not organized in the same way, as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two different expressions of the same reality. 


For her, capitalism isn’t the “right path”, as a lot of projects are very little capitalistic in the whole concept of the symbiotic economy – the shared garden, for example. Yet, there is still the need to inject capital in a lot of fields to make them work, especially in mobility, with the transition to a more sustainable model of transportation. In these fields, the key point is then the leadership and governance model, without which no transition can be made. We should bet on a cooperative and decentralized model of leadership and enterprise. 


Revealed two years ago and being still a very unknown concept, the “symbiotic economy” is of great interest in a post-crisis world as the one we are preparing ourselves for, ravaged by the effects of the pandemic. It proposes an ecological and systemic approach taking into account nature in its complexity, as Green Capitalism tends to forget in proposing to ease the damages committed on biodiversity and life by financing its salvation; an absurd contemporary trend looking like the release of water from a bath we are still filling up. 


The crisis has brought us the possibility and the will to question ourselves about the ethics of our means of production, the organization of our cities, transportations, houses, and energy. We are in a transition period, between the existing, the realized, and the potential. A symbiotic economy is only an interpretation of the better version we are legitimate to ask and draw for the world. 


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Grab the Kairos, design the future. 


Clémence MAQUET 


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