This hack is one of 24 outstanding entries selected as finalists in the Long-Term Capitalism Challenge, the third and final leg of the Harvard Business Review / McKinsey M Prize for Management Innovation.
The current industry model is broken. Our economy is built on a ‘take make waste’ model that negatively impacts environmental and human systems and is not tenable in the long term. It is time to reinvent. We are gifted with an array of genius examples in nature – mechanisms and ecosystems that have evolved over 3.8 billion years and provide a blueprint for products, processes, and system organization that can be truly effective toward a healthier, resilient future. We propose that companies mimic nature and reinvent themselves around the fundamental science of Biomimicry’s seven Life’s Principles. This is Management Innovation According to Nature’s Genius.
Organizations of all kinds and sizes face complex, new and interrelated challenges. These include globalization, financial crisis, shifting workforce demographics, natural resource pollution and depletion, explosion of the digital economy and new business models, and climate change.
Central to these problems is a growing realization that a “take make waste” economy is no longer viable. Our industrial products have been honed to minimize time and effort and maximize near term, financial returns. Our extraction, manufacturing and waste disposal processes are highly efficient, but take a tremendous toll on people and on our planet. We have developed a technical economy that relies on the premise of infinite growth but exists increasingly in conflict with limits of our natural resources and the inherent ‘laws of nature.’
Given the global challenges and the growing realization that business as usual is not a tenable model, many companies have launched sustainability efforts. Many have realized quick wins in lighting retrofits and recycling programs. Yet, more and more, these pioneering efforts are bogged down by the daunting recognition that the problem is much larger and more complex. Many managers are beginning to see that they need a more system-based solution.
All together, these global, industry and organizational forces impel people to explore radically new approaches. They create an opening for new thinking. It reflects an ‘end of the rope’ perspective and the invitation to truly reinvent business and our world in a very broad based, holistic way.
In 1990, Janine Benyus was a trained biologist working with the US Forest Service in Montana and freelancing as a science writer. With a love and respect for nature, she followed her calling to make complicated ideas accessible. Through her journalism work, she helped make new discoveries in science accessible to the layman.
Janine’s primary research focus in the early 1990’s was the evolution of organisms and ecosystems. She began exploring the inherent genius in nature and how organisms and systems have evolved and adapted for optimized, integrated performance. From the beautiful and functional design of seashells to the elegant strength of spider silk, Janine reveled in nature’s highly evolved, highly perfected constructs:
“After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works, what is appropriate, and what lasts here on earth.”
During the course of this research, Janine had an epiphany. She saw the potential for our human systems and products to better follow the genius in nature. She began exploring how products, processes, and whole organizations could better mimic working mechanisms in the natural world. She chronicled her explorations in a book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and further evangelized this revolutionary thinking on a speaker circuit. Initially, her audience was comprised of fellow scientists. Over time, she started to see representatives from the US Military, industrial designers, and researchers who were all in search of a different and better way to solve new and increasingly complex problems. For example, what could we learn from how birds flock and fish school in order to create “swarm intelligence” in our increasingly interrelated information systems.
Although it is still early in its own evolution, Biomimicry offers managers in a broad array of business opportunities to catalyze creativity and innovation on the scales needed to support true and resilient evolution in management. We aim to unlock the science and long term lessons from natural history to the development of an ecologically integrated industrial system.
Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of the genius found in 3.8 billion years of evolution. As a management solution, the core component is a framework called Life’s Principles. Simply stated, Life’s Principles are the fundamental patterns that have enabled life on earth to survive and thrive. Each of the principles is richly and extensively supported by tremendous research from the various branches of the biological sciences. Translating these fundamental biological principles into industry-specific design principles, corporate culture and values, and management approaches is the art and power of biomimicry.
Here is an overview of the seven Life’s Principles that provide the basis of our innovative approach:
EARTH’S OPERATING CONDITIONS.
These elements are the foundation upon which all forms of life draw energy, sustain themselves, interrelate, and expire:
- Sunlight, water, and gravity
- Dynamic non-equilibrium
- Limits and boundaries
- Cyclic processes
EVOLVE TO SURVIVE.
The parameters that enable species and ecosystems to continue, adapt and survive include
- replicate strategies that work
- integrate the unexpected
- reshuffle information
BE RESOURCE (MATERIAL AND ENERGY) EFFICIENT.
The attributes that better enable natural based systems to live and operate efficiently include:
• use of multi-functional design
• use of low-energy processes
• recycling of all materials
• fit form to function
ADAPT TO CHANGING CONDITIONS.
The factors that enable organisms and ecosystems to adapt to environmental changes include:
• maintain integrity through self-renewal
• embody resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization
• incorporate diversity
INTEGRATE DEVELOPMENT WITH GROWTH.
The factors that enable organisms and systems to self integrate, develop and grow over time include:
• combine modular and nested components
• build from the bottom-up
BE LOCALLY ATTUNED AND RESPONSIVE.
The individual and system behaviors that enable local adoption and responsiveness include:
• use readily available materials and energy
• cultivate cooperative relationships
• leverage cyclic processes
• use feedback loops
USE LIFE-FRIENDLY CHEMISTRY.
Lastly, the attributes that provide a long term, healthy, sustainable underpinning include:
• build selectively with a small subset of elements
• break down products into benign constituents
• do chemistry in water
To truly integrate the genius of nature into products, industry and human ecosystems require extensive education, training, and systemic thinking. Traditional management is ignorant of the fundamentals of successful systems-scale organization and operation according to the laws of biology. Management as usual operating with short-term thinking outside the margins of “what works and what endures” is increasingly perilous on multiple fronts.
In our early work, we focused on bridging these Life Principle’s into specific design challenges. We worked with companies like Nike on ideas for designing better shoes. We worked with Kohler to rethink plumbing fixtures. We worked with architecture and engineering companies on giant architectural projects in India, China and Brazil.
Ultimately, we found that our focus on product design alone was too limiting. We needed to address challenges more systemically. What did it really matter if one pair of shoes or a new fixture abided by Life’s Principles if the entire company did not follow suit.
Our approach evolved to comprehend innovation as systems and culture challenge. We encourage people to think about companies as an organism that operates in a much broader ecology. We look at the culture of the company and how well it aligns – or not – with Life’s Principles. Our approach is rooted in teaching, cultivating new centers of leadership, and expanding the knowledge and adoption throughout every corner of the organization.
Although our efforts to introduce our thinking and approach through industry is still in its early stages, we have worked extensively with a handful of pioneering companies and have the validation of early success to build on.
For example, we are working with the Brazilian cosmetics giant, Natura Cosmeticos. See Natura's entry Innovation in Well-Being—the Creation of Sustainable Value at Natura. Their cutting-edge innovation culture coupled with increasingly deeper insights into Life's Principles has the opportunity to catalyze new products, processes, and management platforms inspired by the genius of the natural world. In terms of management, our focus to date has been on introducing a systems ecology perspective: helping the company envision why and how it should evolve into a functionally integrated subsystem in a larger ecology of the Amazon Valley. We are beginning to work with them to identify the innovation opportunities that will lead their operations and supply chain toward becoming integrated, nourishing participants in the food web that supports the Amazon Valley.
We are also working with HOK, one of the world's largest architecture firms. Together we developed an approach to large-scale to architecture and planning called Fully Integrated Thinking (FIT). Also a systems-based approach, FIT is both a design framework and a potential urban management platform that integrates Life's Principles. HOK describes it as follows:
"FIT stands for Fully Integrated Thinking. At its essence, FIT is an approach, or attitude, that accepts the idea that the solutions to our design challenges are already around us. If we think in a fully integrated way, we look deeply and critically into the systems of the place to inform and guide our decision-making. In this way, FIT is what happens at the intersection of design thinking and a deep understanding of the place (the data)."
In partnership with HOK, we have applied FIT and Life's Principles to design projects in India, Brazil, China, Brunei, and the US. At a May 2012 lecture for the US Green Building Council, Thomas Knittel, VP and resident Biomimicry expert at HOK, recently described applying Life's Principles to architecture and planning challenges as "a source of inexahustible inspiration."
Although still in its infancy as a design and management discipline, Biomimicry is making solid progress towards capturing the minds of key influencers around the world. Another milestone on this progression is Janine Benyus' receipt of the 2012 Design Mind Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. The Design Mind award recognizes "a visionary, such as an educator, author, critic, curator, or designer, who has had a profound impact on design theory, practice, or public awareness." Translating this newfound broad awareness into widely adopted management innovation practices represents an exciting new field of work for decades to come.
Gaining a true perspective of how humans fit in the big picture often produces a deep-seated sense of humility and awe. Revisiting this perspective through Life’s Principles training and strategy work on a regular basis (as a company and as individuals) may offer creative opportunities to counter ingrained short sighted decision-making and to support platforms for new vision, values, and performance.
Furthermore, companies are looking for new ways to attract and retain creative talent. By bringing the brilliance of the natural world to the desktop everyday, leadership can foster a new sense of meaning to the pursuit of innovation. No longer are employees only working on a product but they also have the opportunity to participate in a fundamental and global reshaping of how we approach business.
Finally, the successful implementation of Life’s Principles helps a company assemble resources with greater awareness, co-exist more symbiotically with the environment and local communities, manage itself more effectively in the long term, and reduce the risks and negative impacts of maladapted production.
In practice, our innovation work with companies is not prescriptive. We provide a vision of what it means to be successful in the context of 3.8 billion years of evolution and the support to explore and embed that new vision. Our bridging of scientific knowledge and models into industry is still novel, yet we have some early successes with companies like Natura and HOK Architects. Our journey with each management team is somewhat unique, but follows a general four step process:
- Seeding vision. First we invite a core team of the best and the brightest in the company to come to our Montana headquarters (or an inspiring ecosystem of their choice) for 1-2 days. We provide a broad introduction to Life’s Principles and look at where and how they might fit into the framework of that particular company.
- Cross-pollinating a broader vision. We visit the company headquarters and expand the base of knowledge and understanding of Life’s principles, building out a vision and particular examples of how it might work for that organization.
- Integrating innovative thinking. We work with the company to develop a strategy and an array of initiatives that embodies Life’s Principles. This might include a re-envisioning of the company’s mission, redrafting product lines, and establishing the connection of company in the ecology of its industry and environment.
- Embedding the innovations. We provide ongoing support to internal leaders as they work to embed the Life’s principles into every aspect of the company’s operation.
How do you get started? We find that people attracted to biomimicry have three main entry points into this way of creativity and innovation: Values (Ethos), Technical Perspectives (Emulation), and (Re)Connection.
The Values (Ethos) entry point reflects a desire (often deep seated) to align one's professional and personal values with a vision for sustainability and well-being that is grounded in 3.8 billion years of pattern success. This is a gateway to newfound purpose for work and professional development.
The Technical Perspective (Emulation) entry point is a focus for those who want to find a way to align their technical skills and experience with biological insights from the natural world. Biologists, Engineers, Designers, and Business professionals look to biommicry to find new and creative ways to develop and apply their expertise.
(Re)Connection provides a way to feel and access knowledge from the "Genius of Place" in your local environment. Ths entry point focuses on creating connections to regional ecologies and communities in a way that stimulates creativity and new relationships related to your field of work.
For more information, see our Professional Pathways website. We have a variety of programs for individuals including ways to connect to others in your local region.
Many people in our training programs become "internal champions" for biomimicry innovation in their companies, organizations, and regions. This is the best way to run experiments and create biomimicry culture within an existing organization.
The thought leaders behind Lifes Principles are Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister supported by a fantastic and dedicated staff along with a growing professional network around the world. Thanks to Heather King for encouraging this submission and helping shape our hack.