Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Create a Living Enterprise with Nature's Sustainable Design Principles

Photo credit: Pegasus: Systems Thinking in Action

Everyone wants to “go green” these days, but what does “green” really mean? In a world where definitions of this term are rapidly evolving businesses are now embarking on more advanced sustainability initiatives, in which sustainability is being integrated not only as a core business strategy but an underlying value and ethic that is a guiding part of all decision making.

However, how can we achieve true, holistic sustainability, and even help to improve the vital systems that sustain us without each possessing a deeper understanding of the meaning of “green”? And where would this understanding come from?

A constant and consistent navigation system is needed in order to make the right choice, and ensure we are all on the right path to sustainability. Where can people, companies, organizations and associations look for guidance before and during the process, and to help them make every day choices? Mother nature is the guru of green. There are over thirty million species on this planet that have each developed innovative ways to not only survive, but thrive under harsh and changing conditions. They are the “green” experts, and can serve as a consistent third-party “certification”. As Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry 3.8 group observed at last April’s Alumni Gathering, 

“The fastest way to change yourself is to change who you compare yourself to ... Nature is our mentor, model and measure.”

Certain principles and patterns emerge upon studying these complex interactions, designs, strategies and innovations. Take a closer look at the way in which the natural world makes and does things, and you will discover the secrets to not only surviving, but thriving on this planet. 

These principles can also serve as a benchmark against which we can realize the ways in which our businesses and practices are fundamentally un-sustainable. Businesses, government and other organizations can find the “greenprints” for their environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives by learning from and looking to nature. By unlocking the secrets to nature’s success, we can not only improve our business systems, but watch them adapt, grow and evolve like a living ecosystem or organism.

Consumers also need a guidance system in order to make the right every day choices. New and innovative “green” technologies are being developed and “greenwash” has quickly emerged as a growing concern with every new “green” product that arrives to market. The public is wary, and clarity is needed to best utilize the power of the consumer and make those every day choices that make such a difference in supporting responsible products and delivering the right message to companies.

Green certifications and sustainability reporting mechanisms have been developed, however most of these take the form of a check off-list. Sustainability is not that easy, it is not a check-off list. In addition, standardization is the parent of stagnation. Once sustainability becomes standardized, it is no longer as effective, because the company does not learn, adapt and evolve from an authentically created place. The most effective sustainability initiatives are place-based, internally created and unique to that individual company, therefore maximizing opportunities for innovation and differentiation. 

Truly “green” businesses do not achieve sustainability through check off lists, as it is a process, strategy, a certain set of fundamental principles and a value. Sustainability is an ethic that informs all decision making from top to bottom, bottom to top.

Nature’s principles of sustainable design can help to not only navigate businesses and other organizations in the right direction, but also serve as a benchmark for their initiatives and as design inspiration. “Going green” and protecting the natural resources that nourish and sustain us requires more than being “carbon neutral” or using less energy or water, it is a dynamic process as complex as the natural world that surrounds us.

Truly “going green” means integrating nature's principles of sustainability into all that we made and do, in order to give back to the system that sustains us and "create conditions conducive to life" (the Biomimicry 3.8 group), all life on this planet, human and non human alike, just like every organism in the natural world. "Going green" is about creating positive value, not just being “less bad” or “neutral”.

Although business and nature do not share the same "goals", they do share a common interest in preserving and creating conditions for present and future generations to not only survive, but thrive. 

By operating and learning from nature, businesses and cities can create value for the collective benefit of all living things. These strategies we see in the natural world work because they propagate life, and have evolved in tandem over billions of years. 

In order for companies to achieve true sustainability, they must integrate nature’s sustainable design principles into their systems, products and services, and as a core business strategy and value. Sustainability 1.0 was about doing “less bad”, and advanced Sustainability 2.0 emphasizes “sustaining” ourselves. The next wave of green leaders- companies, organizations, governments and institutions will go beyond sustaining to actually contributing positively to the system that sustains us and operate like a living, breathing organism, a “Living Enterprise.”

You will find the same design principles replicated in all of nature's systems and organisms, from a single blade of grass to an entire ecosystem. Nature does not waste any resources. It uses benign materials that are biodegradable. Waste from one organism is food for another (cradle to cradle design). Nature runs on free, renewable energy such as sunlight. It uses elegant chemistry to build and grow, rather than harmful chemicals. Nature operates in cycles rather than linear systems which result in the waste of valuable resources. Natural checks and balances are created with feedback loops which also ensure continuous efficiency and improvement (a fundamental goal of Lean Six Sigma).

Arguably the most important principle is that, as Janine Benyus has stated is that, 

"Life creates conditions conducive to life". 

This underlying framework keeps everything working together, in balance, in sync and in harmony, at an optimal level. Man tends to create systems that are not conducive to life, and we are feeling the effects of this careless thinking today with global climate change, a result of fundamentally flawed and un-sustainable design. We are also discovering how intricately connected we are to every other aspect of this system.

In cities especially, this disconnection can be felt. Each concrete metropolis experiences its own type of ecosystem dysfunction because the web of life has been unraveled, and natural systems have been paved over and replaced.  

The most important question that any city, company or organization can ask itself is, “Does my product, service or system help to create conditions conducive to life?” (not just people vs planet). Forward thinking companies, associations and organizations see the relevance of this question, and can utilize it as the most important determining factor of “going green”.

The principles of life’s sustainable and regenerative design are the ultimate benchmark.

By appreciating, learning from and utilizing nature's life-propagating principles, man can create healthy, energy, time and resource efficient systems, homes, buildings, cities, communities, products and services that protect all life. If we combine these principles with human innovation, and capitalize on our intellectual and creative capital, we can also craft resilient, socially, environmentally and economically equitable, self-sustaining systems that are just as life-friendly as those we see in the natural world. As Janine Benyus said at the Alumni Gathering last April, 

“Make asking nature second nature... bake it into the tools...”

These fundamental principles can be replicated in any city, business, institution and organization, from small to multinational, and in any industry. “Going green” is not going back into the dark ages. Especially in these tough economic times, people need to see the failure of our systems as an opportunity to learn, grow, adapt and evolve, but this time in the right direction. As General MacArthur stated, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction!”

And as Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve problems using the same thinking that created them.” As markets crumble and giants fall, now is the time to embark on a journey of sustainability inspired by the master of “green design”. 

We’ve already been cast into a collective uncertainty, why not take a chance and fly, 
but this time with birds and dandelion seeds as inspiration?(!) 

As environmental architect, sustainability designer and author of Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough has said, “Design is the first signal of human intent.” Let’s intend to leave future generations a better planet, and design our cities, our buildings, our cars, toothpaste, bags, lightbulbs, energy infrastructure, and every other widget and sneed we make in a way that keeps life in mind, from concept to creation, transportation, use and re-use. The combination of nature’s genius with human innovation is what I like to call “Greenius”. Everyone has green genius inside them waiting to be revealed.

Another important lesson we can glean from the natural world is that environmental excellence cannot be achieved through the pursuit of perfection, because it does not exist. Nature is continuously innovating and evolving, it is never perfect. It learns, then adapts, grows and evolves. The goal is to survive, and as a result, nature focuses on excellence, not perfection; and optimization of resources and functions, not maximization as humans typically do. Nature not only survives, but thrives. One of the ways it does so is by creating mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships. In fact, in nature you will find that the harsher the conditions, the higher the cooperation. As Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild stated, 

“Within a species, you may see some competition, but never is it an adaptation... species evolve to avoid competition.”

True sustainability is a long term value that is achieved through holistic integration of these principles. It is also achieved thru transparency and disclosure in all actions, and a deep understanding of sustainability as a beacon of hope and unlimited possibilities.

In summation, business can look to the principles of sustainable design:

• To navigate them through the process of developing and implementing a sustainability initiative

• For a very clear path to sustainability and positive value creation (the right barometer to be calibrated to)

• To create competitive business advantage and differentiation

• To inform all decision making

• As their core business strategy, values and underlying ethic

• To help their employees better understand sustainability and the new direction their employers are taking

• As a means of engaging employees in an initiative that all can contribute to

• To benchmark their already established sustainability, corporate social responsibility and climate initiatives

• To define short term targets and long term goals

• To provide clarity and coherence

• To create cohesion between departments and teams

• As a design model for innovative products, services and holistic systems

• For limitless design inspiration

• To discern what is truly green and what is "greenwash"

In order to achieve environmental excellence, and operate sustainably, businesses can learn from and apply nature's infinite reservoir of design knowledge to improve their systems, products and services. 

Companies can help to build a world where future generations need not worry about the problems we currently seek to solve. Rather than fight global climate change, the children we borrow this earth from can be stewards and keepers of the ethos. Rather than adhere to a check-off list, future generations can build a future grounded in the principles of sustainability, create mutually beneficial relationships and actually help to create conditions conducive to life on this planet- all life, human and non-human alike.

As the ecologists, biologists, scientists, illuminators, dreamweavers and designers of the Biomimicry Guild have stated, “challenges we face today have already been solved after billions of years of research and development.” The answers can be seen in the intricate and complex, mutually beneficial relationships, niches, survival mechanisms and innovative designs nature has created. The answers to our most pressing questions and challenges are just outside our door…

Benyus, Janine (1997) (in English). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, NY, USA: William Morrow & Company, Inc.