How does nature do resilience? And who/what is the mycelium of Manchester?

At the All About Audiences conference in April this year, I delivered a workshop on organisational and personal resilience.

I defined resilience as ‘maintaining function in light of a disturbance‘, where the disturbance for organisations is anything that causes a change in accessibility and affordability of sufficient resources (skilled people, money, raw materials etc). For individuals, the disturbance is a perception of threat that affects emotional state.

In identifying the key characteristics of resilient systems, I asked ‘what is the best model can we look to for guidance and inspiration?’  The answer of course is Nature with its 3.8 billion years of experience of bouncing back from setbacks. It’s survived 5 major extinctions (many scientists believe we are now living through the 6th major extinction as species are vanishing faster than new species can evolve – its happening faster than at any point in the last 65 million years when dinosaurs disappeared).

So how does nature do resilience?

It reduces its vulnerability to risk of  disturbances affecting function with these key features:

  • Decentralised (Nature doesn’t know where the disturbance will hit, so being decentralised means it doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket, as it were)
  • Requisite variety / diversity (Nature doesn’t know what the disturbance will be, so having as much variety within a system as there is in its environment means it has greater chance of finding a solution to match the problem)
  • Redundant function /spare capacity (Nature doesn’t know how big the disturbance will be, so having parts of the system that are capable of taking on other roles means it is better able to cope)

Nature also:

  • Closes the value loop in a system through leveraging interdependencies (its in your interest to make sure that others to do well)
  • Designs for multi-functionality (this makes for efficient use of resources)

These features of resilience in nature can be mapped on to organisations.

However, a resilient organisation needs resilient people, so we need to look at organisations and people together – they are part of the same system. For a tree in a woodland to thrive it needs nutrients in the soil, sunlight, water, CO2, shelter. Likewise, an organisation needs to create conditions that are conducive to employees thriving.

This relates to another piece of work I did for Manchester City Council’s Cultural Strategy Unit at their annual conference on the cultural ambition for the city in June 2010.

The question I was asked to respond to was ‘What does Manchester need to do differently to be a culturally distinctive city?’

In my presentation I explained that for inspiration we can look to nature. I went on to say…

“I see the end goal of the cultural ambition as like a mixed oak woodland in dynamic equilibrium. Nature doesn’t design this final product in one go but through a series of successional ecological stages that create the conditions that enable it to emerge.

Transformation like this involves keystone species that are also ecosystem engineers – the beavers and earthworms and mycelium that transform their habitats to the benefit of other species.

Mycelium connects different parts of the woodland together. Trees with an excess of a nutrient release it into the mycelium network and it transports it to those that are in need of more, for example young trees in the shade of a thick forest. In this way mycelium redistributes resources according to need. It also converts rocks into food for other species and increases soil depth and richness.”

[With its information sharing membranes, mycelium is an extremely interesting life form. It’s in constant dialogue with its environment unlocking nutrient sources stored in plants and other organisms, building soils… for more check out mr mycelium Paul Stamets, who reckons they have conscious intelligence – and that’s not just because he’s ingested a few of their psychedelic fruits in his time]

I then asked the question: so who/what is the mycelium of Manchester and how can it be conserved so that it can help create the environmental conditions (space, light, water, nutrients, soil quality, microclimate) needed for transforming the city into a mixed oak woodland?

I concluded: Manchester’s cultural sector needs to think differently – to see itself as a community of different species that like Nature might compete but does so within a cooperative framework.

Biomimicry – the looking to nature for inspiration about how to solve problems – is hugely valuable, rewarding and effective yet it is an under-used approach. It’s perhaps most commonly used in engineering, product design and architecture, but we can ask ‘how would nature design X?’ about anything, and apply those design principles literally or metaphorically for more sustainable and positive outcomes.

Nature has all the answers we need, if we were just to look.

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