Families and Tribes – A semiotic reading of the business incubation world


A semiotic reading of the business incubation world, towards a model of collaborative incubation between small ecosystems.

This article originally appeared in Italian on Doppiozero

Since a few years something interesting has been observed around the word “incubation”. Metaphorology scholars define it as “catachresis”. As happens (happened) to the Italian locution “la gamba del tavolo” (the table leg), we are dealing with a phenomenon where a metaphor settles itself in our language, moving from being a “tropo” to real language, so passing from being a rhetoric figure to an independent item included in dictionaries and encyclopaedias.  The expression does not need any more to make different worlds communicate with each other (which is the main aim of the metaphors). In our days no one while saying “table leg” has the impression of being using a metaphor. In the same way, (almost) no one, speaking about “incubation”, really means to link the neonatology world to the start-up devices.

The word “incubation” has the power to create narrations so visionary and so relevant, but today it is living a saturation phase. There is enough space for a new way of business incubation, which could refill the hole created by lack of sense and activity in the world of support to the companies and that could go even further, opening new generations of modelling metaphors.

What is an incubator? According to the European Commission, during the 90’, was considered “incubator” a space where to concentrate services and support for the start-ups. Lately, at the beginning of the next decade, this definition already underwent a transformation. An incubator is not a space anymore but an organization, an activating subject, an accellerator, who provides services between which an incubation-space, services for supporting the business idea, network creations and opportunities. The definition even tells us that realizing a typology of incubators is possible with a preventive check of some broad variables: rules of employment and admission, functions and services, intensity of the supporting action. In the same report also appears a diagram that tries to make a topologic (in addition to a typologic) representation of the incubators:

The two dimensions on which the map is constructed are the technological level and the management assistance. It means that the main features of the incubation, underlined by this source, are the financial support and the type of activity generated by the helped start up/s.

An important role is still played by the physical dimension of the “incubator” as a place, be it a park or a centre. In the following years, this word turned into an umbrella-term: it detached itself from the single activity to embrace a broader range of experiences, going from education to services providing, assistance, sponsor searching.

Back to the narrative sphere, “incubator” has an interesting oscillation of meaning, never taken afloat. Differently from what happens in the Italian language, where the word incubator is used both with a male and a female meaning, in the English one, the female acceptation doesn’t exist, making the word far from its bond with a maternal meaning.

The smart marketing is made of leading narrations: abstracts stories that deals with a complex system of values. An example of leading narration is the myth, which at the same time is general and peculiar. The myth, as all leading narrations, is so effective as it activates those values that represent the basis of a society. Myths are simplifications full of meaning. The narration that has been dominating during these years of fast development in the business support area is based on a kind of familiar relationship, as the one between father or mother and son, whose main feature is the support. In the paternal case, chronologically preceeding the second one, the support came out through the perspective of an economic remuneration; in the maternal one instead, through the physical take caring by giving spaces and other assets for the business development. It is as if we were saying (in this dominant and simplifying narrative) that the father gives a pocket money every month, while the mother takes care of the son. Both the parents make their sons depend on them for heir survival, in a kind of relationship one-to-one. As we can see, in the semiotic square standing downward (like a figurative Cartesian Diagram), in the upper axis are settled the two ruling logics, while in the lower one we find the logics of formation (quite totally paternal) and acceleration (quite totally maternal).

When we put in the diagram all the traditional incubation experiences, expression of the tension generated by these two values, we notice that there are more crowded sections contrasted by sections which are almost empty, and which could therefore be available for new players entering the market.

In all the experiences present in the diagram we observe the activation of a hierarchical relationship between the incubator and the incubated subject. Horizontal links are missing. In the open-innovation world, but generally in the collaboration sphere too, a more “collaborative” kind of narration can be discovered. In order to realize it we need a new leading narration, not based on parenting relationships anymore. In the main narration of traditional incubation, in fact, the collaborative logic brings to a negative competition (as between brothers). What we really need is a different logic, similar to the one  that we have found studying the scientific communities, where collaborative platforms are already used in order to realize open innovation (in research), but ,moreover, that we have found during two years of considerations (shared between Kilowatt and  Social Lab)  developed thanks to the CoopUp Bologna experience.

In our experience (CoopUp Bologna as first experiment of community business incubation, ie. incubation ecosystem – our tribe) we noticed a different logic: more “tribal”, based on the construction of a practice and knowledge community, of a collaborative network, of tools for value distribution and creation, of opportunities for exchange, relationship and comparison, in a common growth perspective. To this, we want to dedicate the proposal of collaborative incubation, dedicated not to a single start-up but to ecosystems of new enterprises that are growing together (even together with already existing and structured companies). This proposal might not be suitable for all new businesses. Our experience is addressed in particular to the so-called cohesive companies, as defined by Domenico Sturabotti and Paolo Venturi, and in general to the startups with a “social vocation”, attentive to their impact and consequently not always feeling comfortable with a form of support that promotes a development model very different from that for which they – the new enterprises – have decided, in the first instance, to start a business.

It is possible and perhaps necessary to move from the familiar logic towards a collaborative logic: from the concept of family – dependence, to that tribe, where there is not a parent, but a chieftain – or a shaman – coordinating all (the community, the chain , etc.) and needing everyone to be independent but collaborative (and conscious), so that the whole community functions. The chieftain has to win the confidence of the community, which the parent is not required to do.

We must try to explore a new incubation narrative, starting from a new ecosystem model based on relationships, trust and community. We have grown too used (we catacresizzati) to import without reflecting models from outside, “in the periphery of the empire”, as it was common to say few decades ago. The economic and especially financial magnetism of the Silicon Valley has become a cultural values and entrepreneurial magnetism. Everyone’s commitment should be to recover a European and cooperative approach to the company support. It is specially for this reason that the tribe seems to us a narration which is worth exploring.

The ecosystem incubation square takes to hart the experiences developed in the last year in the open innovation field. It “contains” the traditional incubation square in the top-left corner, it displays open innovation in the bottom-left corner,  the research and development and peer to peer experiences in the bottom-right corner and also leaves open an almost plain space in top-right corner. To say it differently: it is coming to maturity.

In the square of community incubation, in the collaborative and mutualistic ecosystem support, there is need of new figures. The first is a tribal chief, who brings into the system “soft” and interpersonal skills and tools of community organizing. He is in some ways shamanic: his relationships are based on a trust channel, he must be able to read the “health” of an entire community, he needs to know how to manage community-driven dynamics. He is able to go beyond the single sector and above all he knows how to manage in a participatory way the community engagement dynamics. Finally, he knows how not to create dependence on its presence.

But there is not only the head of the tribe, the shaman who knows how to have a systemic vision, the community ecosystem managers. There are also the “community leaders”, situational leaders that activate according to their own talents and skills: those who depending on the specific objective can activate and strengthen the accountability of the entire ecosystem. In open innovation there can be large organizations who work as flying start, which signal a need for innovation that can then activate different collective growth experiences. But also, communities and informal groups, pushed by intense motivation, competence, talent.

The tribe operates as a system in which cooperation prevails over competition. The tribal chief maintains the vision and is able to measure out the roles of the community participants. In the semiotic square of collaborative incubation it is important to firstly populate the team of interlocutors who accept the challenge to co-manage their role as community leaders. We are in an almost-smooth space, more rhizomic that hierarchical, where wit is more important to know how to manage relationships than how to defend positions. “In the smooth […] the points are subordinated to the journey”, was said in Mille plateaux of Deleuze and Guattari. A common journey.



In questo articolo, originariamente pubblicato su Doppiozero, Gaspare Caliri propone una lettura semiotica del mondo dell’incubazione d’impresa e ripercorre la storia del termine “incubazione”, nato come una metafora ed ormai entrato nei nostri dizionari.

È necessario provare a esplorare una nuova narrazione dell’incubazione, partendo da un nuovo modello di ecosistema basato sulla relazione, sulla fiducia e sulla comunità”