Pattern #43

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Healthy Competition / Cooperation Dynamics

Cooperative dynamics generate power-with that channels collective energies towards shared accomplishment. But cooperative dynamics can also undermine diversity and initiative. Competitive dynamics can promote quality improvement and choice — but they can also promote domination and harm. So understand and wisely weave together the healthy dynamics of both.

  • What does competition contribute to the development and quality of life? What are its pitfalls, dangers, and downsides – and when do they show up? How can we best work with these dynamics?
  • What does cooperation contribute to the development and quality of life? What are its pitfalls, dangers, and downsides – and when do they show up? How can we best work with these dynamics?
  • In what ways can competition contribute to cooperation? Do you know examples of that?
  • In what ways can cooperation contribute to competition? Do you know examples of that
  • How can we best use competition and cooperation to co-create vibrantly sustainable communities and civilizations on Earth?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

This pattern has a great picture of these kids pulling in tug-of-war against each other. So there’s cooperation on each side and competition between the teams. That’s really interesting because this is an evolutionary dynamic which we see a lot of in the corporate world and in politics – the sense of people cooperating in teams in order to win a competition against other teams. The cooperation is embedded in a competitive frame of reference.

I read a really interesting book called “Nonzero“ on evolution, which looks at the civilizational predicament we are in right now. In the history of evolution and in the history of the universe and the history of life you see more and more this pattern of entities combining together into larger entities that can do things the smaller entities couldn’t. And that’s been building up since subatomic particles all the way up to people in global economic systems. At all levels, we see this phenomenon of functional complexity being built out of smaller parts which are themselves built out of smaller parts and smaller parts and smaller parts… it goes on virtually forever.

That dynamic is largely run by this logic: If we cooperate we can better compete for resources to further our survival in the larger evolutionary world. But the author of “Nonzero” is saying that our most relevant context has today changed from local to global:  we can no longer afford to focus on winning by competing. We need to have cooperation become the context within which competition happens, rather than the other way around.

We need to globally build cooperative systems within which various forms of competition can safely happen. At the scale of the planet, the downsides of poorly managed competition can be terminal for human existence.

It is not that competition is bad. Competition is still great. Consider the Olympics. We think of Olympics as a great enterprise undertaken by all of humanity. All these teams and individuals are competing intensively with each other and they have gone through intensive training and their whole spirit is to compete to win. But the whole operation, the whole activity itself is symbolic of multinational global cooperation. We maintain that practice of every four years doing another exercise in competition as something that we do together in good sportsmanship. What is called “good sportsmanship” is largely about making sure your competitive spirit is contained within the assumptions and spirit of cooperation.

You can see that even in nature. There is lots of cooperation in nature. There’s major research done on the amount of cooperation, of synergies, of mutual dependencies in nature – even in the predator-prey relationship, which is the ultimate sort of competition, in the sense that I’m going to kill you to eat you. It is like I will dominate you and get rid of you.

But predator-prey relationships actually are cooperative when seen in the larger picture. If foxes eat too many rabbits, the rabbit population crashes and the foxes starve. And if the rabbits become too numerous and quick and hard to catch, the foxes starve and the rabbits multiply and eat up all their food sources so there’s nothing left to eat and they starve.  The populations of rabbits and foxes fluctuate with these dynamics, ensuring that there’s a balanced dance or feedback loop between the numbers and capacities of foxes and rabbits, generating healthy populations of both.

We need to attend to the extent to which we’ve managed to step out of that dynamic.  We are like the rabbits in the sense that we are voraciously and unsustainably consuming everything we need. But we are now also the dominant predator on the planet. It’s mostly just microbes that prey on us, and we’re constantly “winning the war” on disease. But as the dominant predator who is consuming our environment, our niche, we are ironically in danger.  That destabilizing dynamic will destroy us as we become more and more successful at doing this thing that we are already really good at. We will wipe ourselves out.

So this requires rethinking what’s going on. We should focus our competition on those things which will help us all survive. Like who can create the most powerful solar cell – that’s a good competition.

Michael Milken, the so-called junk-bond king, was a financier who ended up spending jail time for his wild financing and junk bonds. When he got out of jail he found he had prostate cancer.  In the process of addressing his own need for cancer treatment, he recreated the whole field of cancer research funding.

What existed when he came out of jail was researchers fighting for grants from the government.  They kept their research really secret so that they would have the best chance of getting and keeping funding and profiting from it. Noting how this constipated the whole process of research, Milken created a collaborative micro-funding system that worked like this: If you have a good idea, we will give you enough money to test it for a year – and then you have to bring the report of your research to a conference where everybody is openly sharing their research. If evaluation finds that what you have is really hot, then you will get more funding.  But you have to start out from this collaborative position, in which everyone is learning from everyone else. So he changed the whole dynamics of funding for this kind of research. I think that is a great example of the kind of flipping that we need to do, into new forms of collaborative competition.

We need increasingly to have people, communities, families and individuals sharing resources.  We need a creatively competitive and collaborative game to build whole-society, whole-system cooperation. It is like who can share best, who can create tool libraries that actually work? Who can create local currencies that actually work? Who can do the things that we need to do to reduce our consumption and live more meaningful lives? People can share in an open source spirit of competition for reputation: they share their innovations and information, but there is a sense of pride, in that “we came up with the best idea for doing that – and everyone knows it!”

These are some of the healthy competition-cooperation dynamics.  And in using them we’re trying to avoid both the destruction that can come with too much competition AND the flattening of life energy that can come from cooperation grounded in conformity.  We don’t want energies that say “You’re either with us or against us, so shut up!” or “If you’re going to work on this team you gotta be a team player! Don’t share your disagreements, keep them to yourself!” That kind of pseudo-cooperation can end up suffocating the life energy and information flows needed for group effectiveness and wisdom.

So let’s value our diversity and translate it into ways that can actually add up to more and more and more. That’s the essence of this pattern.