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What can changemakers learn from nature?

In order to create impact in the world, changemakers must be resilient towards disturbances along the way. The challenges that changemakers face include understanding the complex nature of the problems they're trying to solve, as well as the network of stakeholders involved.

As society becomes increasingly connected, the complexity of these challenges has amplified. Therefore, developing a robust framework for identifying, analysing and managing change in a dynamic world is essential.

My postgraduate research on Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins delved into this topic, and sought alternative approaches to navigating these changes. Investigating other sectors such as biology, economics and innovation, I came across a model that has managed to survive various 'shocks', ‘randomness’ and ‘volatility’ for the past 3.8 billion years: the natural world.

In this world, inhabitants across many natural ecosystems conduct their activities in the most efficient way, aptly using their energy and allowing for adaptation when the environment changes. To maintain the equilibrium, each organism has its own distinctive role and established relationships with other species for further support.

If an organism fails to fill its niche, a resilient ecosystem will quickly readjust its strategy for adaptation. These principles in nature serve as an exemplary model that changemakers could use to invigorate their vision of societal transformation.

Using nature as inspiration for change

This raises the question: What if changemakers acted in a similar way to organisms? How might innovators use nature to better understand their complex ecosystems? This notion of associating human-made with natural systems is not a new one; the practice of biomimicry involves applying nature's intelligence to transform the way our activities are conducted.

We’re already accustomed to terms such as 'business ecosystem' or 'innovation ecosystem' as a way to portray elaborate networks of stakeholders. Here we can see how natural models offer an alternative method of looking at things, particularly in helping to analyse complex systems. Understanding the concepts of resilience and change management from the natural world could also play an important part in helping independent agents, teams and organisations to become better enablers of innovation.

Burdock plants produce burrs with tiny hooks andwere the inspiration for Velcro tape.

At the moment, biomimicry is mainly used in product development, such as Velcro tape that was modeled on burrs, Japan's Shinkansen train design that derived its shape from a bird’s beak, or wind turbine blades inspired by the agile flippers of a whale.

Using nature as inspiration has propelled designers to produce more efficient products. However, the use of biomimicry is still far from its potential, where it could provide a blueprint on how to foster change at both organisational and societal levels. The work of Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8, explores how references from nature can present solutions for some of the difficult challenges faced by corporations, NGOs and government entities.

Ant colonies commonly serve as a reference towards human-made networks and their problems.

Meanwhile, other attempts to make nature-based references applicable to organisational contexts can be found in tools such as IDEO’s Nature Cards, or capacity training for businesses similar to The Bio-Leadership Project. Within academia, there have been several investigations into the benefits of observing superorganisms for their management style, for example in Dr. Meredith Belbin’s Coming Shape of Organisation or Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker’s Teeming.

But despite the promise of biomimicry within practical and intellectual landscape, only a fraction of changemakers have so far probed the natural world in search of traits to support delivering impact in society.

Testing out a biomimicry approach at Nesta

The Innovation Skills team at Nesta tested this approach in April, through a workshop on the resilience of a new learning initiative they are launching. This initiative aims to strengthen innovation capacity across governments by improving learning processes in the public sector.

In order to achieve this, the team needed to identify its position within a complex network of stakeholders and detect potential obstacles in the system. To support this, I saw an opportunity for biomimicry to be applied.

At the beginning of the workshop, the team participated in a preparation stage, where references from social animal groups and ecosystems were briefly introduced in relation to teamwork styles. Several initial questions were posed, including: what animal or vegetation do you identify yourself with and why? What features does it have and what are their functions? In response to an external threat, what attributes would you add or subtract? This exercise acted as a metaphor to investigate durability within nature and to further understand the initiative’s complex ecosystem.

The value of metaphors resides in their ability to capture knowledge from one source, in this case the natural world, and to apply it to a different issue. Taking into consideration that the issue for this workshop was resilient organisational culture, the team reflected on which animal groups and ecosystems in nature they associated themselves with.

The team focused on ant colonies, in which they saw similar processes of problem solving, decision making and collaboration. Making the metaphor tangible and visible helped to focus the conversation at hand. The workshop successfully balanced the practice of breaking down problems into smaller counterparts while simultaneously synthesising the big picture, which was imperative in analysing the initiative’s resistance against potential disruptions.

One thing to note from this approach is the fact that in order for metaphors to be useful, they have to be relevant within a certain context or issue. Visualising animal groups and ecosystems supported the team to grasp important organisational lessons on how to strengthen the overall network of stakeholders.

The conversations initiated in the workshop eventually led to a concrete plan of action on how to design a self-sustaining ecosystem within the initiative. These outcomes demonstrate how changemakers can utilise biomimicry as a medium to reflect on the complexity of their conceptualised ‘ecosystem’. By identifying both significant and latent actors, we can analyse potential weak links and design a strategy on how to enhance the ecosystem’s resilience further.

How change makers could use biomimicry

By using frameworks of nature-based metaphors, changemakers could potentially understand their complex networks and interrelating stakeholders better. Moreover, embodying these metaphors with the aid of tangible tools, accelerates the reflection process.

This increased understanding of the ‘ecosystem’ would enable changemakers to visualise their position within the landscape that they operate, investigate more deeply their relations within the stakeholders, and identify dependences among them. In doing so, changemakers would be able to establish vulnerabilities and possible disruptions within the system, thus fostering resilient strategies.

Eventually, making elements from the natural world accessible, serves as an alternative lens to portray intricate processes and communicate possible solutions in pursuing challenges.

Image Credits:

Burdock plants - Andy Beecroft via Wikimedia Commons

Velcro tape hooks - Alexander Klink via Wikimedia Commons

Ants - Mehmet Karatay via Wikimedia Commons

Workshop photos - author's own