Nature: the coolest #startup in the world

Photo Credit: Chris Moore
“Nature can’t put its factory on the outskirts of town. It has to work where it lives.” Janine Benyus

In Silicon Valley, where startups are born just as quickly as they perish, the predominant saying is, “Innovate or Die.” In the natural world, that saying holds true in an even more literal sense, and applies to not only entire species, but the ecosystems of which they are an integral part.

Unlike Silicon Valley, the “enterprises” that comprise nature’s business of “creating conditions conducive to life” are billions of years old, with standard operating procedures and innovation strategies connected to the very beginning of life on the planet. A quick Google search for “the world’s oldest companies” will tell you that ConEd was born in 1823, Lloyd’s insurance in 1688 and Kongo Gumi construction in 578. There is no decimal missing there, it was actually founded in 578.

Nature is an entrepreneurial system that has been conducting research and development not for tens, hundreds or even thousands, but billions of years. From a systems perspective, mother nature is a design expert and stellar model of ubiquitous innovation.

From a systems perspective, mother nature is a design expert and stellar model of ubiquitous innovation.

Our natural world is not only the guru of green design, but a startup whiz kid who’s had billions of years to perfect her craft. And not only does she make cool “apps” like spring and summer, but she does so in tandem with all other species so that her “valuation” is priceless and shareholder return, infinite.

Take a closer look at the way in which the natural world makes and does things, and you may find the equation for sustainable innovation. If business were to look at the natural world “as our mentor, rather than a warehouse of goods” as Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 has stated, they may be able to find the secrets to long term success.

Nature’s “valuation” is priceless and shareholder return, infinite.

Studying these principles of good, regenerative design is a science and movement called biomimicry. I also consider it an art form, in which nature’s sustainability strategies and principles are applied to man-made challenges. This goes beyond “net zero” impact. Nature never strives for zero. Not only is it boring, but it makes no sense. In order to create conditions that are optimal for life on the planet, you must constantly innovate, because life is always changing. If it didn’t, well, then life would be dead.

So what are these principles to be heralded, integrated and studied?

The same strategies are embedded in “technologies” small and large, from a single blade of grass to an entire ecosystem. Some of life’s operating principles include: not wasting resources, rather organisms and ecosystems upcycle resources which create iterative, added value. Which is interesting, considering the prolific rise of the “Circular” or “Sharing Economy”.

Nature utilizes benign manufacturing processes in which materials are life-friendly; waste from one organism is food for another (Cradle to Cradle design); nature runs on free energy such as sunlight; uses elegant chemistry to build and grow; operates with cyclical rather than linear cycles; and relies on feedback loops to ensure continuous efficiency and improvement.

Janine Benyus, the biologist and philosopher who distilled nature’s best practices into a set of standards called “Life’s Principles” urges us to remember that “life creates conditions conducive to life.” It is not a “goal”, but rather a universal charge. Every single product (flora and fauna) and service (carbon cycle, water cycle, biomes and ecosystems) creates value, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Life creates conditions conducive to life”.

This underlying framework keeps everything working together, in balance, in sync and in harmony, at an optimal level. The application of “Life’s Principles” to global challenges is an emerging science, philosophy, discipline and art.

And not only is biomimicry on the rise, but the principles by which nature operates are popping up in man-made innovations as well. Nature’s strategies are emulated in the development of the sharing economy, the circular economy, social enterprise, big data applications, “smart” products and resilient cities, and so on.

By appreciating, learning from and utilizing these time-tested techniques, us humans can create self-sustaining, healthy, resource efficient systems, products, cities and services. One of the mantras utilized within the Global Biomimicry Network is to see organisms and ecosystems as our “mentor, model and measure.” By combining these strategies and principles with human ingenuity , the opportunities for developing resilient, sustainable innovations are as abundant as the number of creatures and ecosystems from which we can learn (somewhere around 30 million).

Applicable to every sector and industry, we can not only improve products, businesses and cities, but watch them adapt, grow and evolve like a living ecosystem.

Nature is the consummate innovator because it has to be.

One example of a universal “principle” that can be applied to multiple types of systems – be it a business, a building or a manufacturing facility – is that of creating a niche. Imagine your competitors not only wanted to take your customers, market share and assets, but also wanted to eat you! How’s that for competition? You would likely develop some way to avoid that competition, which is exactly what nature has achieved. Nature is the consummate innovator because it has to be.

Every species on the planet that we see today has developed a mechanism for survival, developed by generations of predecessors in an infinitely iterative process. Survival is a great motivator, if not the best for continuous innovation.

What we see outside our window exists because it is what lasts, and has outlasted the competition. Competition in the natural world wastes energy, and species have evolved to avoid it rather than unnecessarily waste time and resources on it.

In fact, the real (and perhaps most surprising) lesson we can observe and apply from the natural world is that cooperation is the best way to avoid competition. Ba-zingah! Ecosystems are replete with mutualistic behavior, and not just because resources are scarce, but because they are valuable and quite frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Some of the most successful businesses have also created niche markets, where the competition is little or none. Why spend money on advertising why you are better than the competition, when you can create a service that no other company fills?

A key element to survival is innovation for competitive advantage, or even better, filling a niche in order to avoid any competition whatsoever.

Another example of applying natural principles to a business system is the law of diversity. If you look at a high functioning ecosystem such as a rainforest, you will find abundant diversity in all plant and animal species. If one type of organism diminishes, there are many more to keep the system running smoothly. (This is also the principle of redundancy at work.) The principle of diversity can be exemplified in team building- would you rather have three people with similar backgrounds and knowledge, or three people with a diverse set of expertise and insight tackling a challenge together?

The law of diversity can also be seen in an investment portfolio, where “diversifying investments” is emphasized. Why are mutual funds are so appealing? Nature never puts all her eggs in one basket (unless of course, you are a bird). A diverse system, (whether it be a rainforest or a business) is a strong system that is risk averse.

Conversely, a monoculture such as a lawn is resource heavy and susceptible to a multitude of risks, including over-watering, under-watering, insect infestation, the family pet, too much sun and too little sun. A lawn is an ecosystem with one species of grass that requires large amounts of investment in time, resources and management, including water, fertilizer and even pesticides (which harm life). Can you imagine a rainforest being managed? Natural ecosystems need not be managed because they are diverse, resilient and self-sustaining.

A dynamic and diverse workforce helps to ensure a business (system) can adapt to changes in the market, grow, and evolve, similar to any self-sustaining ecosystem.

And lastly, environmental excellence cannot be achieved through the pursuit of perfection, because it does not exist. The natural world always leaves room for improvement, as the system adapts and evolves in tandem with changing conditions. Nature is continuously innovating and evolving, it is never perfect. It learns, then adapts, grows and evolves.

The “goal” is to survive and thrive, and as a result, nature focuses on excellence, not perfection; and optimization of resources and functions, not maximization.

These are only a handful of examples of how innovators can learn from and apply the natural world’s infinite reservoir of design knowledge to improve not only their business systems, but the economic, ecological and social systems of which they are an integral and integrated part. Challenges we face today have already been solved after billions of years of research and design.

The answers can be seen in the intricate and complex relationships, niches, survival mechanisms and strategies the natural world utilizes in order to thrive. The answers to our most pressing questions and business challenges can be found just outside your door …

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