LIke birch or oak? Nature as business model

Here’s a talk I gave last week at the Small is Beautiful conference for microbusinesses in Glasgow.  As you read, hear the dawn chorus quietly in the background..

Slide01Where can we look to for guidance and inspiration in running our businesses? Well, with over 3.5 billion years of R&D experience, surviving five major extinction events, Nature is the ultimate teacher.

This is the realm of biomimcry: looking at how nature solves problems and applying those design principles and patterns to human challenges.

In this short talk I’m going to just sprinkle a few seeds and introduce 4 ideas in particular:

  • How does nature do resilience
  • Resource & energy efficiency
  • Woodland as a metaphor for organisations
  • Water, how can we be like water

So beginning with resilience, which we can define as maintaining function in light of a disturbance. Here are 3 ways of thinking about disturbance: we don’t know where the disturbance will hit, we don’t know how big it will be and we don’t know what it will be.


  • Redundant function: having spare capacity so if some parts are damaged, other parts can take up the work, at least to some extent. Example of brain damage – some recovery of function is often possible due to other brain regions taking over those roles. We see this with language, when the left hemisphere is injured, the right hemisphere can take over some language functions. This is neuroplasticity. There is a use it or lose it dimension: so perhaps every now and then we practice taking over some aspects of another role. In microbusiness we’re probably doing this anyway!
  • Diversity or requisite variety: across plant species, various strategies evolved for reproduction. For example in flowering plants sexual reproduction through the process of pollination has several methods of seed dispersal (wind, water, animal), and also asexual reproduction strategies involving roots and stems. To be resilient a system needs to be able to match the complexity of its environment. This is why you would want have access to people who think differently to you, who have different life experiences – because it gives you a wider repertoire from which to respond.
  • Decentralised and distributed: not putting all your eggs in one basket. Relate this to how decision-making happens in the organization, range of products or services and ideas, and also how you are networked to other similar populations. A species is more likely to go extinct if it has only one population in the world than several populations spread in different places. However it is worth remembering that every species will go extinct eventually. More than 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct. The average lifespan of a species is about 2 million years. So there are limits to resilience and sustainability!

Now to resource and energy efficiency. Energy can’t be created and can’t be destroyed only transformed – the law of conservation of energy in physics.

Slide03Nature always wants to use the least amount of energy possible to achieve something. Think of rutting red deer stags – they fight only as much as is needed to challenge or assert dominance, but they tend not to kill one another. It’s a highly ritualised display that avoids excessive energy use.

Multifunctionality is a great way to conserve energy. So one action or strategy achieves more than one benefit.

Slide04An example is human skin:

  • Protects us from mechanical impacts (pressure), thermic impacts (heat, cold), environmental impacts (chemicals, UV light)
  • Regulates body temp
  • How we experience sense of touch

So we have looked at some examples of how nature does resilience and conserves energy.

Now lets think about a woodland ecosystem as a metaphor for organisations: a mixed oak woodland.Slide05

Nature doesn’t design this final product in one go but through a series of successional ecological stages. These different stages are characterized by changes in environment, caused by the community living there. And at each new stage the community living there is better adapted to the environment of that stage, changed as it has been by the community that preceded it. Eventually the woodland reaches climax or final community where succession will not go any further although change does continue to occur.

So we can think of this in terms of organisations being species in a woodland that may be specialists preferring certain stages, or maybe they are generalists.

Organisations may be species that perform a particular function for the ecosystem: ecosystem engineers that transform their habitat to the benefit of other species.

Or keystone species that play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community and whose impact on the community is greater than would be expected based on its relative abundance or total biomass. Big doesn’t necessarily mean more important! Whch is very relevant to the theme of this conference: small is beautiful.

So lets look at this in more detail starting with bare ground:

Slide06Pioneer species: these are opportunists, first to colonise bare ground. Mosses and lichens, dandelions and shorter-lived annuals. In terms of trees we have Birch, which is very hardy, grows quickly and spreads fast with small air borne seeds, doesn’t live long (up to 80 yrs). It requires high light levels and gets crowded out eventually. Once pioneer species have modified the environment they tend to get out-competed by less specific plants.

Climax community of mixed Oak woodland: Oak is slow-growing, has large seeds dispersed by animals, and is very long lived (up to 1000 yrs). So a very different profile to birch. Trees mature and eventually die, providing an opening for other species, and the process of succession starts all over again in this opening. But the species that colonise this opening are different to the original pioneers because the starting point is different, as the environmental conditions have been altered over the successional stages. This is known as secondary succession.

Oak, Birch and Willow support a lot of species of insects, whereas other species Rhododendron and Holly for example support much fewer species of insects.

Ecosystem engineers: these are organisms that transform habitats to benefit of others species. Earthworms for example improve soil conditions. Mycelium is the underground network of fibres of which mushrooms are the fruiting body. Mycelium connects different parts of woodland together. Trees with an excess of a nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon) release it into the mycelium network and it transports it to those that are in need of more, such as young trees in the shade of a thick forest. It redistributes resources according to need. Mycelium also converts rock into foods for other species (as do lichens). Increases soil depth and richness. The relationship is mutually beneficial – plants provide fungi with food, fungi help plants take up water and boost immune systems.

Plants attacked by harmful fungi release chemical signals into the mycelia network to warn their neighbours, triggering defence responses. Some plants may also spread toxic chemicals through network to ward off unwelcome plants and inhibit their growth.

So what can we take from this?

For me one of the key lessons is that its not meaningful to think of organisms or even species as independent and separate – they are all, we are all, interconnected and interdependent. Even to think of ourselves as a distinct species is not really accurate for where would we be without the millions of microbes living on and in our bodies? Bacteria cells in the body outnumber human cells 10 to 1. Our bodies are ecosystems of different communities of microbial species. Research shows that the make-up of bacteria in the gut can have a big influence on our mood and behaviour, and on energy levels as well as playing essential roles in fundamental processes such as digestion and immune responses.

So businesses, I would argue, are not single separate entities either. The rigid boundary that we can draw around our organisations that defines what is and what is not part of it might be meaningful in legal terms but it’s most likely not an accurate representation of how it really interacts in the world. The boundary is much more porous and changes depending on perspective and focus of interest.

So what is your organisation?

Here are some questions I invite you reflect on:

  • Are you more like Birch or Oak tree? Are you fast growing but wont live long or are you growing slower and living longer?
  • Do you support a lot of other species or just a few?
  • In what stage of succession are you, and are you at the start, middle or end of this stage? Are you starting to be outcompeted or are you growing in dominance?
  • Or are you the bluebell that blooms early each year before the canopy of the trees shades out the light?
  • Perhaps your organisation is a keystone species or ecosystem engineer, maybe you are the mycelium of your ecosystem – and if not, who or what is because for sure you want to be connected with it.

And now, water. How can your organisation – how can you – be like water?

Slide07Soft yet immensely strong, yielding yet relentless in achieving its goal whether by gentle drip, slow meandering or forceful torrent

Flowing flexibly round obstacles, always wanting to follow the path of least resistance to fulfill its purpose in the cycle from ocean to atmosphere to land to ocean.

As powerful as glaciers carving out valleys

As delicate as silk iceSlide08

You might not want to think of your business as a stagnant pond but even stagnant ponds are full of life!

Water as a metaphor occurs in many different cultures across time. It’s a very powerful metaphor.


So I like to encourage people to take the time to notice, to observe, closely, how nature does things and to be open to receiving insights and being inspired.

Nature’s design principles offer ways of being in the world, ways of organising. Species and organisms may compete locally but it is within a broader cooperative framework. At whatever level we choose to look at – individuals, organisations, sectors or communities of interest, these entities are always part of larger systems, and they themselves are made up of smaller systems. Always interacting, always co-evolving.

  • Interconnection and interdependence
  • Energy & resource efficiency
  • Redundant function
  • Requisite variety
  • Distributed and decentralised
  • Multifunctionality

Slide10Gaining insight into how our business interacts with other entities in a particular environment, understanding its role in that environment, and how it changes and is changed by its environment; this is vital for sustainability.

For me and others into biomimicry, nature is the ultimate model, mentor and teacher. And as we teeter on the brink of human-caused ecological crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history we would do well to heed all that nature, with its 3.5 billion years of experience, can teach us.

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