Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Biomimicry in Business - Part 1


If you research biomimicry (aka biomimetics - the application of biological models to artificial designs), you'll find innovative gadgets, head-turning architecture, organic shapes that put a new spin on an existing mechanical designs, advanced materials, and all manner of tangible products whose designs have been informed by "solutions" in nature.  What you probably won't find, unless you really squint and use your imagination, are examples of biomimicry in the development of less tangible things like business practices.

Let's change that.

It's tempting to romanticize the wisdom of nature and indiscriminately apply biomodels just like Maslow's hammer to any business problem we can conjure into the form of a nail.  Let's not do that.  Let's look at an actual business problem, and see if biomimicry can shed some light on the problem and suggest solutions.


Many businesses generate unwanted by-products.  Landscapers' customers expect them to dispose of yard waste, so that yard waste becomes an unwanted by-product of their business.  Coal fired power plants generate CO2, NOx, ash, mercury, and a host of other unwanted by-products.  Why is this a business problem / opportunity?
1) Disposal can be expensive.
2) The potential conduits for disposal may limit business growth.
3) Government and other regulatory bodies may impose fees or other penalties.
4) May lose goodwill with customers, suppliers, or partners who see the unwanted by-products as pollution.


Biological systems on every scale (from intracellular organelles to vast biomes) thrive when 1) their inputs match the outputs of their environmental context, and 2) their outputs match the inputs of their context.  For a basic example, animals need oxygen in the air they breathe.  That's one of their essential inputs.  Plants produce oxygen as an output, so animals and plants thrive together.  Some animals also require fresh water as an input, so they thrive in a context where fresh water is an output.  Other inputs include specific plants or animals for food, specific dietary nutrients, materials for building shelter, water or air currents to aid migration, ... You get the idea.

When a system's inputs match the outputs of its context, and vice versa, we can call this a "closed loop."  It's easy to see from the diagram below why that name fits.

Now, the name "closed loop" and the idea of applying the closed loop model to solve human design problems is nothing new.  Walter Stahel applied the closed loop model to businesses in the 1970s.  Environmental economists Pearce and Turner applied it on a larger scale and called it a "circular economy" in Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment in 1989.  (Interestingly, they cited biomimicry as a key approach for achieving a circular economy, but they didn't - to my knowledge - consider the circular economy concept itself to be an intangible application of biomimicry.)  Mollison called it "Energy Cycling" and applied it to site design in Introduction to Permaculture in 1991. 


What strengths accompany this biomodel?  The idea of balancing inputs and ouputs with the context might seem so obvious that it's hard to imagine a relative framework to measure it against.  But often it's possible, using natural conduits (like a river or air currents) or artificial conduits (like waste management services) for business decision makers to ignore imbalances temporarily, even if the use of such conduits is unsustainable.  And it's also possible to expend considerable energy to "mine" (sometimes literally) from the context materials that aren't readily available.  Pearce and Turner contrasted their circular economy with what they called the "take, make, dispose" model.

With the take, make, dispose model as a backdrop, it's easy to see some strengths of the closed loop:
1) synergy with the context,
2) scalability,
3) stability, and
4) environmental health

What are the limitations of this biomodel?  Some business decision makers don't value sustainability or synergy with other elements of their context (such as natural elements, people, and other businesses) as highly as, say, short term profit.  In such conditions, the closed loop biomodel may not offer compelling benefits.


In some cases, the closed loop model can be applied to an established business to reap the accompanying benefits.  The landscaping company in our original example may find some local gardeners who value their yard waste as mulch, thereby saving disposal cost, reaping goodwill, and improving the health of the local ecosystem.  But in some cases, this model can only be applied in the initial decisions at startup, or during decisions to scale up.  In the example of coal fired power plants, the take, make, dispose model may be so central to the business that when the public becomes aware of the mounting deleterious affects of unbalanced by-products, and national governments start making global environmental agreements, it may be too late for the business, or the whole industry, to recover.


The closed loop model is an example of a relational model.  Besides relational models, biosystems can provide structural models (including most if not all applications of biomimicry to date), developmental models, and functional models.  In part two, I'll give more examples of other biomodels and discuss a systematic approach to practicing biomimicry in business.

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