Biomimicry: What Can A Bee Colony Teach Us About Sustainable Business Performance?

Sustainable Business Practices from Biomimicry 

The natural world parallels the man-made world in many ways. Think of a bee colony with scouts going out on patrol to find the best food sources and hive locations. This could be compared to the first humans and the first Americans as they scouted and sought the best areas to settle. A coral reef can be compared to a community, the reef being the “town” and the various species that rely on the reef it’s residents. What lessons can a bee colony or a coral reef teach us about sustainable business performance?

On June 7, 2016, Janine Benyus delivered the Sustainable Brands San Diego Conference Biomimicry Keynote: “Nature’s Lessons on Purpose-driven Leadership and Design: Applying Decades’ Worth of Pioneering Biomimicry Research”. Janine, founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature , was the first person to coin the word “biomimicry” to describe examining natural designs and applying them to human applications. Ms. Benyus’ lecture examined how sustainable business performance and forward thinking leadership can increase business performance if leaders look to nature for answers to their most daunting problems.

Biomimicry Explained And Historic Perspective

Biologist Janine Benyus created the term “biomimicry” in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature to describe the concept of taking designs, blueprints, and concepts from the natural world and applying them to man-made applications.

Mankind has been trying his hand at biomimicry for centuries and flight was his first obsession. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was perhaps the first biomimetic to appreciate the designs of the natural world as his studies of birds inspired him to sketch a flying machine and the Wright Brothers were influenced by their observations of pigeons in flight. The most documented use of biomimicry was in 1948 when Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, inspired by the way cockleburs stuck to his dog’s coat, would later develop Velcro.

The point of biomimicry is to draw upon the designs of nature to spark innovative ideas based on what the natural world has already “figured out”, through thousands of years of natural selection.

According to Janine Benyus, “A sustainable world already exists in nature, we simply need to access that knowledge. We need to access the natural design blueprints, ecosystem strategies, chemical blueprints and even the purpose that nature has has blueprints for. What’s new about biomimicry is we are not harvesting or domesticating species; instead we are evaluating them for what they can learn from them”.

As we have become increasingly aware of our impact on the world, forward thinking organizations are working with scientists to turn the tide on centuries of abuse and neglect of the planet. These organizations realize that they have responsibilities not just to the future success of their organizations but to the planet from which they get the materials for their functioning. The thought is taking hold that if we take care and enhance what we have now, we will have more for the future.

The Future of Sustainable Business Performance

While many companies are embracing the new paradigm shifts looking toward sustainability, others are undergoing paradigm paralysis, unable to accept sustainability, green living, conservation or many of the concepts of the “new”, environmentally conscious society. Most organizations believe that “zero” environmental impact is the goal, however; this is not the case. The focus should be on “net positive”, to give back more than you take from the natural world. Progressive business process modeling should include innovative thinking toward the future and requires strong leadership styles to accomplish these goals.

Janine spoke about companies that are becoming increasingly curious how nature solves certain problems and ways her company, Biomimicry 3.8, has helped create innovative products the sustainable business performance of forward thinking companies. Some of these include –

  • A smokestack filtration system based on the concept of a mangrove forest’s ability to filter sediments from water to create soil
  • A glue created from a synthetic version of zirconium oxide by the University of Utah based on zirconium oxide beads created by sandcastle worms for protection
  • New York based Panelite’s ClearShade insulating glass is modeled after the hexagonal structure of a honeycomb, reducing the amount of light coming in thus reducing energy costs
  • Modern fighter jets delta shaped wings allow them to reach supersonic speeds thanks to the inherent design characteristics of the harbor porpoise
  • Another company will mimic the catalysts in plants to take CO2 and methane from smokestacks, trickle it through brine or sea water and precipitate limestone to creating raw material with CO2.

The possibilities that have been opened up by looking to nature for untapped inspiration to solve some of mankind’s most taxing problems are limitless.

Nature and Leadership – Is There A Connection?

Many wonder if nature and leadership have a correlation and if leadership techniques can be learned by looking to the natural world. Techniques from nature can be added to the business process model of any company and innovative thinking requires strong leadership techniques such as these. According to Ms Benyus, nature teaches us five leadership styles –

  1. Collective – Look to the spotted hyena or the lioness for examples of collective leadership. Hunting takes cooperative actions from each member of the pack to be successful
  2. Shared – The common flickertail of the Northern Plains of America provides an example of shared leadership as each member shares the role as a lookout for dangerous situations
  3. Distributive – When we speak of distributive leadership we speak of democracy and humans are not alone in creating democratic systems. Honeybees make decisions based on information brought back to the hive by worker bees. As information is disseminated by each bee to the rest of the hive, decisions are made as to the best location to obtain food
  4. Rotating – As geese fly in their familiar “V” shaped formation, there is always a lead bird. However, he eventually tires of leading and relents his position to another goose who then takes up the lead position
  5. Purposeful – The is typically the primary hunter for the pride and she will place her cubs, in a purposeful manner, in an area where they can observe her as she hunts so they can learn from observation

Nature teaches us that we can take observations from nature and leadership to our organizations and take our “pack” towards a common goal. In the future, business, nature and humanity can coexist. Janine tells us we can lead by setting direction within our organizations and distributing leadership among multiple leaders, following simple rules of alignment, coherence, and randomizing. Providing constant interaction and feedback and taking turns because all of our journeys, both nature’s and man’s, are a long flight toward the same goal, to create a sustainable world for the continuity of life.

Edited by Debbe Ferris

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