2013-01-29

Co.Exist

Creating Resilence By Following Nature's Lead

The natural world has found ways to work and live in harmony for a long time. If we want to also survive and create sustainability systems, biomimicry may be the key.

The operating conditions of life are literally symphonic: They are a composition of elements, they have range, there are crescendos and valleys, they have melody and rhythm, they can be harmonic, powerful, even frightening. They are dynamic and in motion. Circadian rhythms, tidal rhythms, the seasonality of the distance of our planet from the sun, water flows, and nutrient cycling all fluxing in sync result in a world full of motion and change. While we can appreciate the elegance and seeming effortlessness of life’s ability to adapt to this symphony, it is incredibly hard for us to be so nimble. It is an enormous challenge to reconcile our value of predictability and fear of uncertainty with the dynamic motion of systems, though it has never been more relevant.

We have a lot to learn about resilience from observing the natural world. Why isn’t the prairie subject to epidemics like our agricultural systems? How does the water bear survive without access to water, sometimes for years?

The BEND Group is a collaboration between Biomimicry Professional program alumni Amy Coffman Philips, Maria O’Farrell, and Lindsay James. They have developed a workshop for organizations to explore their own potential for resiliency based on biomimicry, or life-based, principles. Here they share their favorite example of resilience in nature:

“One particular example we love is social insect colonies, like the harvester ants. They are able to maintain their colony through a disturbance, such as nest damage, by continually capturing information and communicating with each other in a way that is incorruptible, through chemical signals on their antennae. Under normal conditions, individuals carry out tasks to maintain the colony, such as food foraging, waste removal, and nest rebuilding. But these tasks are flexible and able to be reallocated in direct response to the needs of the colony, such as a disturbance to the nest. By allowing for autonomy and trusting the genius in the individual, ant colonies are able to respond quickly to disturbance and also to know when it is time to go back to a new normal.”

Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI) applies ecological thinking for radical transformation towards what they call "business inspired by nature." Denise Deluca works with BCI focused on Radical Innovation and Leadership Inspired by Nature. Deluca knows that given the rapid rate of change, volatility, and unpredictability that characterizes most aspects our world--technologies, the economy, politics, even our climate--the old predict-and-protect model is no longer viable.

“Resilience is about the ability to recover after a disturbance, even when we don’t know what hit us," she says.

"We can build resilience into our businesses using nature as a model by:

  • Continuously creating mutations then rigorously testing them, eliminating those that don’t work, and fostering those that just might be the key to surviving the next disruption--or even creating it.
  • Providing redundancy for functions that are crucial to survival. This means having two or more distinctly different ways of accomplishing the same thing.
  • Fostering a diversity of people and thinking and approaches and practices throughout the organization. There is an unbelievable diversity of "bugs" in the soil. Only a fraction is active at any time, but the diversity means that the soil can recover and do its many jobs under almost any circumstances.
  • Maintaining dynamic flexible optimization across your systems, both internal and external, rather than striving to maximize or minimize individual components. Mycelium is a fungal network in the soil interconnecting the roots of plants and trees in the forest that distributes information and resources throughout the ecosystem to ensure that a hit to one part of the system doesn’t take down the whole."

“It’s important it is to remember that resilience is an emergent property,” says the BEND Group. “All too often, we begin discussing resilience during or immediately following a disturbance, such as a natural disaster. But at this point it is often too late. Resilient systems emerge when strategies are embedded prior to disturbance so that the rules of the system can take over and allow the system to maintain its function both during the disturbance and in the period afterward.”

Biomimics are planning ahead by studying models of resilience in the natural world and abstracting deep principles that we can apply. We don’t know what’s coming, but if we start designing for resilience now, we have about 3.8 billion years’ worth of models from nature to follow to help us roll with it.

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2 Comments

  • Valdemar W. Setzer

    Hi, Erin,
    The idea of basing our social organization, including enterprises, on nature is not new. Rudolf Steiner advanced this idea in his 1919 book "Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Fragen", GA (complete works) 23, translated as Basic Issues of the Social Question.  But his approach is to model social organizations not on various examples from nature, but from the human being. It is a fact that normally we are not sick. There is an inner harmony in our constitution. If social institutions are organized having the human being as their model, they will also have the same resilience. One of the basis for such organization is that we have different systems, each with its own characteristics and functions, with some independency but integrated in the whole. For instance, our mental activities require calm, isolation and inner action; on the opposite pole, our motor activities are based upon movement and outer action. In society as a whole, Steiner detected three different areas: "economic life" (should exist to satisfy needs, not just physical but also cultural; here a kind of socialism is the ideal), "judicial-political life" (regulation of human interactions, the ideal is democracy) and "spiritual life" (involving creativity, the ideal is liberalism). These areas should have as their main foundation, respectively, the spirits of fraternity (solidarity), equality and liberty. They have to be independent, but work in harmony. Also, each realm has always some characteristics of the others, because in humans and society nothig is and should be well defined, delimited, rigid. Otherwise we regard and treat humans and social organizations as artificial machines.

  • Emily Sadigh

    Great piece, Erin. The point about redundancy reminds me of something I heard about cross-training in Europe: since vacations are generally longer than in the U.S., employees are routinely cross-trained to cover for other employees who are out for multiple weeks of vacation. This enables everyone to take their full vacation time, get refreshed & be personally resilient, and brings new ideas to the organization when a new person takes on an existing role for a short period.