Implications of a machine economy

Natural ecosystems to inspire machine ecosystems

The Machine Economy track at the 2018 Blockchaingers Hackathon asks teams to build a machine-to-machine-ecosystem, that disrupts our current system, and that is beneficial to society. This is not an easy task and it can be hard knowing where to start. Maybe nature can provide some inspiration. Let’s look at how ecosystems are organized, and how nature is abundant towards all participants.

Natural ecosystems vs human society

One prominent difference between natural ecosystems and human society is how we manage resources. Many humans today have a feeling of scarcity. We want more, even though we don’t really need it 1. More is always better, right? Success is measured by who has the most, the biggest. To me this is not sustainable and at some point we will bleed natural resources dry.

Nature on the other hand rarely hoards resources. An ecosystem constantly works towards a balance where available resources are used, but not overused. With that, there is enough. And there is no waste – everything is a resource to someone. When there’s not enough, nature balances itself. It’s a sustainable, long-term balance compared to the human system, where somehow quarterly profit reports dictate policy.

Abundance in solar energy

One example of an abundant resource is solar energy. Plants get their energy from the sun. But it’s not always readily available to everyone who needs it, when they need it. In a forest it’s solved by cooperation. Bigger trees share carbon 2 with seedlings and smaller trees that are shaded, and do not have the same access to the sun. Energy is also shared between leafy trees and evergreens between seasons 3. But trees do not have a currency. They don’t get paid per unit energy they share. So why do they share resources? Because it benefits the forest, the society. It benefits their offspring. It gives a healthy forest, a healthy ecosystem where they can grow old. The alternative is to compete for the sun and grow as tall as they can as fast as they can but that will make them less resistant to storms or other attacks.

It’s all about scale

If we humans would be able to mimicking natures efficiency in capturing solar energy, it is still only child’s play. Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardeshev devised a scale to measure a civilization’s technological advancement based on how much usable energy it has at its disposal. Right now we are a lowly Type 0 civilization 4 – getting most of our energy from old, dead plants and animals. We become a Type 1 civilization when we can harvest 100% of the solar energy that hits earth. But that is still just a baby step in comparison to the energy in our solar system (Type 2) or in the galaxy (Type 3).

So my challenge to you: stop thinking how hard it is to harvest all the earths solar energy, and start thinking interstellar scale. Perhaps that puts the current challenge in perspective.

Oceanworld | by NASA
In the right perspective, any problem can look comparatively easy. What does thinking on and interstellar scale about solar energy give you?

Sharing information

Forests don’t just share physical resources they also share information. For example, a larvae could attack some plants or trees in the forest. The attacked plants then send out airborne chemicals 5 that attract the natural enemy of the larvae. Depending on what pest is attacking, the signal changes to attract the appropriate rescue. The chemical signal is also interpreted by nearby plants as a warning signal. It helps them prepare their defences in time. Research suggests that the older trees have vast experience from different previous attacks. They know what defences could work and share this information with other trees on the mycelium network.

Mycelium network | Kirill Ignatyev on Flickr | (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The mycelium’s role in the forest goes way beyond the old perception of a waste disposal system. It is basically an IOTA like DLT for the forest.

Cooperation between humans could be sharing of physical resources or sharing ideas, solutions, and creative resources. With more open source information us humans could mimic nature and work towards a healthy ecosystem. We can have a healthy society where we share ideas for the greater good, including our own long term benefit, as opposed to keeping them for ourselves for short term monetary gain.

People are working on making machine ecosystems based on these ideas. Are you? How does your ecosystem communicate and distribute information? Can it do that in a decentralized way? And does it fairly reward all participants, or can it even do without keeping a score? Can you let go of current ideas for a data marketplace where information is bought and sold, and take it a few steps further?

Waste as a circular resource

Another important feature of natural ecosystems is circularity. If we stay in the forest: the trees are part of a bigger ecosystem. These giants have a symbiotic relationship with fungus. With their leaves they provide carbon for the fungus. In return the fungus can break down soil and provide nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients.

The fungal network is also crucial for soil quality, water retention and water purification. Over time this contributes to healthy rivers, which in turn are beneficial for the fish population. The fish is hunted by animals such as wolves, bears, and birds and subsequently eaten in the forest. The leftovers contain nutrients that are absorbed by the fungus and distributed to the trees helping them grow strong and healthy. This is not to mention the cycle of life and death and how insects and bacteria break down debris and dead animals and make the nutrients available again to the ecosystem. There is no waste. One actor’s trash is another actor’s resource.

Us humans have taken the first steps by recycling some waste, but far from enough. The plastic and other waste found in the Pacific trash vortex or other ‘plastic islands’ in our oceans are a mind-boggling proof of that. If you are devising a machine ecosystem, can you design it to not only take waste into account, but also utilize all resources to it’s full extent?


Our current society is not sustainable. Not just in an environmental sense. Our society is suffering from inequality, unhappiness, stress, health problems, dirty air, dirty water, diminishing resources. Do you want to change that? It can be done differently. When you try to get out of the current paradigm, to change the world, do you look at nature as inspiration?

Natural ecosystems thrive on

  • abundance/enough (vs scarcity),
  • sharing of physical and intellectual resources (vs hoarding),
  • and circularity (vs single purpose).

We can build a machine economy based on the same principles. Machines are not greedy. A machine ecosystem can be designed to benefit the common good. There is already (solar) energy in abundance to power such a system.

Inspiration for Hackathon

This post is part of a series providing inspiration from nature for participants at the Blockchaingers Hackathon, specifically for the Machine Economy track. Read more about:

About the author

Hanna van Sambeek

Macroeconomist with a heart for sustainability, looking for the next challenge. My goal in life is to leave the world behind a lot cleaner, healthier and fairer than I found it.


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Implications of a machine economy