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/// The ecosystem of silos: A new metaphor for collaboration and integration in startup communities

posted by Frank Taylor on June 17, 2018

The highlight of Startup Day Across America in Houston, Texas, during August 2017 was the address by Mayor Sylvester Turner on the future of the local ecosystem for startups and innovation.[1] Mayor Turner called attention to the existence of “[t]oo many silos” without “enough collaboration and integration”[2] and the need to “create a much more integrated ecosystem.”[3]

How can the startup communities of Houston and other cities harmonize their silos and ecosystems and create a new reality of collaboration[4] and integration[5]? The introduction of a new metaphor – the “ecosystem of silos” – will help.


Professor Daniel Isenberg noted that “[t]he predominant metaphor for fostering entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy is the ‘entrepreneurship ecosystem,’” but he warned that “we need to get a better grip on what the term really means.”[6] To better understand what the term “entrepreneurship ecosystem” means, we can return to the origin of the word “ecosystem.”

Botanist Arthur Tansley introduced the word “ecosystem” in an article that he published during the year 1935.[7] Tansley proposed that “[t]he fundamental concept appropriate to the biome considered together with all the effective inorganic factors of its environment is the ecosystem, which is a particular category among the physical systems that make up the universe. In an ecosystem the organisms and the inorganic factors alike are components which are in relatively stable dynamic equilibrium.”[8]

We can better understand the relationship between the ecosystems and silos of a startup community if we take into account Tansley’s clarification that “the systems we isolate mentally [for the purposes of study] are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock and interact with one another.”[9] In other words, one system – a silo of an enterprise or industry – can fit within another – an entrepreneurship ecosystem.


How well can the silos of startup communities fit into an entrepreneurship ecosystem? Author Gillian Tett explained the advantages and disadvantages of silos in an organization:

[T]he modern world needs silos, at least if you interpret that word to mean specialist departments, teams, and places. The reason is obvious: we live in such a complex world that humans need to create some structure to handle this complexity. … The simplest way to create a sense of order is to put ideas, people, and data into separate spatial, social, and mental boxes. Specialization and expertise usually deliver progress. …

But silos can also sometimes cause damage. People who are organized into specialist teams can end up fighting with each other, wasting resources. Isolated departments, or teams of experts, may fail to communicate, and thus overlook dangerous and costly risks. Fragmentation can create information bottlenecks and stifle innovation.[10]

Tett reminded us that we encounter metaphorical silos in a variety of contexts,[11] but the origin of the metaphor is agriculture.[12] The success of silos in agriculture[13] owes much to the contributions of Auguste Goffart, who“[i]n 1877 … published a book on ensilage which laid the foundation of all modern practice.”[14]

Goffart set out to develop “a system of preservation by ensilage” and “succeeded … only after thousands of experiments” over the course of “not less than a quarter of a century.”[15] The entrepreneurs of today can look to Goffart as a model not only for persistence and innovation but also for willingness to share experience and serve as a mentor:

It is above all the duty of the wealthy agriculturists who have entered upon the way that I have indicated, and from whom I receive every day so many grateful letters, to assist the willing farmers around them, and who have need of their advice. For my part, I shall hold myself in the future as in the past always at the disposal of farmers who think they need to recur to my experience.[16]

We reinforce the negative connotations of isolation, fragmentation, and failure to communicate and innovate when we view silos as containers[17] and highlight their “air-tight”[18] aspect. But what if we instead categorize[19] the silos of a startup community as autonomous and highly integrated systems[20] within an entrepreneurship ecosystem and emphasize the positive connotations of structure, expertise, and progress?

This harmonization of the silo and the ecosystem produces coherent metaphors that “fit together.”[21] From this coherence, a new metaphor emerges.

Ecosystem of Silos

A new metaphor – the “ecosystem of silos” – will help Houston and other cities create the new reality of collaboration and integration that Mayor Turner described. In Metaphors We Live By, Professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explained the transformative power of a new metaphor:

The metaphorical concepts that characterize [many of our] activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it. If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to.[22]

The “ecosystem of silos” metaphor highlights[23] behaviors that will promote collaboration and integration among the entrepreneurs and other actors in a startup community:

• the “dynamic, self-regulating network of many different types of actors,”[24]

• the “constant interchange of the most various kinds,”[25]

• the willingness of entrepreneurs to permit others to “profit from [their] experience,”[26] and

• the “insider-outsiders” who are “willing to jump out of their silo and break down some boundaries.”[27]

These behaviors, in turn, reinforce the concept of “local connectedness” that was introduced in the Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018.[28] The challenge for entrepreneurs and other ecosystem actors is to think and act in terms of the new reality of collaboration and integration in the ecosystem of silos.


[1] Meghan Zarate, “Houston Celebrates Startup Day Across America at Station Houston,” Station Houston, August 3, 2017, accessed June 16, 2018,

[2] Station Houston, “Startup Day Across America,” Facebook video of remarks by Mayor Sylvester Turner and others during event on August 1, 2017, 12:00,

[3] Station Houston, “Startup Day Across America,” 23:00,

[4] The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018 includes several examples of collaboration. J.F. Gauthier et al., Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018 (n.p.: Startup Genome, 2018), 3, 66, 73, 101, 170, 174, accessed May 4, 2018,

[5] The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017 used the term “integration” to identify one of four phases of the “lifecycle” of a startup ecosystem – along with “activation,” “globalization,” and “expansion” – and explained the “main objective” of the integration phase:

Integrate the ecosystems within the global, national and local flows of resources and knowledge inside and outside of the tech sector, optimizing laws and policies to sustain its competitiveness and growth, and spread its benefits (e.g. culture, source of competitiveness, wealth, innovation) to other sectors of the economy and parts of the nation.

J.F. Gauthier, Marc Penzel, and Max Warmer, Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017 (n.p.: Startup Genome, 2017), 15, accessed May 4, 2018,

[6] Daniel Isenberg, “What an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Actually Is,” Harvard Business Review, May 12, 2014, accessed June 14, 2018, (double quotation marks changed to single).

[7] Professor A.J. Willis wrote that “[t]he word ‘ecosystem’ was first used in print by A.G. Tansley (1935) in his well-known paper on vegetational concepts and terms” but “this term was suggested to him in the early 1930s by A.R. Clapham when Tansley asked Clapham … if he could think of a suitable word to denote the physical and biological components of an environment in relation to each other as a unit.” A.J.Willis, “The Ecosystem: An Evolving Concept Viewed Historically,” Functional Ecology, 11, no. 2 (Apr., 1997), 268.

[8] A.G. Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” Ecology, 16, no. 3. (July, 1935), 306.

[9] Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” 300.

[10] Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 14.

[11] “Most of us have an uneasy sense that our world is marred by silos. We might not use that specific word to describe the problem. However, we encounter it all the time: in bureaucracies where one department does not talk to another; at companies where teams are fighting each other or hoarding information; in societies where rich and poor or different ethnic and political groups live in separate social and intellectual ghettos, side by side. … Silos exist in cyberspace too. We live in a world that is hyper-connected, yet often we barely know what is happening around us.”  Tett, The Silo Effect, 246-47.

[12] The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology offers this history of the English noun “silo”:

[P]lace where food for livestock is stored. 1835, borrowing of Spanish silo, probably of pre-Roman origin and from the same source as Basque zilo, zulo dugout, with the basic meaning of a cave or shelter for keeping grain.

Traditionally Spanish silo was said to have developed through Latin sīrus from Greek sīrós, seirós a pit for storing grain. However, Corominas points out various problems with this etymology, chiefly that the change from r to l in Spanish is phonetically abnormal and that Greek sīrós itself was a rare foreign term peculiar to Thrace, Phrygia, and other regions of Asia Minor and not likely to emerge in Castilian Spain.

The extended sense of a large bin used for storing loose materials, such as cement, is found in 1920. The military sense of an underground facility for housing and launching a guided missile appeared in 1958, in American English.

Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “silo.”

[13] The Wisconsin Magazine of History published an article in 1924 that described some of the advantages of silos:

The silo has many advantages, but its greatest is the possibility through its means of utilizing all of the corn crop. There was a time when land was cheap and coarse feed abundant, and the loss of a portion of the corn crop was not serious. At the time of the advent of the silo in this state, land was increasing in value and feed was becoming high-priced. Under these conditions many of our farmers were unwilling to carry a herd of cows through the winter, finding it was not profitable to do so. Many would sell in the fall and buy again in the spring, thus being able to pasture the herd and throwing the wintering losses on others. The silo greatly reduced the cost of wintering cows and thereby introduced a fundamental improvement in the business of dairying.

N.S. Fish, “The History of the Silo in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, 8, no. 2 (Dec. 1924), 160.

[14] “The chief credit for what may be termed the practical modernizing of ensilage undoubtedly belongs to M. Goffart, of France. Goffart began as early as 1852 to study the preservation of forage. In 1877 he published a book on ensilage which laid the foundation of all modern practice. This book was translated and published in the winter of 1878-79 in New York, by J. B. Brown of the New York Plow Company.” Fish, “The History of the Silo in Wisconsin,” 161.

[15] M. Auguste Goffart, The Ensilage of Maize, and Other Green Fodder Crops, trans. J.B. Brown (New York: J.B. Brown, 1879), 13, accessed February 4, 2014, available online through the Internet Archive at

[16] Goffart, The Ensilage of Maize, and Other Green Fodder Crops, 38.

[17] Professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explained the “container” metaphor:

We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. We project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces. Thus we also view them as containers with an inside and an outside. … But even where there is no natural physical boundary that can be viewed as defining a container, we impose boundaries — marking off territory so that it has an inside and a bounding surface — whether a wall, a fence, or an abstract line or plane. There are few human instincts more basic than territoriality.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 29.

[18] The English translation of Goffart’s book defined the term “silo” as an “[e]xcavation, pit, or trench, hollowed in the ground (Littré), or any compartment used for storing green fodder in an air-tight manner.” Goffart, The Ensilage of Maize, and Other Green Fodder Crops, 7.

[19] “A categorization is a natural way of identifying a kind of object or experience by highlighting certain properties, downplaying others, and hiding still others. Each of the dimensions gives the properties that are highlighted. To highlight certain properties is necessarily to downplay or hide others, which is what happens whenever we categorize something. Focusing on one set of properties shifts our attention away from others. When we give everyday descriptions, for example, we are using categorizations to focus on certain properties that fit our purposes. Every description will highlight, downplay, and hide.” Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 163.

[20] “The more relatively separate and autonomous the system, the more highly integrated it is, and the greater the stability of its dynamic equilibrium.” Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” 300.

[21] Lakoff and Johnson suggested a way to reconcile two inconsistent metaphors:

Although the two metaphors are not consistent (that is, they form no single image), they nonetheless “fit together,” by virtue of being subcategories of a major category and therefore sharing a major common entailment. There is a difference between metaphors that are coherent (that is, “fit together”) with each other and those that are consistent. We have found that the connections between metaphors are more likely to involve coherence than consistency.

Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 44.

[22] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 145.

[23] “We would like to suggest that new metaphors make sense of our experience in the same way conventional metaphors do: they provide coherent structure, highlighting some things and hiding others.” Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 139.

[24] Isenberg, “What an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Actually Is.”

[25] Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” 299.

[26] “It is that all agriculturists may profit by the experience acquired, often at my cost, upon this important subject, that I have written this Manual.” Goffart, The Ensilage of Maize, and Other Green Fodder Crops, 13.

[27] Tett, The Silo Effect, 143.

[28] The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018 explained that “[t]he new Success Factor of Local Connectedness is comprised of four sub-factors,” which include “sense of community” or “people helping people,” “local relationships” or “how many local founders, investors, and experts do startup founders and executives have a relationship with,” “collisions” or “serendipitously running into others from the startup community,” and “density” or “how closely startups work with other startups, either in the same office or in a coworking space, and how close founders and executives live to their office location.” Gauthier et al., Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018, 37.

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