How do we create a better future? How do we redesign our economic system to be more sustainable?
Exploring these and similar questions, a growing number of people look for inspiration from the greatest lab of all: Nature. This type of exploration already has a name (biomimicry), definition (“an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies”) and even an inspiring visionary leading the way (Janine Benyus).
It also has a growing number of followers, as I could see last week at an event titled “Biomimicry + the Regenerative Economy.” Organized by BiomimicryNYC, a network dedicated to fostering a community of nature-inspired practice in the New York City metro region, it took place at Impact Hub NYC with more than 100 attendees who came to learn more about aligning business with nature from two experts in this field: Amy Larkin and Katherine Collins.
I was curious to hear what Larkin and Collins had in mind when it comes to applying biomimicry to business and economy, because currently we have too many questions and perhaps too few propositions. My hope is that nature can help balance this out, but I’m still not sure how. Hence I was hoping to gain some insights at this event.
Amy Larkin, founder of Nature Means Business and author of “Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy,” was the first to go on stage. One of the main topics she focused on was harmonizing the laws of business with the laws of nature.
“The financial and environmental world is as connected as your mind and body and until we make this connection we are in a course for collision with the laws of nature,” Larkin explained. “Today we are less and less connected to nature in how we think, spend money … conduct business, consume food, and consume products. All of these measurements are done wrong,” she added, referring among others to the issue of externalities.
Later I asked Larkin: If business is on a collision course with the laws of nature, how come currently only a small number of companies see it this way? “It’s easier and more profitable to take the money and run,” she replied. “Everyone at a large (and small) business works terribly hard, and whether profiting greatly or scraping by, it’s just easier to do things as they’ve been done before … Until the environmental problems get so bad, as many are becoming now, and more and more businesses are resigned to putting in the extra time and money to change course. But no doubt, it’s hard and unless something is on the top of the pile, it just doesn’t get attention.”
And this is where biomimicry can come to help. It is, Larkin suggested, “one of these great doors to go through to help discover new ways to both conduct business and how you measure, what you value in what you count.” To be more specific she mentioned three rules from her book that will help change the way we do business now:
- Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized.
- All government and business policy must incorporate the long-term.
- Government has a vital role to play.
I asked Larkin why governments need to play an important role: Why isn’t the marketplace capable enough to take care of itself without this sort of intervention? She replied that many companies have this state of mind of “I’m making money. I figured out my market and my product, now leave me alone. And don’t tax me or regulate me.” However, she added, many products cause great damage, and since we don’t show the cause and effect in our financial ledgers, government has to regulate the prevention of the damage or make the act of damaging too expensive to continue. “Unless government steps in, the biggest polluter makes the biggest profit and business is in the business of making money … at least that’s how it sees itself now.”
Next came Katherine Collins, founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital and author of “The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry.” A long-time investor, Collins explained that for her biomimicry was at its core about the question ‘what would nature do’ or WWND.
“[The question] encourages you right from the very beginning to be clear about what exactly you’re trying to do,” she explained. “What is this essential function that you’re trying to perform? These are two elements that it is just so easy to skip over and biomimicry forces you right from the very beginning to get to that core. So instead of asking things like ‘what’ you end up asking ‘why’ and instead of asking ‘how much’ you end up asking ‘how’ and these are better, more important questions.”
I asked her afterwards how significant the role of biomimicry could be in leading the investment community towards a more sustainable future. And can it ever go mainstream? “To many fundamental investors, some elements of this practice are already mainstream, though they might be called by different names,” Collins told me. “As a young analyst I learned all about assessing competitive advantage, considering long term risks, and connecting the dots to understand interconnections between companies, suppliers, and communities. Biomimicry investing puts these analytical approaches in a larger context, the context of our natural world, which helps to illuminate additional wisdom that is not found in our spreadsheets.”
Another interesting point Collins made was about differentiating between liability, in a more legal sense, and responsibility, in a more ethical and moral sense. If you start with the responsibility part, she explained, the liability comes along quickly and you might not even need a number on it. Collins said that one thing that worries her with the conversation about reporting standards is that we’re diving very deeply into putting a number on something, and pretty often when you have a number on something people feel discharge of their responsibilities.
At the same time she was also encouraged that many approaches are taking a multi-dimensional view of valuing natural capital, she told me. “This view includes price, but also other measures of ecosystem services that are, quite literally, priceless. I am indeed wary of any approach that believes a single-point dollar amount can reflect true and complete value (of anything, not only nature).”
When leaving the event that evening I still had more questions than answers, but at the same time I was glad to see that biomimicry is evolving into a space where value and values become a sort of yin and yang in designing better solutions. After all, if nature can teach us something, it’s not just about better accounting, but also about being humble. Hopefully we’ll be willing to learn it.
Image credit: BiomimicryNYC
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.