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Mimicking Nature: Organize Like Ants to Move Mountains

By Marni Evans, LEED AP BD + C, Sustainable Building Advisor

Kathy Zarsky - entrepreneur, systems thinker, process mapper, green building leader, Biomimicry Specialist and founder of BiomimicryTX - convened a panel at the SXSW Eco Conference in Austin, Texas last week with four other panelists who are innovators in biomimetic design.  Their session discussed ways to utilize nature’s guiding principles to inform and transform our organizations.

Just as social insects (like ants) divide tasks, so too can we humans.  Emulating and imitating nature’s best and time-tested patterns and strategies, biomimicry, as a design discipline, can be applied to our businesses and communities.  Be it following the leadership that came before us, adopting a flat versus hierarchical leadership style, or being responsive and adaptable to change - natural systems and processes provide cues and inspiration if we stop long enough to take notice.

Moderated by Clay Langdon, Strategic Director at McGarrah Jessee - panelists Kathy Zarsky of HOLOS Collaborative, based out of Austin; Julie Sammons, the Director of the Bay Area Biomimicry Network; Timothy McGee, a biologist with Biomimicry 3.8; and Emily Sadigh, Sustainability Project Manager at Alameda County Sustainability  - provided their unique perspective and approach to designing sustainable organizations using nature as a guide and teacher.

Falling in love with nature

Zarsky, being deeply moved by Austin as a unique place, very different from her native South Dakota, spoke of the idea that “nature is no longer under our fingernails and we are no longer a part of nature.”  She stated that by reestablishing our connection to nature, we protect what we love and use it as a source of insight.  She pointed out that our role as designers is to emulate natural systems, just as “life creates conditions conducive to life…we too must create organizations that embody collaboration, networking, emergent, dynamic and responsive, adaptive systems…in a way that is optimizing, values-led and life supportive.”

Thinking like a fungi

From the perspective of Timothy McGee, “If you think of your organization as a fungi, supporting elements in the forest, it changes your point of view.” McGee, of Biomimicry 3.8 is working with IDEO and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC developed the LEED green building rating system) to complete an organizational assessment following life’s principles.

He shared the story of mycorrhiza fungi, which grows in a fungal mat in the ground between the trees in a forest that have access to both sun and water, distributing these necessary nutrients between the trees.  “What if, instead of a hierarchical relationship, the national organization of USGBC (like the fungi) was in a supportive relationship with the national chapter network (the trees), moving information and resources around as necessary?"

Viewing partners as "pollinators"

Biologist and Director of the Bay Area Biomimicry Network, Julie Sammons, went from creating lab experiments to studying socialized insects as a means to better understand complex social systems including social media.  Along with fellow panelist Emily Sadigh, she referenced organizations such as Southwest Airlines and Capitol One that are truly incorporating biomimetic principles into their practice – and their profit.  She's working with over 200 innovators in the Bay Area to explore new applications for biomimicry -- establishing that self-organizing teams, like ants working in unison, can respond to the needs of the community.

Beyond noticing nature's systems and patterns and leaping beyond just talking about biomimicry in concept, panelists spoke of “a solar cell inspired by a leaf” or “organizations recalibrated to mimic swarm theory” giving specific examples.

Julie outlined simple qualities and strategies gleaned by her study of social insects and other species that can be applied towards organizations:

  • Flat structure

  • Self organized

  • Flexible

  • Adaptive

  • Responsive in real time

  • Creates feedback loops versus measurement

  • Pollinators are viewed as partners and vice-versa

  • Resilient

  • Optimize

  • Empower others

  • Provide heads up ‘alerts’ to the group when danger or change is present

  • Give positive reinforcement.

Resilience rules

For Emily Sadigh, Sustainability Project Manager at Alameda County Sustainability, her “a-ha” moment occurred during time in a Northern California forest, when she realized that the same branching patterns used by a tree to "collect distributed resources could be used to collect distributed information."  She jumped into biomimicry after seeing Janine Benyus speak at Greenbuild, applying nature’s principles to assisting large organizations to reduce their ecological footprint through behavior change.

The core idea is that nature, resilient by necessity, has already solved many of the organizational challenges that we struggle with daily; the core patterns can emerge when we spend time with nature to better understand the problems we are grappling with.  This gives us permission to use our fascination and inspiration with nature as part of our work life, allowing complex human beings and social centered systems to collaborate and thrive.

Consciously emulating nature's genius means viewing and valuing the natural world differently - as a part of a living system.  For more information, visit Biomimicry 3.8, AskNature.Org and check out the 12 regional networks around the world, including BiomimicryTX and Bay Area Biomimicry Network.


Trained as an architect, Marni Evans is a sustainability catalyst - as a consultant, mentor, writer, educator and facilitator. Her mission is to inspire, educate and connect individuals, projects, organizations and communities to act towards an ecologically restorative, economically abundant and culturally vibrant future.

3p Contributor

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