Les Assises plenary conference: How are nature and information systems alike?

The guest speaker for this conference is Alain Baraton, Gardener-in-Chief of the Domaine National de Trianon and the Grand Parc de Versailles. He invites guests to think of nature as an interconnected world. His job consists in protecting the continuity, harmony and sustainability of a jewel of architectural art and garden history.

(*video in french)

Review of the conference

The great gardeners of the modern era and information transmission

According to Alain Baraton, although André Le Nôtre did not invent the "French garden," he did create the gardens of Versailles, the Tuileries and Vaux-le-Vicomte. The Gardener-in-Chief aims to preserve Le Nôtre’s work and make gardening a modern activity, creating employment and attracting interest in the occupation.
LLe Nôtre felt no need to transmit his knowledge in writing or by training apprentices. He created no school, and he only worked with family members. He left little trace of his work, other than the garden he designed for one of the greatest kings in history.
IHowever, there was another gardener at Versailles, of whom little is said: Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, creator of the king’s kitchen garden. He did create a school and invent new technologies, and he wrote a pruning method for fruit trees. Basically, he created an information system on the scale of his time.
La Quintinie fought to have a wall built around the vegetable garden to limit theft. In this way, he already practiced perimeter security before his time. He was also the first to realise that vegetables had mechanisms to defend themselves against attacks. So, we can establish an analogy with computers, since nature is a network. 
Plants under attack have the ability to transmit information to the surrounding ecosystem. For example, the strawberry reproduces through aerial shoots that give birth to new plants. Parent plants sense when slugs attack the young plants, so they change the structure of their sap to make it more palatable than that of its offspring. This leads them to be attacked, allowing the young shoots to thrive.

What are the similarities between nature and information systems?

People working in information system protection need to classify information to establish security levels. Plants, on the other hand, rank the importance of different layers of their fruit. 
For example, only the seeds of the apple are truly useful to reproduce the tree. But this fruit is thick and delicious to prevent fallen apples from remaining at the foot of the tree and producing young plants there that could choke the parent tree or be prevented from growing by the parent tree. Concretely, the apples’ flesh not only protects the seeds from birds’ beaks and weather, but also attracts animals.
People, for example, pick up the apples that have fallen to the ground and eat them far away, before leaving the pips where a new tree can grow.
And, just like information systems, plants transmit information, which is data in a different form. Some acacias become toxic to protect themselves against herbivores. 
EThese varieties generate ethylene gas to warn groves hundreds of metres away. In turn, these acacias that have never been nibbled on by any mammal become capable of producing toxic leaves. So, plant information systems are effective.

Attacks, resilience and innovation

The concept of weed no longer really exists in gardening. Instead, we now speak of undesirable plants that should be eliminated through selection, intelligence and care. This is the same way information systems are protected, through highly sophisticated data analysis.
In the past, gardeners killed many small animals or undesirable plants. Today, however, they apply more reasonable methods that seek to respect the garden’s balance, and the relationships between animals, fungi, viruses and bacteria. We also no longer speak about pesticides, but of systemic phytosanitary products, a term whose root resembles information systems.
Another analogy between information systems and nature was envisaged in the past, i.e. make the "world wild web" (www) the "wood wild web". Internet can be compared to plants through a logic of interconnection and the presence of roots and filaments on the plants. 
In the case of plants, human intervention would do well to be more reasonable. For example, Amazonian deforestation is having disastrous climatic consequences because it no longer sufficiently holds back hurricanes that now ravage America.
Public lighting and global warming are impacting photosynthesis. However, plants need a very long time to adapt. The cactus, for example, has gradually developed thorns to replace leaves and save water, to protect itself against animals and swirl the wind to accelerate cooling. It took the plant tens of thousands of years to develop thorns.
Plants adapt over the long term, so global warming and nocturnal light, the fruits of the human intervention, will pose serious problems in the short term.
We can push the analogy between nature and information systems even further with the Versailles château. Versailles has always been a place of technology par excellence. Louis XIV wasn’t satisfied with simply planting trees and hanging paintings at the château. Instead, he launched a major appeal to the population to find ways to bring water to the estate, which was initially far from any major water source (such as the Seine for the Louvre).
Louis XV turned the château into a place where botany was respected as a true science. Under Louis XVI, mechanical arts such as decorative metalwork were valued, inspired by Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Today, information systems are the estate’s major concern, because they manage flows and handle many other problems. So, Versailles has always been a precursor in matters of calls for tenders and creativity.