What Businesses Can Learn From Nature

Nature has had far longer to perfect its organizational structures than humanity. Recorded history only began 6,000 years ago. The Dutch East India Company, the first publicly traded company and herald of the age of capitalism and the modern business, was chartered in 1602, a mere 400 years ago.

400 years seems like a long time, and 6,000 years like an eternity. But both pale in insignificance to the 3.8 billion years since life first emerged, and the 600 million years since the first multicellular organism developed.  So instead of us trying to figure out the optimal business model, wouldn’t it be more effective to look to nature’s systems for inspiration? Recently, we’ve begun doing just this. The concept is referred to as biomimicry. The biomimicry movement began in 1997 with Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry: Inspired by Nature, and Biomimicry 3.8 was established in 2005 to serve as a consulting organization dedicated to helping with both the technical and organizational aspects of biomimicry. Biomimicry 3.8 has already worked with 250 companies including Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, General Electric, General Mills, Nike, and Procter and Gamble. Various other books and articles have also been published on the issue. In 2002, the Chairman of Mitsubishi America co-authored What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature. 2010 saw the publishing of The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller, then senior editor at the National Geographic, looking at “what ants, bees, fish, and smart swarms can teach us about communication, organization, and decision-making.” In 2012, Michael Pink’s Rainforest Strategy: The Planet’s Most Successful Business Model was published. These are but the most notable examples. In 2011, Biomimicry 3.8, in collaboration with HOK - a global design, architecture, and engineering firm - began publishing the Genius of Biome report to comprehensively analyze what can be learned about organizational systems from the temperate broadleaf forest biome. However, despite these advances, biomimicry has yet to reach the mainstream of business organization, although the direction of the trend is clearly towards increasing influence. So what exactly can business learn from nature? Biomimicry is a wide field, but there are four major areas in which current biomimicry efforts focus. One area relates to decentralization and differentiation. Ants, for example, have a decentralized flow of information: the ants that gather data relay it directly to the relevant ants rather than routing everything inefficiently through a centralized distribution system, as described in a Forbes article. Furthermore, natural systems are divided into niches, with cooperation among differentiated entities, which is more efficient than competition; in ecosystems, for example, each species fulfills a specific role. This rule can be applied both within a business, ensuring everyone has a separate task and ample room for cross-departmental collaboration. Externally, this means differentiating a certain product, appealing to a particular niche, and cooperating with incumbents rather than attempting competition head-on. Another concept also based on ecosystems is that of integrated, closed-loop systems. This means using waste from one process as input for another. A new discipline, industrial ecology, deals with attempts to model industrial processes on natural systems. The International Society for Industrial Ecology coordinates efforts to develop and promote the discipline. The third area of focus is collective endeavor: how to cooperate and collaborate effectively. One frequently cited example is a fungi network. These gather nutrients from farther away and trade them with the plant for sugar, eliminating the need for the plants to develop extensive root networks. The basic business lesson is that outsourcing supply networks and collaborating closely with those suppliers can increase efficiency and reduce infrastructure costs. Swarms, too, such as ants and bees, can provide lessons about collective endeavor. For one, according to Peter Miller in The Smart Swarm, cultivating a collective attitude towards success in which workers have involvement in the process increases the commitment and efficiency of employees. Going hand in hand with this, trusting your workers and delegating is effective. The Genius of Biome report highlights a further interesting example in nature, in which a flower is pollinated by different species at different times of the day; the bee in the morning, the bird in the afternoon, and the bat at night. It suggests the same could be applied to scarce resources: rather than different departments within a business, or different businesses, competing for outright ownership, a system of sharing would be far more efficient. For example, with meeting rooms. This builds upon the idea of differentiation. The final aspect is self-organization. The Genius of Biome report uses forests and ecosystems as examples of this. By being self-organizing rather than top-down systems, they are more flexible, more adaptable to new circumstances, and more resilient to unexpected shocks. The system can fluidly re-organize itself to account for problems in one part of the organization without requiring a comprehensive top-down solution. All these aspects are related in that they deal with a broader shift of thought: systems thinking. Systems thinking is a new paradigm that began in biology but has since spread that views phenomena as integrated systems that value the relationships between the nodes rather than the nodes themselves. An important concept is emergence: the characteristics of a system emerge only at the level of the system as a whole, not as the sum of its components. Autopoeisis forms the central tenet of systems thinking. It holds that social, economic, and organizational systems are living, dynamic networks rather than static machines, and that they operate in a context, as nodes of larger networks, actively interacting with their external environment. Biomimicry is a central component of this fundamental shift of thinking, as this Guardian article elucidates. Given that systems thinking originated in biology, it is in many ways the inspiration. Biomimicry is still a fringe movement in business, and systems thinking has yet to make significant headway into the corporate world despite its successes in other disciplines. However, the trend is clear, and welcome. When we want a new car, we don’t walk outside and start trying out different arrangements of the materials we find; we buy a ready-made car from manufacturers who have had decades to figure out the best car design. When we want to cook a new meal, we look for a new recipe from cooks who have spent their lives cooking rather than experimenting ourselves. So why not do the same for business? We have had a mere 6,000 years, and only 400 years since we really got going to figure out the best organizational systems. Nature has had 3.8 billion years; that’s 19,000 times as long. No matter how slow its progress may have been, with that difference in order of magnitude it’s unlikely that nature has nothing to teach us.

  • Richard

    I agree. A wise businessman in the Caribbean named Sir Kyffin Simpson always said that the key to success is progression and humility, and clearly he’s done very well for himself as a self made man!

  • John Andrews

    The Airgain IPO launches this week, and they’re a one-brand company.

    Some investors don’t think it’s a good stock though:

  • Cincinnati World Cinema

    Well said, Joe, and worth rereading on a regular basis! Another advantage of small-to-midsize city living is pace and competition. Living in NYC, LA and SF entailed a hectic pace, hallmarked by capital S striving, as one realized there were a ton of others doing what I do. Spending so much time in one’s car in SoCal meant much less time for quality pursuits and pleasures. A smaller pond with relaxed pace allows one to savor life and special moments.

Executive Profile with Kat Cole
BT (Betty Liu): I’ve been reading about your biography and you have and background for someone working in business. Could you tell me more about where you started out and what inspired you to work in business? Kat Cole: I grew up with a single parent: an alcoholic father. I’m the oldest of three girls, …
Shell GM William Langin Offers Advice to Current Undergrads
BT: What advice do you have on how to make a good impression and get ahead when you first enter the workplace (similar to the advice you also shared with me and Joanna what not to do i.e. attempt to be a know-it-all, to develop strong technical skills, etc.)? Langin: The best way to get …
Shell GM William Langin Sheds Light on the Energy Industry
BT: Shell is actively expanding the sources of energy it can provide as part of the energy mix. Could you please tell us a little about Shell’s global energy initiatives and how Shell is planning to supply energy? Langin: Society faces a dual challenge: how to make a transition to a low-carbon energy future to …