Aligning Business + Nature Through Biomimicry

The audience of over 100 at Impact Hub NYC
The audience of over 100 gathered at Impact Hub NYC.

The room of over 100 homosapiens was buzzing like bees, as a diverse tribe of eco geeks, science nerds and finance dweebs met and exchanged ideas and shared interests at Impact Hub NYC to learn more about the promise of “The #Regenerative Economy” during BiomimicryNYC’s network building event.

Focusing on economic metrics, business and investment standards, authors Amy Larkin and Katherine Collins discussed their recently published books that describe ways to align business and nature, thereby fostering the development of an economic system that not only does “less bad”, but “more good”.

Attendees mingle at our BioBeers network event
Attendees mingle at our BioBeers network event.

Can we really align business and nature? What exactly is a regenerative economy? And how do we know when we’ve succeeded? And finally, can we actually fit the square peg of “natural capital” valuation into the round (w)hole of iterative ecosystems?

The search for sustainable, equitable answers to our most pressing global challenges is a quest that unites us all. Once you’ve searched for so long, and realize that nature can act as a guide, you see the world in a new and thrilling light.

Can we actually fit the square peg of “natural capital” valuation into the round (w)hole of iterative ecosystems?

Biomimicry is a science which not only studies nature’s best practices in sustainable innovation and design, but delivers implementation strategies that have been time-tested and nature-approved. When we look outside, biomimics not only see a forest or the trees, we see billions of years of lessons embedded in a vertically integrated system which upycycles all of its resources. I know, crazy, right? But true!

Thank goodness we can’t commodify gravity.

The natural world has developed sustainable methodologies that can be found in every type of biome and ecosystem the world over. Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, describes this universal foundation as “ubiquitous”. When we look to nature for answers, we find solutions that are grounded in physics, which our current economic system is designed to oppose. I mean, thank goodness we can’t commodify gravity.

Author Katherine Collins in conversation with a student from Parsons School of Design.
Author Katherine Collins in conversation with a student from Parsons School of Design.

The path of “business as usual” is no longer an option. There are signs of this shift in our culture today with the emergence of the “Sharing Economy” the “Circular Economy”, and the exponentially growing number of Social Enterprises which seek to do “more good” through business. Companies, especially multinationals, now think of their “stakeholders” along with their “shareholders”.

We have collectively come to this conclusion as a society – business must change in order for us to survive. Sustainability is crucial, but to be regenerative and give back from whence we take sets us on a course of meaningful contribution – in business, and in our lives. And we can do it through innovation and fun! Who knew?!

We are nature, but we’re really young, our biological elders are wise.

Janine and her team at Biomimicry 3.8 have developed what are called “Life’s Principles” which, “represent overarching patterns found amongst the species surviving and thriving on Earth.” (They’re called “principles”, because they evolve and are not imposed or static like “laws”). This is a set of standards by which the natural world, at its core, “creates conditions conducive to life”, and they can serve as a benchmark for our path. THIS is how we know we’re doing okay.

Nature not only makes life, but the conditions needed for life to propagate over the long-term. And a “regenerative economy” is one that also “creates conditions conducive to life”. “We are nature, but we’re really young,” Janine Benyus has observed, “… our biological elders are wise … I’d like us to become a species that not only fits in, but contributes.”

A regenerative economy is one that aligns the rules of business with the laws and principles of nature. In addition, it enables us to “become producers of ecosystem services”, a vision Ms. Benyus shared at the recent ESRI Geo-Design conference.

Janine Benyus describes her vision for resilient cities, using "Ecological Performance Standards".
Janine Benyus describes her vision for resilient cities, using “Ecological Performance Standards”.

Our speakers, Amy Larkin and Katherine Collins have studied and worked in both worlds. Pioneers in their fields, they described business standards, as well as economic metrics and finance methods to build and support a regenerative economy.

Amy Larkin, author of “Environmental Debt“, and BiomimicryNYC board member described her three rules for aligning business and nature:

  1. Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized.
  2. All government and business policy must incorporate the long-term.
  3. Government has a vital role to play.
Katherine Collins and Amy Larkin discuss new metrics and business standards at The #Regenerative Economy event

“Every financial transaction has an environmental impact and the environment is embedded in every financial transaction,” Ms. Larkin explained, “The financial and environmental world is as connected as your mind and body and until we make this connection we are in a course for collision with the laws of nature … Today we are less and less connected to nature in how we think, spend money … conduct business, consume food, and consume products. All of these measurements are done wrong.”

The financial and environmental world is as connected as your mind and body.

Katherine Collins, author of “The Nature of Investing” described biomimicry as a tool which, at its core asks, “What would nature do? … How do we invest AS nature? The fact that it is a question is quietly revolutionary.”

She added that this process, “…encourages you right from the very beginning to be clear about what exactly you’re trying to do. What is this essential function that you’re trying to perform? These are two elements that are so easy to skip over and biomimicry forces you right from the very beginning to get to that core. So instead of asking things like ‘what’ you end up asking ‘why’ and instead of asking ‘how much’ you end up asking ‘how’ and these are better, more important questions.”

The audience then asked questions, adding to the important conversations now being had about valuing natural capital and internalizing (natural resources which are considered) “externalities”. Some work has been done here, especially by TruCost accounting and their “Enviromental Profit and Loss” statement for PUMA.

Can we put a price on whole, iterative ecosystems?

Although we may be able to put a price on commodities and resources such as water, trees and soil, what about whole, iterative systems? Trees are actually not just one “thing”, they are integral elements which are part of a cohesive and interdependent ecosystem. Can you put a price on a biome which supports life? Can you really valuate ecosystem benefits in one place, at one time?

To this, Katherine Collins in her post-event interview with Triple Pundit remarked, “This (natural capital) view includes price, but also other measures of ecosystem services that are, quite literally, priceless. I am indeed wary of any approach that believes a single-point dollar amount can reflect true and complete value (of anything, not only nature).”

Solutions such as natural capital valuations may help us define the scope of our challenge, yet are limited in their ability to align and rejuvenate.

Impact Hub NYC, a co-working space and our event host.
Impact Hub NYC, a co-working space and our event host.

As the evening came to a close, most of the feedback we received were requests for more time for both networking and learning. BiomimicryNYC is now working on turning THE #REGENERATIVE ECONOMY into a series, and we hope you will join us.

Seeing nature as our sustainability compass.

As I write this, I realize that the real promise of biomimicry, a science which allows us to see the genius that surrounds us, is recognizing nature as our mentor. Kind of like Buddhism for business? The 30+ million species with which we share this planet have solved most of the challenges we currently face. Nature as our sustainability compass – consistent, clear, and real.

Biomimicry is one of the ways in which we will fundamentally change our relationship with our natural world. And that is a value connected to the depths of time, with infinite shareholder return.

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