Sport boosts innovation



Joël de Rosnay, specialist in biotechnology evolution, Executive President of Biotics and Director of Outlook at the Cité des Sciences, is also one of the earliest surfers, the pioneers who made this discipline popular in the 60s. An interview with one of the most eminent specialists on the link between science and sport, following discussions arising from the “Sport, Innovation and Learning” conference organised by our Think Tank and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at the beginning of November 2018.




What does the title “Sport, Innovation and Learning” evoke for you?

JdR: Above all, improvement in health. My latest book (La symphonie du vivant, published by Les Liens qui libèrent) was devoted to epigenetics, the greatest revolution concerning biology in recent years. Results show how our behaviour (how we eat, move, manage our stress or our pleasure and so on) acts on the way our genes express themselves. Doing sport, for example, can stimulate certain genes and suppress others, such as inflammatory or oxidising genes. There is therefore a close link between nutrition, genetic medicine and sport, which was observable before, but which is now scientifically proven. Add to this the potential offered by e-health tools. A simple smartphone is a personalised dashboard which can measure an infinite number of things. This is already radically changing our behaviour.


Neuroscience also teaches us about different ways of learning, such as the links between movement and concentration, for example…

JdR: That’s right, and a lot of work also shows that physical exercise also leads to improving achievement. Pushing personal limits requires special training. That teaches us motivation. We reap the benefits, be they honorific or, in the case of professional athletes, financial. That helps in turn to maintain the virtuous circle of preparation and pleasure.

I can see two other advantages of doing sport. Firstly, it teaches us resilience, or in other words, the ability to overcome setbacks. Then it encourages interaction with other people. The pleasure to be found in social links, in human links, also exists with people who do sport with or against us. For all these reasons it is vital to encourage young people to do sport as early as possible.



Until 5 January 2020, the Cité des Sciences is hosting an exhibition entitled “Corps et Sport” (Body and Sport), which allows the public to do sport differently, through various playful and connected devices. How do you evaluate these changes?

JdR: Sport has always been used for experiments. You know how I love winter sports and surfing. What would these disciplines be without the successive innovations of the last few decades, at the level of materials, weather forecasting and even the way they are practised?

Digital technology increases the number of new sports to emerge and sport boosts innovation. I would draw a distinction with e-sport here, as it does not lead to the physical development of the body, which is a concern. Perhaps it will encourage people to become keen on certain sports through virtual reality? I have great faith in the new technologies that make doing sports requiring physical condition or unusual infrastructure more accessible. From the medical point of view, virtual reality can also help some people to overcome phobias such as fear of heights.


You were a pioneer of surfing in France. Sliding sports have reinvented the way sport is conceived and practised. Today, there are many, increasingly autonomous, spontaneous, informal and free ways of doing sport. How do you view this evolution?

JdR: Thirty years ago I was already talking about “eco-sport”, that is to say, individual sports using what nature has to offer: slopes, the wind and the waves. More and more people do these sorts of sports, on their own or in small groups, and that is obviously going to continue. They are individual sports that fit into a group dimension with a strong common culture. When you surf, for example, you know what another person is feeling, you don’t surf on your own, you share emotions. Indirectly these are group sports. This trend will increase, to the detriment of sports like football or tennis, where you have to knock out the opponent, observing the rules as closely as possible, within the limits of a marked-out ground. “Eco-sports” allow you to relate to the natural ecosystem, which is a need that is often expressed nowadays.


You have published a work entitled “Surfer la vie” (Surf Life). For you, does surfing, or sport in general, represent a metaphor for life?

JdR: The idea behind “Surfer la vie” was that our society is changing and that our way of managing it now harks back to outdated values and behaviour patterns. Our society is becoming less fixed. It is less rigid and hierarchical. It is based more on flow than on force. That means that a sense of community is required rather than overzealous individualism. Businesses are thus becoming more and more fluid, and no longer function solely in a hierarchical manner. This is the way to innovation.

Our role in life is to be in a state of controlled imbalance, like surfers. The surfer is not unstable and doesn’t lose his balance, or he would fall. The surfer is in a state of controlled imbalance, as the manager of a business should be in order to change and innovate. A fluid society is one which favours transversal power over hierarchical power, and systems thinking over linear thinking. We still see things in a vertical, analytical, sequential, linear way, but modern thinking, fluid thinking, is thinking with transversal power, which shares and collaborates in networks with other people and which has a vision of the challenges we come across which is exponential (capacity to analyse a situation very quickly) and fluid (the possibility of passing or surfing over this difficulty together).


Sport et citoyenneté