The audience last Thursday was filled with more professionals, graduate students and professors than the undergrads I had expected. A rowdy and friendly crowd of MBA candidates from the Presidio School of Management settled next to me as Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, began her talk for the College of Environmental Design’s 50th anniversary celebration. UC Berkeley’s CED was the first academic program to synchronize the disciplines of environmental design, urban planning, and architecture so it is no wonder they are fans of biomimicry, a design approach that leads to stunning, sustainable and cross-disciplinary solutions in among others, the fields of architecture , healthcare , transportation , agriculture, industrial, supply chain, software, defense, telecomm, business and environmental design.
The discoveries are irresistible. Slime mold is not only gorgeous but apparently rocks as a model for efficient resource delivery. Their ideas come from the “small” research tactics of science but the implications can be large such as their guidelines for Ecological Performance Standards which would hold cities to the solar, filtration, soil erosion… full ecosystem performance indicators that existed before humans started building in a location. Imagine San Francisco re-designed to function like an old growth forest where buildings with roofs like rainforest leaves drip water to flush toilets and walls like Namibian Stenocara eburnean beetles capture fog to fill water fountains.
It is easy to dismiss biomimicry as beautiful but utopian fluff, as a bit hip dip or, conversely, to be swept away into a metaphorical non-specificity where applicability is vaguely inspiring but lost. However careers, products, processes, research, companies, industries and economies are already here and profitable. Open Colony works with these companies as they are leaders in innovation and we will continue to track them and other similar trends in our research over time. Our ears perk up whenever we observe next-gen jobs developing around domain convergence such as when Benyus, a biologist by training and a writer by trade, earned a top designer award from Business Week. T-shaped executives excel at the convergence, a term Frans Johannsson also discusses in his book The Medici Effect, when describing innovation. Bio-inspired work is good for us. For how can we fair poorly in an organization designed around life’s principals; around experiences and economies designed to produce conditions conducive to life? How does Chief Sustainability Officer at a Building Company or Ad Agency strike you? How about Head of User Experience Design at a green car company? How about Chief Innovation and Sustainability Officer at an investment firm?
Of course industrial ecology is not new. In the early 1990s, Eric Bonabeau, an R&D engineer at France Telecom, did some research with Guy Theraulaz, an ecologist, about how ants discover the most efficient routes to food. Bonabeau then applied their discoveries to routing inefficiencies, a recurrent telecommunications network problem. By applying insect behavior to computer algorithms his work became the foundation of “swarm intelligence”, a tool currently used in many corporations including Jeff Dachis’ new company, DachisGroup.
After the lecture I asked Benyus about where to find innovation in nature for our work at Open Colony. I sought direction for how to design and understand jobs, companies, economies and work at large? After a quick disclaimer about the dangers of Social Darwinism, she directed me to two areas of ecological research: community ecology and resilience systems, studies into why some communities survive catastrophe and others don’t. Currently piecemeal business-related solutions exist, from efficient file-sharing to asset recycling and software design but we seek a complex and fully formed design model for a company and its communications, a design for it to thrive within its habitat and provide meaningful work.
Benyus shared that in nature, all work is about a function, a canopy provides canopy, implying that our work should also have purpose. Mature ecosystems and species are here for one thing only, to assure that they survive any disruption for generations to come ad infinitum. Is the rational conclusion of Benyus idea then that our work be designed only for survival? And if so, what would that look like?
Benyus doesn’t answer this question directly but she does point to several tenets as a model for healthy businesses and economies. She says that healthy ecosystems require collaboration as well as competition (see examples in her book of pre-competitive technology sharing between Japanese car companies and resource food chains in Denmark), designing with limits as opposed to around them, using waste like a resource (recycling cars and copiers, downloading new computers), diversifying within a species (or job functions) like prairies do and even acting with generosity (gasp).
Beynus also addresses communications design. She explains that top down communication doesn’t play a large role in healthy ecosystems (knowing that most CEOs vastly overestimate their ability to communicate to their immediate peers much less their entire staffs this didn’t surprise me) but have multiple communications systems, including from the bottom up, dispersed throughout the community structure. A rich feedback system allows a change in one component of the community to reverberate through the whole, allowing for adaptation when the environment changes. This idea is an useful touchstone in the social media era as companies decide how to evolve their communications within their organizations and out to customers, partners, investors and media.
On the other hand, power at the top should not be discounted. Sociologist James Hunter, says that innovation happens through great institutional change, at the confluence of and with the conscious use of social, cultural, financial and political capital. However both Hunter and Benyus agree that innovation requires great institutional and social change.
As for our floating, growing colony, please stay tuned as we venture into SCIENCE for the ultimate, complete, complex and gorgeous company, communications and work designs out there waiting for us. And in the meantime enjoy the following bio-jobs and resources:
Jobs Open Colony tracks and places…
• Head of experience design for a green automotive company
• Chief Experience & Sustainability Officer for a hospital
• Executive Creative Director for a biomimicry inspired medicine
• Head of sustainability for a cloud computing, Green IT, Green Building
• “BAT” jobs, biologists are at the table at Ad agencies, Design Companies, Architecture
• Chief Design and Marketing Executive at a green CPG company
• Head of Sustainability at a Sustainable investment and research firm
• Sustainability professor at a school for design
• CTO for a solar energy company