Ecosystem: A growing metaphor in the discourse of business and finance

A bee sits on a thistle. Photo credit Sandy Millar

By Leigha Smith, MA student, Concordia University

In a 1994 anthology titled Natural Images in Economic Thought (edited by Philip Mirowski), researchers analyze how tropes imported from biology have been used to structure various economic rationalities throughout history. In the context of business, the use of natural imagery is especially prominent in James Moore's 1993 article, "Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition," and his follow-up 1996 book, The Death of Competition: Leadership & Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems. In this book aimed at corporate leaders, Moore explicitly calls for a replacement of the term "industry" with "business ecosystem," arguing that the latter "circumscribes the microeconomies of intense coevolution coalescing around innovative ideas" (Moore 1996, 23). Put more simply, businesses should see the benefit of cooperation as they grow rather than focusing on themselves as self-contained systems. As corporations at the time coped with the impact of globalization and rapidly changing technology in the 1990’s, the ecosystem metaphor took root.
In a talk at the 2023 Canadian Association for Translation Studies Conference, Pier-Pascale Boulanger explored how the ecosystem metaphor is used by the Bank of Canada and the Toronto Stock Exchange (hence TSX): Does "ecosystem" sometimes refer to a gamut of cooperative interrelationships (think of a flower and a bee), and at other times refer to non-cooperative relationships—for instance, between parasite and host, or predator and prey?
The function of metaphors is to influence how people think about business and the economy—and how they act in relation to it. Most striking about the "ecosystem" discourse is how it frames negativity. Natural detracting functions inherent in a true ecosystem that are perceived as negative—for example, predation, parasitism, and decay—do not appear in financial "ecosystem" discourse, according to Boulanger. Even disaster analogies are not above a positive spin: forest fires and floods may seem destructive, as James Moore notes in his 1996 book, but they also leave fertile ground in their wake. Ecosystem analogies in a corpus of texts gathered from the Bank of Canada and TSX websites illustrate this point especially well: In the language surrounding the word "ecosystem/écosystème," themes of evolution and adaptation were repeatedly used by both institutions. Language of vitality, meanwhile, strove to create the impression of a robust and tenacious financial market (TSX). Interconnectedness was invoked at other times to convey the need to maintain a holistic view of all members of an ecosystem as interdependent (Bank of Canada). 
The effectiveness of these analogies in constructing social realities becomes especially obvious when negative aspects of nature are invoked in these descriptions. Boulanger discovered that the Bank of Canada was willing to acknowledge external and internal sources of risk, such as cyberattacks, financial technology, and debt. The Bank of Canada was even willing to use the word "contagion" when discussing the risks inherent to interdependent institutions during financial crises, marking one of the few destructive natural analogies used in financial discourse. Such acknowledgement that the members of an ecosystem may not always cooperate is especially remarkable in contrast with the TSX's more promotional use of “ecosystem” that speaks to the vitality of its growing stock exchange. These differences illuminate how the function of "ecosystem/écosystème" analogies change depending on the source employing them. Notably, the TSX press releases were less likely to use natural analogies to convey collaboration or mutuality, while the Bank of Canada relied on ecosystem metaphors to convey ideas of evolution and interconnectedness—as well as of the risks of being interconnected.
The role of the organization, then, appears to affect the role of the metaphor. Yet if we are hesitant to accept the TSX's exercise of abounding confidence, another salient question might be what the Bank of Canada's use of the metaphor—which seems comparatively more balanced, at least in its acknowledgement of risk—may be obscuring from us. Regardless of the source, a reader encountering "ecosystem/écosystème" metaphor would likely be astute to ask: If our economy is an ecosystem, who among us is prey?


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