Every single system on our planet is now in need of radical change. The answers to changing the world lie in the hands of people who are willing to explore outside of the status quo to craft a life that is authentic and meaningful – in alignment with the wisdom of nature; those who have their eye on their own future, and the future of the world. For business to succeed in these volatile times, it must transform by becoming more emergent, interconnected, values-led, organic, and inspired by nature.
Ecological principles act as guidelines for how nature works and how ecosystems develop resilience. These same ecological principles can help redesign our organisations and economies through new approaches that are quite different from the current ‘take-make-waste’ paradigm. We are part of nature, and so it simply makes sense to understand the constraints and organising forces of nature. Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8 billion years and she is constantly perfecting approaches to survival and resilience that are relevant for organisations that also wish to be resilient.
The more we explore nature’s wisdom, the more we find insights for the transformation our organisations need. For example, industrial ecology challenges the over-exploitative behaviour of the old outdated paradigm. It takes inspiration from nature in exploring how systems can be more interconnected and less linear – where waste from one part of the ecosystem is input for another, and so there is no need for wasteful emissions of any kind (whether gas, liquid or solid waste), as long as the right interconnections are in place.
“Biomimicry is basically taking a design challenge and then finding an ecosystem that’s already solved that challenge, and literally trying to emulate what you learn.”
— Janine Benyus
Biomimicry – Conscious Emulation of Life’s Genius
Understanding the patterns and principles of nature can provide insight into how best to future-proof business for the unpredictability ahead. Biomimicry is an exciting emergent discipline that explores how nature works and how we can learn from nature to solve human problems. Humans have been learning from other species for many thousands of years, yet biomimicry as a formal concept is more recent. The word ‘biomimicry’ itself was coined by Janine Benyus and originates from the Greek bios (life) and mimesis (imitation). Biomimicry has three key aspects:
Nature as a Model
We can study Nature’s models and then imitate, or take inspiration from, these proven designs and processes to solve our human problems.
Nature as a Measure
Levels of success are measured by aspiring to reach ecological standards. In this way, we can judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations because, after 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works, what is appropriate, and what lasts.
Nature as a Mentor
By viewing and valuing nature as our greatest teacher, rather than only on what we can extract from the natural world, every situation is a learning opportunity.
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
6 Principles of Nature
We now know that life is neither innately selfish nor driven by dog-eat-dog competition. Nature is a rich interplay of reciprocity, networking, cooperation and competition. True sustainability is being in harmony with Nature by learning to participate as co-creators in the immense beauty of life. Nature’s inspiration can help us re-align minds, hearts and souls. It helps us remember that we are expressions within a deeper matrix of Nature. The bright future of business lies in its scientific, sensuous and soulful understanding of Nature’s wisdom beyond the confines of yesterday’s divisive logic of dog-eat-dog competition and anthropocentric separateness. Successful adaptation and evolution in nature is less about competition and more about cooperation, networking, and finding niches within ecosystems of relationships and resources. In this way, biomimicry and nature’s principles can be successfully applied to business transformation. Nature is, and always will be, our greatest teacher.
At all scales of nature, we find living systems nesting and interconnecting within other living systems-networks within networks. Boundaries within and among systems are not boundaries of strict separation but boundaries of identity and interaction. All living systems are interconnected, communicate with one another, and share resources across their boundaries.
All living organisms must feed on continual flows of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive, and in turn, all living organisms continually contribute flows of matter and energy to their environment. Reciprocity is key. As a whole, an ecosystem generates no net waste because one species’ waste becomes another species food. Matter and energy transform and cycle continually through the web of life.
#4 Solar Energy
Solar energy is transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants. This is the foundation of ecological cycles (there are some rare exceptional non-solar ecosystems, such as deep-sea vent ecosystems driven by energy from Earth’s molten core).
The exchange of energy and resources within an ecosystem is sustained by pervasive cooperation. Contrary to what you may have been taught, life did not take over the planet by combat but by cooperation, partnership and networking.
Ecosystems achieve robustness and resilience through the richness and complexity of their ecological webs. The greater their biodiversity, the more resilient they are.
#1 Dynamic Balance
An ecosystem is a flexible, responsive, ever-fluctuating network. Flexibility is a consequence of multiple dynamic sense-and-respond feedback loops that keep the system in a state of dynamic balance. No single variable is maximised or minimised. All variables fluctuate in concert around a collective optimum.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
— Lao Tzu
Models From Nature
Inspiration gained from nature’s wisdom can greatly help organisations during this period of volatility. Humanity as a global community and economy now has an opportunity to positively and dramatically shift from over-exploiting nature for its own gain to understanding her innate wisdom. There are fundamental lessons we can learn from nature about how we can better understand, live with, and even leverage dynamic change and resource limitations at a product, process, and system design level. We can learn how to redesign our organisations for resilience and how to live as positive participants within our ecosystems.
Inspired by Relationships
Similar to business, there are constant flows and exchanges of resources in nature: water, energy, materials, nutrients, information. Relationships in nature are multifaceted and dynamic – two organisms can have many different types of relationships over time, or even at the same time. Think of two trees side by side in a forest. On the surface, it may seem as if they are competing for exactly the same resources in the same location. Yet the trees have evolved to live together collaboratively in the forest. Here, the benefits each organism gains from the existence of the other outweigh the costs of competition. Different types of relationships, intended and unintended, lead to cause-and-effect connections between and within the kingdoms of nature – plants, algae, animals, fungi, and bacteria – allowing for coexistence benefiting and/or costing each relationship. Generally, the more participants and relationships that exist in an ecosystem, the more resilient the ecosystem will be. Relationship types include:
- Predator-Prey and Parasitism (“win-lose” where one gains at the other’s expense) such as a threadworm or hookworm parasite feeding from the wall of your small intestine.
- Commensalism (“win-neutral” where one gains and the other is neither directly gaining nor losing) A good example of this is the anemonefish, which gains protection living among the poisonous tentacles of the sea anemone. This little fish offers no known benefit to its host while also causing it no harm.
- Mutualism (“win-win” where both benefit from each other) such as the relationship between bees and flowering plants, with bees gaining energy from the flowers’ nectar and the plants benefiting from bee pollination.
In business it is not always obvious which parts of the organisation are not overtly adding value and merely there for the ride, and which parts are providing subtle benefits unmeasured by the normal performance assessment process. Cutting dead wood from an organisation in challenging times may be prudent. However, damaging a useful web of stakeholder relationships in times when greater resilience is needed is not prudent. There is a fine line between prudent pruning and reducing the organisation’s resilience. Transformative redesigning for resilience must go hand in hand with optimisation. Finding the right harmony between creativity and productivity is key, as is fostering a sense of trust and sharing across the business ecosystem. The more we recognise the importance of relationships within organisations, the more we understand that a strong, values-led culture is a core part of redesigning for resilience.
Inspired by Soil
Below ground, the soil is simply bursting with life! The living community in one teaspoonful of healthy soil includes 100 million bacterial cells, hundreds of metres of fungal hyphae, 10,000 protozoans and a similar number of algal propagules, as well as larger microarthropods and worms – each playing important roles in the living ecosystem of the soil. There are primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers and contributors within soil. They each create a complex and multifaceted food web with a high degree of diversity, providing excellent resilience. Soil is akin to organisational culture. From a rich culture, employee enthusiasm thrives. Like soil, overexploitation through unbalanced short-term, KPI-focused, monocultural approaches to business erode this richness that is so important to growing a resilient, vibrant organisation.
Inspired by Fungi
Fungi specialise in interconnecting other living entities, with most land plants depending on them. Fungi are much older than plants. They evolved in the sea some 700 million years before plants, then moved to land 70 million years before plants. Fungi extract minerals and nutrients from rocks, which they then feed to plants in a partnership that is one of the most fundamental examples of mutualism on the planet. This partnership allowed plants to thrive on the Earth’s surface and led to the oxygenation of our atmosphere, a crucial evolutionary step for life on Earth.
While fungi gain food from the decomposition of plants, plants gain nutrients and life-supporting services from fungi. Fungi, through their underground network of mycelium fibres, connect stationary plants with hundreds of other plants. They share nutrients between plants, which encourages diversity within the ecosystem. A healthy diverse forest helps to ensure the fungi live in a more resilient environment. Fungi also provide plants with protection from parasites, while also filtering out toxins that accumulate in the plants. Mycologists Alan Rayner and Christian Taylor describe fungi as the “brains of the soil”. This “neurological network of nature” senses the movement of organisms across the land, taking action upon activity – like a falling branch. Fungi thrive in uncertainty, adapting to dynamic change through responsiveness, flexibility, opportunism, and local attunement. Like a matrix – a bio-molecular superhighway – the mycelium is in constant dialogue with its environment, reacting to and governing the flow of essential nutrients cycling through the food chain. These incredible networkers and facilitators of the soil are a source of wisdom in so many ways.
Inspired by Swarms
The idea of humans swarming is frightening, invoking visions of uncontrollable chaos or anarchy. However, swarms formed by other social organisms in nature, like ants, bees, and termites, are so beautifully choreographed and effective as a functioning unit that they are sometimes called ‘superorganisms’. This leaderless collective decision-making ability is referred to as ‘swarm intelligence.’ In this way, teamwork is self-organised and coordinated through individual insects (bottom-up emergence rather than top-down hierarchy). Each insect interacts simply with the other ones around it. The collective can, therefore, solve difficult problems that any one individual could not. It is an emergent and leaderless decision-making process based on the collective support of the available options.
Collectively, this seemingly chaotic diversity and creativity, flourishing through bottom-up emergence can yield far more responsive, self-adapting organisational behaviour than any top-down command-and-control approach, and with much less costly management. This insight from nature supports a virtuous cycle approach to organisational learning and culture. The more that individuals in an organisation are allowed the freedom to behave and work in ways that uniquely optimise their skills and choices, the more they can support the underlying order, as well as the goals of the organisation as a whole.
“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe,
to match your nature with Nature.”
— Joseph Campbell
Conscious Regenerative Business - The Way Nature Intended
Our understanding of how life works is undergoing a metamorphosis. And with it, so is our understanding of how organisations find resilience in times of volatility. Life is intricately inter-related, deeply sentient and purposeful. Whether it’s the cells within us, our human bodies, the wider socio-economic and ecological ecosystems we live within, or the organisations we attend for work each day – all of these living systems display specific characteristics and traits. To cultivate this nutritious cultural soil, we need an approach to leadership that is quite different from the traditional leadership development and managerial approaches many of us have been trained and practiced in: a new leadership paradigm.
The most fundamental shift facing our leaders and managers today is a shift in our way of being, knowing and thinking. This shift is foundational to any meaningful transformation towards a resilient, life-affirming business. This is a profound shift that affects every one of us, from the boardroom to the shop floor. There are now ample tools, techniques, and case studies we can take inspiration from in starting to allow our organisations to become vibrant, future-fit, life-affirming organisations. We invite you to join the growing collective of Conscious Regenerative Leaders, drawing inspiration from pioneering thinking within biomimicry, wellbeing economy, biophilia, sociology, anthropology, complexity theory, and next-stage phoenix leadership development. Join us in connecting the dots between these fields through a powerful DNA model that enables leadership to become conscious and regenerative: in harmony with life, building thriving, prosperous organisations amid these transformational times. A bright, successful future requires a new way. Taste-test this bite-sized introduction to leadership of the future today!
“Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality.”
— Tony Hillerman