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Tool for Innovation at All Levels of Organization

The global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate. As governmental regulations and social values react,
businesses are also undergoing radical change to benefit as proponents of sustainable development. In searching
for clues on how to conduct business in a successful and socio-environmentally responsible way, we can look
to nature as a guide. Ecosystems can be seen as economies that have been, until recently, extremely prosperous.
Almost 4 billion years of research and development experience have left nature replete with examples of
successful survival methods. Acknowledging innovation as a critical part of success in the business world,
this paper introduces biomimicry as a framework for driving innovation for positive financial, social and
environmental change. The application of biomimicry for business is actually two undertakings: the first is to
learn various components of nature, such as the designs, systems, and processes of the natural world through
the sciences of biology, ecology, psychology and others; the second is to identify how these components of
nature contain solutions or innovations applicable to the organization. This paper will primarily explore how
biomimicry can inform the management of small and medium sized businesses (SME), although the ideas can
certainly be adapted to the management of nonprofits, larger firms, communities, and even one’s individual life.

© 2010 Strategic Sustainability Consulting

Zai Kang Chang

BACKGROUND ................................................................................1
THE NEW BUSINESS CLIMATE ...........................................................3
WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY? ...................................................................4
BIOMIMICRY: PERSPECTIVES FOR INNOVATION ..................................6
FIRST PRINCIPLES............................................................................10
Basic Physical Laws ............................................................................... 10
Basic Ecological Principles .................................................................... 11

BUSINESS APPLICATIONS OF BIOMIMICRY .........................................14

Natural Concept to Product Concept/Design: Interface, Inc ................ 14
Physical, Natural Design to Product Design: Shape Optimization......... 15
Natural Principle to Business Principle: Industrial Ecology ................... 16
Species Behavior to Management Principles: Collective Decision
Making .................................................................................................. 16
Ecosystem Principle to Business Principle: Creating a Community ...... 17
Natural Community Principle to Management Principle:
Reducing Intra-Staff Competition ......................................................... 18
Natural Principle to Management Strategy: Organization as an
Organism .............................................................................................. 19
Species Behavior to Management Strategy: Swarm Intelligence ......... 22

SUMMARY AND NOTES ON THE EXAMPLES ........................................24

LEARNING TO USE BIOMIMICRY .......................................................25
1. A Proactive Strategy is Prompted by Internal Desires within the
Company............................................................................................... 25
2. This Means Substantial Change ........................................................ 25
3. Leadership ........................................................................................ 26
4. Assess Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, And Threats ............ 26
5. Vision for How Biomimicry Can Add Value to Your Business ............ 27
6. Becoming a Learning Organization ................................................... 28
7. Common Knowledge of Ecology and First Principles ........................ 29
8. Feedback........................................................................................... 29

CONCLUSION ..................................................................................30
REFERENCES ...................................................................................32


Currently, economies and business operate without the industrial processes we currently undertake.
accurately valuing many of Earth’s complementary The basic flow of our industrial processes has
services. These services, including recycling of not significantly changed since the industrial
wastes, oxygen production, provision of fresh water, revolution—it is primarily a linear one, extracting
maintaining soil quality and countless others, are resources, producing products, and then relieving
severely undervalued or, in some cases, not valued at unused wastes into the environment. The design
all. As populations grow and the resource appetite of future operations must evolve to be in line with
of wealthy nations increases, we are seeing global natural systems: we should not emit more carbon
signs of environmental collapse and degradation. It than plants can absorb, we should not take more fish
has become well understood that the processes we than can reproduce and we should not dump more
perform to maintain our economies are interfering materials than the local ecosystem can metabolize.
with the natural world’s ability to provide these Society must not degrade the very natural systems it
services we utterly depend upon for survival. All depends upon to survive.
other species have, for hundreds of millions of years,
CEOs of many large companies are getting more
thrived on this planet without intergovernmental
attention from the media as they increasingly fold
agreements and protocols and have served primarily
sustainability into their core business practices.
to increase and diversify the versions of life on this
This is in order as positive reports show CEOs
planet. What can our society learn from natural
are expecting to see increased customer retention
society about existing and thriving in the long term?
and attraction and a drop in operating costs.2 But
The economy is a key driver of the direction of if half of the nonfarm gross domestic product
society, therefore, those concerned with the long (GDP) is produced through firms that have fewer
term well-being of society desire a sustainable than 20 employees3, it would be wrong to say
economy, or one “that preserves and enhances sustainable business development is alive and well
a well-functioning ecosystem; provides humans in businesses. Small businesses, defined by the U.S.
with the products and services necessary for a Small Business Association, are independent firms
good and dignified life; provides opportunities for with less than 500 employees. They account for
fulfilling work and self-realization; achieves and half of the electricity and natural gas consumed by
maintains economic justice; and utilizes resources
at a sustainable rate that does not deplete future 2 “2009 Greening of Corporate America.” McGraw-Hill
Construction. Web 20 Oct 2009.
generations.”1 These goals cannot be met through
3 The Small Business Economy for Data Year 2005. Rep.
1 Milbrath, Lester W. 1989. Envisioning a sustainable The Small Business Administration, Dec. 2006. Web. 06 Oct.
society: Learning our way out. New York: SUNY. 2009. <>.

the commercial and industrial sectors.4 The crucial
advancement of sustainability in small business
will be hard-fought and to the immense benefit
of local communities, economies, and the global
environment. Regardless of the size of the business,
the impending large-scale environmental changes
will certainly change the entire business landscape.
The emerging problems in the business world and
society at large call for a new paradigm, one where
organizations “learn in harmony with the dynamics
of their milieu in order to co-evolve and create

5 Laszlo, Kathia C. (2003) p. 605

The New Business Climate

It is easy to see why big business has been blamed for Many proactive companies are merging their bottom
much of our present day environmental destruction line with the common good, and are moving towards
and climate change. This could explain why, in business practices that are more profitable and more
more recent times, companies such as Walmart, responsible. Many larger companies are instituting
a $400 billion dollar company, have been on the “green” policies, creating offices of sustainability, or
forefront of championing environmental and hiring consulting firms to make their steps towards
social issues. Proactive companies are realizing the sustainability. Surely, not all organizations can afford
principles that have brought about the current to take these measures, but all must incorporate the
state of environmental degradation are not relevant new ideas of sustainable development in some way to
anymore and create less advantage. The strategic survive in the changing business climate.
self-interest of businesses lies in being aware of facts,
Currently, figuring out how to adapt to and
trends, opportunities, and potential pitfalls that
incorporate these changes into a specific organization
affect future profits. Environmental degradation,
presents challenges for smaller organizations because
untenable resource extraction, and climate change
there are fewer relevant models of change. Then
are all facts of our new and emerging reality that
how do smaller organizations innovate towards
point to the need for large-scale change. Major
sustainable development, without hiring large
economic and social variables are changing and
consulting firms, creating a sustainability plan or
businesses cannot be sheltered from the effect these
instituting a new wing of the company? As we
forces will have on our economy. Those that want to
now begin to keenly ask how we should design our
survive will have to make key management decisions
products, businesses, and industries in a sustainable
to adapt to the new business climate: one that is
manner, we only have to look to nature for
more conscious of our intricate connections with
inspiration and this is the realm of biomimicry.
each other and with our planet. Andrew Winston,
best-selling author on green business, writes in Green
Recovery: Get Lean, Get Smart, and Emerge from the
Downturn on Top: “…Survival and sustainability are
truly not at odds. In fact, sustainability is at the very
core of survival. No company, or society, can last
unless it cares for all of its resources and capital—
human, financial, and environmental.”6

6 Winston, Andrew Green Recovery Get Lean, Get Smart,

and Emerge from the Downturn on Top Harvard Business
Press. p. 2.

What is Biomimicry?

Biomimicry comes from the Greek bios, meaning innovation says, “You can’t imagine that someone
life and mimesis, means imitation. The idea of else may have a different perspective. But problems
drawing inspiration from nature most likely dates that are difficult in one domain may be trivial to
back as far as man began imitating things around solve from the perspective of a different domain.”8
him. A more recognizable form may be found in
Hundreds, if not thousands of innovations have come
Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds in
about studying the habits of social creatures, change in
which da Vinci examined the flight of birds and then
plant species of forests, beaks of birds, skin of sharks,
proposed mechanical constructions to replicate the
leaves of plants, and other natural treasures.
flight behavior. More recently, the term has been
popularized by biological sciences writer and avatar
for biomimicry, Janine Benyus. She gives a three-
part definition of the word, but only the first will be
included here as it is the most applicable:

“Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that

studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes
inspiration from these designs and processes to solve
human problems…”7

Even within industries, different companies

face similar problems. Evaluating the similarity
between the problems of two companies will
reveal if a solution to one is a solution to the other.
Biomimicry expands the comparison base to include
the patterns of nature as well. Seen as an exercise
in pattern matching, companies must match the
situation causing the inefficiency with a similar
situation found in nature. Of course in nature, there
are only solutions to the inefficiencies, because the
“problems” are extinct. Bad adaptations or processes
are weeded out by natural selection and therefore do
not exist. This is a profound concept, apt for a time
Velcro was inspired by the hooking mechanisms found on
when information in the life sciences is becoming
seeds. Source:
increasingly available. Karim Lakhani, an assistant
professor at Harvard Business School who studies 8
7 Benyus, Janine. (1997) p. i stick-stop-solving-your-problems.html
The principle behind self-healing plastics were inspired by our
Solar cells are being developed that take notes from
own body’s ability to heal from wounds. Source: keone @ Flickr
photosynthesizing plants. Source:

All around the world, the designs of nature are

modeled as physical design solutions to various
engineering problems. The metaphor of biomimicry,
in this way, can be taken quite literally. That is to
say, a designer can simply adapt the physical design
characteristics of an owl’s wings and employ them
in his own design for a wind turbine. Because every
piece in nature is a process that is conducive to life
and every species has the refined designs of billions
of years’ worth of evolution, there are not only a
large number of ‘solutions’ from which we can learn,
Termite mounds must be kept at 86 degrees F, they manage but also a wide variety of types of solutions we can
to do this within one degree while the outside air fluctuates learn. Where the previous examples have adapted
from 34 degrees F at night to 104 degrees F in the midst
the physical design specifications of nature, other
of a scorching day. Architects have studied termite mounds
metaphors can be made between nature’s processes
to inform the design of energy efficient buildings. The
Eastgate building uses 10% of the energy of conventional and principles and those of our own.
buildings. Source:

Biomimicry: Perspectives for
A well-observed characteristic of the natural world is remarkable engineering feats9 while managing to
its efficient use and re-use of existing resources. For look great in the process. Learning how to capitalize
example, leaves falling from trees make homes for on the ideas found in nature is an invaluable tool. In
smaller insects and animals and eventually degrade the information age of the 21st century, the idea and
into the soil to provide resources for future plant and the ability to profit from it are priceless resources.
microbial growth. Eco-efficiency and complete re-use
Through biomimicry, organizations can avail
are basic tenets of nature and should be models for
themselves to a new type of natural resource, one
our own society. Replicating this idea on a smaller
completely renewable and free of emissions or
scale, an organization does not necessarily require
negative environmental effects—that resource is the
outside resources to innovate towards sustainability
idea. Catherine Bragdon, of Biomimicry Guild’s
and can rely on its own human capital to generate
business development department points out,
these types of ideas.
“(With biomimicry), if you look at a tree, you’re not
Designing for better innovation, leadership, cutting it down to build a building. You’re looking at
increased adaptability, relationships and how it can move its food, water, and energy through
communications are all areas crucial to successful seven stories without any motors or mechanics, how
business growth and are all areas in which nature you can take that knowledge and use it to make a
has a wealth of experience. With further study and better building.”10 By adapting nature’s time-tested
some creativity, the natural world can be a source of and conducive-to-life principles we can create
inspiration for an unlimited number of ideas. Why lean, effective, healthy, and efficient business and
nature? Primarily because every system found in industrial systems.
nature is conducive to life.
When we look for the principles and strategies of the
Every species that exists today has gone through an natural processes that permeate our world, Janine
exhaustive Darwinian refinement by nature to be Benyus, in her seminal work Biomimicry: Innovation
an efficient, effective, and often beautiful example Inspired by Nature highlights the decades of work of
of a way to survive. At the species level, and at the ecologists:11
broader, ecosystem level, there are repeated principles
that have proven to be conducive to persistence. 9 Bhushan, Bharat. “Biomimietics: lessons from nature—an
overview.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society 367
Biomimicry is a field of study undertaken to look (2009): 1445-1486.
at the designs, processes, cycles, and mechanisms by 10 Schoonmaker, Daniel. “Biomimicry: A Natural
which other species have thrived and then adapts Progression.” Grand Rapids Business Journal 23.15 (2005): 1.
Newsfactor. Web. 30 Oct. 2009.
these principles to our own products, processes and
even management strategies. Indeed, nature has 11 Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by
overcome serious design problems and accomplished Nature. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print. P. 7

Nature runs on sunlight.
Nature uses only the energy it needs.
Nature fits form to function.
Nature recycles everything.
Nature rewards cooperation.
Nature banks on diversity.
Nature demands local expertise.
Nature curbs excesses from within.
Nature taps the power of limits.

These overarching observations on a variety of scales

from the family of field mice to the Amazonian rain
forest are key principles nature continually employs
to maintain her elegance and balance. Biomimicry
for business is then, not a goal, but a means to
remain continually adaptive in the ever-changing
business climate—a source for new conceptual and
practical business applications.

Biomimicry: Metaphor Generation
for Businesses
Metaphors have a profound influence on the business helps the reader understand the circumstances of
world. The state of war is a metaphor used by businesses in the downturn through the illustration
many corporate strategists and business writers to of a marathon, biomimicry introduces a set of
explain the importance of strategy and seriousness illustrations that are based in the wisdom of nature
of competition. This metaphor typically evokes a and natural principles. It is a way to highlight
characterization of war devoid of a moral dimension.12 nature’s problem solving ability for the purpose
The way a person thinks about business shapes of adapting its solutions, either metaphorically
the behavior and attitudes he or she has towards or physically to analogous human problems. Like
fellow employees, competitors, customers, and the many of the examples in this paper suggest, nature
surrounding community.13 Similarly, the way a CEO is extremely efficient in the use of resources. This
perceives the role of the company then determines is because animals must hunt and risk their lives to
the mission, strategies, structures, and processes used obtain food. Businesses can adopt this principle of
to fulfill that perception. Unethical business decisions extreme resource efficiency as a basis for reducing
can result in disastrous results for the company, and wasted resources that were once thought of as
even the economy, as we have seen in the case of fixed, necessary costs or never thought about at all.
Countrywide Financial’s role in the 2008 economic Examples include: paying unnecessary disposal fees,
downturn. To the contrary, there exist metaphors for high utility costs, stalled inventory, overproduction,
businesses to be part of a cooperative community and unnecessary transportation, and over-processing.
develop relationships that are not about undercutting
However, drawing inspiration for more abstract
and profit maximizing. Employing the right
business applications will require an understanding
metaphors for the role of business at the outset is a
of the less tangible processes of nature and natural
critical task of the leader.
principles that are not immediately visible. To
Businesses also employ metaphors to inspire or get a sense of how an environmentally restorative
motivate in daily operations. Since the economic system operates, Janine Benyus uses the illustration
downturn in 2008, there have been numerous of a Type 3 mature ecosystem, something like
metaphors linking the company to a runner in the a large mature forest or established prairie. In
race’s most difficult parts. They note, it is often in this type of ecosystem many of the ecological
the most difficult parts of a race in which the leaders principles mentioned below are in full swing:
change positions. While this particular metaphor nutrients are being cycled over and over, all niches
are filled (a variety of species make good use of
12 MacFarlane, Bruce. “Re-Evaluating the Realist
Conception of War as a Business Metaphor.” Teaching Business the nutrients in the system), many cooperative
Ethics 3 (1999): 27-35. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. and complex relations are thriving, the system
13 Solomon, Robert C. 1999. A better way to think about continues to create more and more niches, and
business: How personal integrity leads to corporate success. the system itself enhances its location rather than
New York: Oxford University Press
depletes it.14 Careful observation and study of a
flourishing ecosystem filled with plants and animals
also shows that it is fuelled completely by natural
sunlight and does not intake more resources than
it requires. The rest of nature has found ways to
exist sustainably, if our human societies, economies,
and businesses mimic the underlying designs and
processes of nature we will be many steps closer
towards sustainable development as our non-human
counterparts have found it.

By understanding nature’s principles, behaviors,

and processes, leaders can draw illustrations,
metaphors, and technical examples into the
business world. Biomimicry introduces metaphors
of interdependence and community that are
echoes of conscious capitalism and corporate social

The inspirational knowledge within nature is being

learned and made available on a large scale through
ecologists, animal biologists, and many others
in the life sciences. Learning the scientific “first
principles” of these ideas in nature will serve to lay a
foundation from which management can build the
biomimicry perspective. With a firm understanding
of nature’s inner workings, managers or others will
avail themselves to the vast inventory of successful
strategies contained in the natural world. Further
direction and discernment will choose an appropriate
idea to benefit the organization.

14 Gold, Jordan. “Bio-Capitalism a natural example.”

Corporate Knights Forestry Issue (2005): 42-43
First Principles

Biomimicry as a discipline can be broken into two Matter is similarly “conserved” during these
processes: learning from nature and applying what transformations because the number of atoms before
was learned. For an organization to benefit from the transformation (in the firewood) is the same
the biomimicry perspective, it is essential to gain as the number of atoms that remained after the
a fundamental understanding of ecology and basic reaction (in the ash and smoke). Every material thing
scientific principles. Indeed, as the managerial we create can be thought of as a recombination of
applications of biomimicry will vary widely, the atoms and molecules that have been on Earth for
method for developing the biomimicry perspective billions of years. This means the material pollution
will not. Much attention should be paid to the of our human activities also stay around with us, an
following paragraphs, for these first principles govern idea that brings us to the next point.
life as we know it in the natural world and form the
essential foundation necessary to comprehend how OPEN TO ENERGY
the world is designed and operates. With a firm
To understand this second principle, think of a fossil
understanding of natural systems, one is not limited
fuel, such as coal or oil. We know the carbon atoms
in the number of associations that can be made
in fossil fuels are primarily from the carbon atoms
between a successful natural solution and a successful
of decomposed bodies of prehistoric organic life
business solution.
forms. By burning these fuels the carbon atoms again
BASIC PHYSICAL LAWS redistribute, but in the form of carbon dioxide, a
MATTER AND ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED OR pollutant and greenhouse gas. Unhealthy buildups of
DESTROYED chemicals results in pollution. Currently, the climate
All known forms of energy, on earth and in the change crisis is due to the surplus of carbon dioxide
universe, exist in various forms including chemical, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
heat, motion, light, and others. Energy of these Although plants require carbon dioxide to live, the
various forms is constantly changing from one to the concentration is too great to be useful. We cannot
other. An example of this is when firewood is being escape this principle, all human activities resulting in
burned: the energy stored in the wood (from years of material pollutant we reside along with us on Earth,
gaining energy from sunlight) undergoes combustion in one form or another.
and releases that energy in the form of heat. During Fossil fuels are combusted primarily for the resulting
the changing from one form to another, the First heat energy. But fossil fuels do not inherently
Law of Thermodynamics states energy is neither contain energy; they are simply a form in which
created nor destroyed during these transformations. energy is stored. The energy in fossil fuels was laid
For our example, this means all the years of sunlight down in prehistoric times from the bodies of plants,
that went into the wood transformed completely animals, insects, etc. Plants stored the energy from
into other forms of energy, primarily, heat.
the sun, herbivores ate those plants to gain a portion useful to do work, heat is more disordered and is
of their stored energy, and carnivores ate herbivores harder to collect to perform work. Any combustion
to gain a portion of their stored energy. In fact, all of a fossil fuel demonstrates both of these facts.
the energy found in fossil fuels can be linked to Stored energy in the fuel combusts to release heat
energy from the sun from hundreds of millions of energy while the carbon molecules that once made
years ago. As the fossil fuels are burned, they convert up the fuel disperse as carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel
that energy into heat. Some of the heat is captured technologies capture only a fraction of this heat to
and ordered into a useful form of energy, but much make electricity; the remaining heat is released to the
of it dissipates into the environment. environment and can be seen as wasted energy.


Ecology is the study of the interaction of organisms
with their environments. The field of study includes
the study of species population growth, competition/
relationships between species, feeding relationships,
and interactions with the physical environment on
a variety of scales. Although the field of study is
extremely wide-ranging the following paragraphs
will present several ecological principles thought
to be relevant to the scope of this paper. Readers
are encouraged to envision business management
Energy from the sun is absorbed by living things such as plants
and nonliving things such as rocks. In the case of nonliving equivalents to these concepts. Example analogues
things the heat is almost immediately radiated back out in the include the company as an organism, genes as ideas,
form of heat (think of a parking lot on a summer day). In the and ecosystems as economies.
case of a plant, the energy is stored in the form of sugars and
is consumed by a herbivore. During the metabolic process of INTERCONNECTED, BALANCED FEEDBACK
the herbivore, heat is released out of the system. Source http:// SYSTEMS Ecosystems are a complex web of relationships
To summarize, Earth is a system closed to matter involving a series of flows of matter and energy.
because the total volume of material on Earth stays Basically, everything is connected to everything.
constant and it is open to energy because energy For example, if one were to take all butterflies out
comes from the sun and is eventually lost as heat. of an ecosystem, there would be less pollination
occurring, which would result in less plant growth,
which in turn would affect the diversity of herbivores
The second law of thermodynamics can be summed attracted to those plants, etc. Inherent in this set
up by the concept of entropy: energy in a closed of relationships is the idea of feedback. Since every
system tends to be less available to do work. Whereas bit of matter and energy is used so efficiently,
energy in the form of electricity is more ordered and when something is off or missing, some species in

the ecosystem will notice. With a decreased hare moisture builds in the sky, clouds form, resulting
population there will be less food available for the in rainfall. Rain is absorbed into the soil and
lynx population. The lynx population then decreases subsequently absorbed by the tree for the process
proportionally due to this constraint, thereby scaling to continue. Notice that in cycling, all materials
back the resources required to fulfill the needs of are re-used. No processing of a material results in
the population. Different conditions can make the something that is unusable for the next step in the
feedback less graceful. Suppose there is a population process.
of lynx and hare on an island. The lynx would
continue to eat, grow, reproduce, produce waste, die,
and so on at their hearts content. However, their rate
of growth is larger than the rate of growth of their
primary resource (the hare), eventually there will
be a large pack of lynx hunting for a small number
of hare (high intraspecific competition). Inevitably,
there is a crash in the lynx population and the hare
would slowly increase in number.

All materials are converted into forms that are usable for other
life-forms. Source:

The niche, a term adapted from ecology, is

frequently used in modern business language. A
species niche can be seen as the habitat and resource
The lynx population is reacting to, or receiving information
consumption needs of the species. Species inhabiting
from, the population of the hare. Source
papers/bio/long/ the same niche will result in either extinction of
one species, resource partitioning—one species will
be driven toward a slightly different niche thereby
An atom in a fruit is consumed by a herbivore avoiding competition, or a similar species may
roaming through the forest. The atom transfers to differentiate as they co-evolve.
some carnivore as it consumes the herbivore. Soon
enough the carnivore dies and is decomposing in a Competition can be broken down into intraspecific
field where the atom and parts of the animal become competition and interspecific competition.
nutrients in the soil for plants. This is an example Intraspecific competition may be intense because it is
of nutrient cycling, but cycling occurs in nature on between individuals of the same species, thus within
many scales. In the water cycle, a molecule of water the same niche. Interspecific competition occurs
will transpire from the leaf of a tree into the air. As between different species conflicting over a shared
Mutualism is a type of symbiosis relationship, or Genetic variation. Genes are made up of DNA
living together between symbiont and host. The molecules, which are the coded information
relationship, involving two or more different species, sets for building and operating the organism.
results in benefits for all parties. The Clownfish The small differentiations between the gene sets
scares away predators of its host, the sea anemone, of two individuals within a species, along with
while the fish’s waste is thought to be absorbed as environmental factors produce the physical and
nutrients. The sea anemone provides protection behavioral differences one can observe. The gene
for the fish by using its stinging capsules to capture pool is the total set of genes present in a population.
prey.15 If a gene produces a physical or behavioral difference
resulting in a survival advantage, the population’s
gene pool will, over time, begin to include more
individuals with that gene. Genetically diverse
species, or those with larger genetic variation are
better suited to adapt to changes in the environment.

Community and succession. A community is a

collection of species that occur in the same place and
time. It is a subset of an ecosystem. As communities
proceed through succession the species composition
changes. The complexity of communities increases
as succession progresses. The greatest diversity and
Clownfish swim unaffected by the stinging capsules of the
amount of nutrient cycling occurs during the mid-
anemone. Source:
successional period of a community.
Adaptation. Any heritable trait (capable of being
transmitted to the next generation), be it behavioral,
morphological or physiological, which aids survival
or reproduction in a particular environment is
an adaptation to that environment.16 Those best
adapted to the environment (at the time) are the
individuals that will survive, reproduce and pass
down the genetic traits that have enabled them to
survive. This process is called natural selection, or
“survival of the fittest”.
15 “Relationship protects from predators: clownfish, Example of typical stages of ecosystem succession. Source:
anemones.” Ask Nature. The Biomimicry Institute. Web. 27
Oct. 2009. <>.
16 Mackenzie, Aulay, Andy S. Ball, and Sonia R. Virdee.
Ecology. 2nd ed. Oxford: BIOS Scientific Ltd, 2001. Print.

Business Applications of
A quick search of the term “biomimicry” will be able to use the biomimicry metaphor on a variety
replete with thousands of inspiring and cutting-edge of scales and contexts will be crucial in developing
examples primarily in the areas of product design associations and solutions for the organization’s
and materials engineering, but also include structural specific desires.
optimization, chemical engineering, and desalination
techniques. All of the biomimetic inventions are
examples of the power of our human minds and
their ability to learn and adapt. By learning and Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface, Inc., gathered
adapting what is already successful, we can quickly his design staff to go out into the forest one day. The
gain an advantage that took eons to evolve naturally. intention was to immerse his designers in nature so
they might come back inspired with a new design.
It is easy to see the vast potential for biomimicry as a Interface produces modular floor coverings, or
strategy to solve tactile, engineering-based problems, carpets. This exercise is not the whim of a boutique
but how far does this analogy of “nature as designer” carpet producer but of the world’s largest maker of
go? Does the analogy have solutions to our social modular carpets, a company valued at $1.3 billion.
or more seemingly distinctly human activities such What they found that day was this:”They came to
as business management or product life cycles? The realize that no two things are alike—no two sticks,
examples will be presented with labels describing no two stones, no two leaves,” said Interface, Inc.
the link between nature and business. For example, Chairman Ray Anderson. “It’s total chaos, yet there’s
the first case study is labeled, “Natural concept to a pleasant orderliness in the chaos.”
product concept/design,” this classifies the type of
relationship between the natural phenomenon and This realization of the concept of chaos within
the business application: a concept in nature inspired order—an idea that permeates nature—gave rise to
the design and concept of a product. a line of carpet tiles, named Entropy. The dye on the
pieces of carpet was randomly placed to mimic the
The ecological metaphors will be applied liberally. chaos found in nature. This let the pieces be installed
As the context and emphasis of the perspective in any direction while still maintaining the desired
changes; the scope of the metaphor will adapt to overall look. By doing this, Interface also greatly
better illustrate the new perspective. The metaphor reduced installation time and production waste as
for the organization as a organism in the food web compared to more traditional tiles. Not only did it
may enhance the perspective of the organization cut down on Interface’s operating costs, the design
as it relates with other organizations in its business of the tiles hid any replaced tiles among the older
environment while viewing the organization as ones—this meant longer life for the flooring and
a collection of individuals will be conducive to less inventory for suppliers. Entropy became the
exploring the intra-company relationships. Being company’s fastest bestseller, ever.

to maintain under fatigue load. If we are to use less
material resources but maintain quality of structure,
we can look to nature that has designed structures that
adapt their shape to optimize the use of materials.17
Scientists have specifically looked at trees and bones
to study how they grow and adapt to weight loads,
both static and dynamic. Noticing that trees maximize
strength and minimize material by growing material
where it is needed, science has developed stronger
and lighter designs for structures. Designers at
DaimlerChrysler developed a concept car using these
principles of shape optimization to make a lighter
automobile with increased fuel efficiency.
The design of the carpet tiles allows for random placement
and easy re-placement. Source:

This type of mimicry has taken a set of observations

about a natural setting, taken one cognizant step
further to be characterized as, “total chaos, yet
there’s a pleasant orderliness in the chaos”. This
summation of the set of observations then became
the conceptual inspiration for a line of products.
No precise measurements or testing were done to
The structure of the car optimizes strength and minimizes
determine the extent of disorder among the sticks material use resulting in a 30 percent lighter automobile.
and stones. The idea of disorder was associated Source:
with carpet design, which allowed Interface to use
mergeable dye lots and create individually unique
tiles that install non-directionally. The front-end
improvement in product design resulted in reduced
wastes and costs for Interface.

PHYSICAL, NATURAL DESIGN TO PRODUCT The shape is mimicked from the boxfish and is designed
During the construction of a building, after the
foundation has been set, a frame is constructed. The
17 Chen, J. L., and W. C. Tsai. “Shape Optimization by
purpose of the frame is to give structure and carry
Using Simulated Biological Growth Approaches.” American
and distribute the load of the building. Similarly, Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 31.11 (1993): 2143.
many machines rely on their designed structures Web.
This type of biomimicry has been the treasure trove system, which would normally be considered as
of engineering and designers, that is, imitating or waste and a liability, have now become a valued
employing the physical design specifications of a natural asset. Whereas in a more traditional industrial
structure or behavior. These types of mimicry can be system, one would see byproducts such as steam,
classified as physical, natural design to product design. heat, and flyash being passed on to the environment
and becoming a liability. Effectively, the entire
system was designed specifically to have each
company fill a niche in the ecosystem. Existing as
Resource cycling is wonderfully displayed in an a community to share resources exhibits a lower
industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark. Six impact than an individual company that would
companies: DONG ENERGY Asnæs Power obtain its resources “from scratch” and results in
Station, the plasterboard factory Gyproc A/S, the improved financial performance. A fixed amount
pharmaceutical plant Novo Nordisk A/S, the enzyme of resources is being partitioned in an efficient
producer Novozymes A/S, the oil refinery Statoil- manner, while relationships with other companies
Hydro A/S, the recycling company RGS 90 A/S, as and the community fosters a mutually supportive
well as the waste company Kara/Noveren I/S and environment for all involved.
Kalundborg Municipality have set up operations in
close proximity with the intention of recycling each This concept of industrial ecology is perhaps the
other’s by-products, formerly known as “wastes”. most prominent example of a biomimetic process.
As can be seen in the figure below, for example, the It is being promoted worldwide by The Journal of
power station’s waste heat is being sent to warm the Industrial Ecology and networks like Zero Emissions
fish in the fish farm while the residual steam is being Research and Initiatives (ZERI).
Collective decisions made by social animals are
increasingly being recognized as very important
to their success. Scientists are studying the
communication behavior of bees because they
must work and thrive amongst thousands of other
bees of the colony. One of the decisions bees must
make as their colonies expand is that of choosing a
promising new hive location. The decision process
A diagram of the industrial ecosystem of Kalundborg adapted is surprisingly successful in choosing a suitable
location. The swarm blocks what sociologists call
The residual products of the companies in the “groupthink”—an obstacle to good decision making

that occurs when people copy one another. An • If the stakeholders agree, they are to actively
example of groupthink is when politicians vote support the idea.
blindly along party lines, or when investors get swept
up into a buying craze without good reason. The
swarm is able to do this by first sending out scouts
to find suitable homes, which then return to “waggle A fundamental idea in ecology is the cycling of matter.
dance” the whereabouts and quality of the site. Plants are eaten by herbivores, which are eaten by
carnivores, which die and become sustenance for
opportunistic feeders and decomposers. Matter in
all these stages, changes form and has value to the
organisms of the succeeding class. Companies, like
organisms in food webs, are part of an analogous
ecology. “It’s a jungle out there” is a commonly used
metaphor for the business environment. “Survival
of the fittest” is also used to describe the kill or be
killed nature of business. However, these metaphors
overemphasize the competitive aspects of business
while ignoring the critical role of cooperation.19 Each
company plays a different role in the web, and as
in the previous example, are beginning to see that
the waste they produce can have value for other
The bees use the waggle dance among other dances and signals companies. This powerful concept allows companies
to communicate a variety of messages. Source: blc.arizona. to turn around the cost of waste removal to create
sale profits while allowing another company to reuse
The key then is the “interplay of bees”, the their “waste” material. However, many companies do
interdependence in communicating the whereabouts not have the opportunity to design an ecosystem as
of the best site and their independence in confirming happened in Kalundborg. In most cases, similar waste-
this information”.18 Simply put, the bees must to-profit relationship opportunities exist, but they will
present their case and the other bees must see need to be identified and matched up to create an ad
for themselves, come back and waggle dance in hoc ecosystem.
agreement. In making decisions collectively,
The mission of the Chicago Waste to Profit Network
• The idea presenter must have an opportunity is to encourage transactions between byproduct
to communicate the proposition accurately and sellers and byproduct buyers. Although the
effectively. companies do not necessarily form a community
• Stakeholders must then vet the idea individually.
18 “Decisions, decisions.” The Economist 390.8618 (2009): Learning, Innovation, And Sustainability in the Twenty-first
89-90. Web. 30 Oct. 2009. p. 89. Century.” World Futures 59 (2003): 605-14. Web.
in proximity they are linked through the symbiotic Business Allied to Recycle Through Exchange
relationship of exchange. and Reuse (BARTER) and Waste Exchanges
A success story of this ad hoc ecosystem comes from Directory are other resources for materials
a bakery in Chicago. Waste grease was a byproduct exchange.
of the operations at Cloverhill bakery and a liability.
Through the Chicago Waste to Profit Network, the
bakery now sells the grease to an oil processor who
processes it into agricultural grade fuels, which in turn
However specialized each role in the organization
is sold to local farmers. By taking the time to identify
may be, at some level there must be communication
a consumer of one of its end products, the bakery has
and interaction among the members of the
created revenue from selling 2,000 tons of oil while
organization. Employees of organizations with
creating cost savings in disposal and hauling fees.
greater interdisciplinary group work or less rigid
The establishment of the concept of “waste to profit” boundaries must allocate time to make these
can become a great force to drive companies to design interactions constructive. Because the number
their products and processes in a way that involves less of hours employees would like to spend at work
waste, that is to say, fewer end products that are not is limited, available time interacting with others
valued by society. By shaping our processes to be more becomes a limited resource. In other words, there is
“closed loop”, rather than linear, the organisms in our a limit to the amount of time available for working
industrial ecology begin to gain some of the material with the group because of the need to preserve
and energy efficiencies modeled in our natural time to complete individual obligations. Employees
ecology. Creating a market for a company’s wastes compete for the time of other employees and for
can be seen as an exercise in networking, or forming their own time as well. As individuals, it may be
relationships with other companies whose resources difficult or time consuming to institute a balance of
are your unwanted outputs. time devoted to the group and time devoted to one’s
own work, but not doing so can make employees
This exercise may come as an unfamiliar challenge
feel they are not in control of their time and less
because the idea is to not look laterally at competing,
productive. Managers can institute simple changes
peer companies but up and over to a completely
in work practices to reduce the competition for
different “species” of company whose treasure is
employees’ time. Professors of management, Lotte
your trash, or vice versa. Being nested in a complex
Bailyn, Joyce K. Fletcher and Deborah Kolb note:
business community such as the Chicago Waste to
Profit Network will increase your chances of locating The firm restructured their daily activities into “quiet
a company to form this type of mutually beneficial times” and “interactive times”. “The results of the
relationship. First, do a materials audit identify all experiment were remarkable. The team achieved an
the inflows and outflows of your business to assess on-time launch of the new product and received several
which liabilities can become assets. excellence awards for quality. On the personal side,

team members and their supervisor reported feeling are designed to achieve predetermined goals; they are
more in control of their own time, less stressed, and not designed for innovation.”21
less likely to take work and worries home with them at
If we entertain the metaphor of the company as an
night. They also found themselves thinking twice before
organism, it can be seen as an entity whose survival
interrupting someone, even when it wasn’t quite time,
rests upon its ability to use resources efficiently, escape
and found that the interactions they did have were more
predation, and adapt to the changing environment.
productive and focused. Managers, trying to respect
Traditional management will have much to learn
quiet time, reduced the number of status reports they
from this metaphor in the ways of becoming more
requested and found that this made the engineers more,
knowledge-centric, diverse, and innovative.
not less, productive.20
This illustration allows managers to view the workplace
A creature thrives by existing in an environment
as an intricate and complex ecosystem where various
with no competitors and having ample, renewable
social, resource, temporal, and spatial constraints
resources. Businesses, likewise, need a customer base
affect the productivity, creativity, and efficiency of
to subsist upon and require specific resources (ideas,
the individuals and group. Small businesses have a
skill sets or supplies) to maintain that customer base.
more informal organizational structure and flexible
The business model determines the metabolism of
managerial style and may be able to create small
the business by dictating the goods and services
shifts, such as these, to improve workplace dynamics.
produced and therefore the requisite inputs. In the
Accounting for your resources and constraints is the
information economy, companies thrive based on
first step to using resources effectively.
their ability to be the first to pioneer and profit from
NATURAL PRINCIPLE TO MANAGEMENT the resources in the ideaspace. Innovation’s purpose
STRATEGY: ORGANIZATION AS AN is to discover an untapped idea while a culture of
ORGANISM experimentation allows the organization to make
Traditional management may have an organization the move to inhabit that space to create advantage.
set up similar to a machine, where each position Curiously enough, this may not necessarily mean
is specified to function in a limited manner. An companies should strive to create new knowledge.
operator sets the organization and goals, makes The explosion of knowledge in many technological
decisions, and maintains efficiency of the parts. and scientific fields in recent history makes novel
Employees are replaceable parts; required to ways of aggregating and connecting information just
fulfill their role in the network for the goal of the as important as the creation of new knowledge. It
organization to be met. This organizational model will be easier for small businesses to develop ideas
may have been effective in the past, however, when on how to expand or jump to new market segments
circumstances are changing rapidly, these types of because they have a better defined customer base and
organizations have difficulty adapting “because they more specific geographic market area.
20 Laubacher, Robert, and Michael S. Scott Morton.
Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century. Ed. Thomas 21 Morgan, G., Images of Organization, Sage Publications,
W. Malone. Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, 2003. Print. Thousand Oaks, California, 1997, p. 28.
Small businesses tend to be able to pick their path • Enable collaboration by people with diverse
by being more independent and unencumbered by perspectives on a problem.
corporate bureaucracy. By being free to make quick • Respect the fact that creativity thrives in
decisions, small businesses are known for aggressively situations where there is slack and redundancy.
seeking new opportunities and technologies. Many • Rethink job design and incentive systems in light
products with small initial demand not suited for of what really motivates creativity: intellectual
mass production. Specialized niche markets would challenge and public affirmation.
not be available were it not for small business. • Manage as though we expect creativity from
everyone—not just isolated “lone geniuses”.
Small businesses have the opportunity to be attuned
to the specific bioregional space. They know Including internal and external stakeholders, from
their customers, and have a deeper place in the customer to supplier, brings different perspectives
community as business owners and neighbors. Well- to the table. By placing the burden of innovation
functioning evolutionary systems are attuned to the on a wider group of stakeholders, it is possible to
specific bioregional place. When ownership is too far obtain a more robust set of solutions and questions.
removed from local circumstances, decision-making In nature, no one organism evolves, instead it takes a
drifts dangerously away from the businesses optimal species, a group to shape the future. The bad ideas go
level of evolutionary fitness.22 by the wayside and the good ones persist, however, as
a manager it is impossible to have all the ideas or see
Innovation through learning, diversity, and rapid all the perspectives. It takes the perspective of those
evolution. Developing a culture of innovation constantly engaged in various parts of the business’
inherently depends on the ability of the business to collectively produced experience to bring to light
understand current circumstances, business realities inadequacies the manager would never have known.
and project future situations. In other words, the Those who regularly experience interactions with
company must be supported by a foundation of the company or its parts can be considered users.
knowledge and a culture of learning. Cultures William Riggs, visiting scholar at the Massachusetts
of continuous learning are prime for continuous Institute of Technology’s management school and
adaptation and experimentation. As a manager, Eric von Hippel, professor of Engineering systems
how do you create a culture of experimentation and Management at the Massachusetts Institute of
while protecting the bottom line? Scott Cook Technology posit, “Users generate functionally novel
founder of Intuit, the company that brought the innovations because they experience novel needs well
financial management program, Quicken, notes that ahead of manufacturers…”24 Just as a diverse gene
managers will have to diverge from the management pool allows for increased adaptability in species, a
they were taught and:23 diversified brain and experience pool is more likely
22 Poletti, Frank, and Ogilvy, Jay. “The Emergence of a to arrive at a solution in a new way.
Sustainable Future: Brainstorming better ways to Globalize at
the Esalen Institute.” World Futures 59 (2003): 615-623 24 Riggs, William and Eric von Hippel (1994), “The Impact
23 of Scientific and Commercial Values on the Sources of Scientific
how_do_innovators_think.html Instrument Innovation,” Research Policy 23 (July): 459-469.

Nature’s designs and processes did not emerge executives are bent on destroying the environment,
from a large set of genes. The genius of evolution cooking the books and lining their own pockets”25,
that we see today comes from the refinement of a corporations are beginning to look up and see that
series of mutations, in a form of trial and error over businesses are a part of the society and customers are
billions of years. Genetic diversity and its causes there voluntarily.
have allowed for all the successful behavioral and
By placing priorities away from making profits,
physical adaptation strategies we see today. Likewise,
companies can create a business of cooperation with
companies have the choice to evolve, but must do
those in their supply chain, customer base, and
so as quickly as the external circumstances change.
employees. Exploitation of any of these stakeholders
Those not matching internal capabilities with the
will ostracize the business and develop increasingly
new information environment do not evolve into
competitive and undercutting relationships.
more fit organizations and risk operating under
unsustainable goals or irrelevant premises. The
overbearing example of this would be the companies
failing to incorporate basic means of reducing their
environmental impact such as improving energy
efficiency and waste generation of operations.

The physical or outward expression of a genotype

is a phenotype. Companies must manifest the
innovations they believe will catapult them
into a profitable ideaspace. Whether this means
In more comprehensive business models the specific goals
instituting an in-office waste reduction effort or
are linked and mutually supportive. Source: http://www2.
tying sustainability goals into the company’s mission
statement—companies must act upon knowledge to conscious-capitalism-creating-a-new-paradigm-for-business/
shape themselves to succeed in the opportunities and
Start by communing with suppliers or those
constraints of tomorrow’s business climate.
upstream in the business. Establish trust and
Small businesses are relatively resource poor, come to agreement that profit seeking is not
making flexibility in creation of ideas and the only motivation in the business agreement.
innovation a major asset. Relieving tension and promoting community with
these stakeholders will allow for further relaxed
Realizing relationships. John Mackey, CEO at interactions with customers and others who are
Whole Foods has been spearheading the Conscious downstream of your business.
Capitalism movement—a paradigm shift calling
A conscious company realizes its employees depend
companies to work for a higher set of responsibilities
on them to provide meaningful work and fair
and morals above profit maximization. At a time
when a “majority of the public…believes that 25
wages while it is dependent on quality resources the director of the Cap Gemini Ernst & Young Center
from suppliers “upstream.” Understand how the for Business Innovation in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
connections above, below, within, and across your Bonabeau and Meyer suggest a key may lie in their
organization affect your objectives. For example, a swarm intelligence; described as:
company must realize their employees are members
Social insect teamwork is largely self-organized,
of their family and members of the community with
coordinated primarily through the interactions of
other obligations. Demanding more time at work will
individual colony members. Together they can solve
infringe on the employees other time commitments
difficult problems even though each interaction might
and create stress—this will feed back into work
be very simple (one ant merely following the trail left by
performance, creativity and efficiency. The realization
another). The collective behavior that emerges from a group
of community and interdependence comes during
of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence.”27
the greater realization of the effect companies on the
whole have had on each other, their customers and the Through millions of years of evolution, nature
environment and it is the duty of any business, just as has selected a set of rules for individual insects to
any citizen to uphold the welfare of the society. perform; culminating in flexible and robust collective
problem-solving abilities. Bonabeau and Meyer
Show members of the community your commitment
distill the lessons learned from years of research into
to fostering healthy products, healthy relationships
key advantages of swarm intelligence strategies:
and a health community. This may mean providing
• Flexibility: the group can quickly adapt to a
an excellent work environment, supporting local
changing environment
nonprofit organizations, charities, or engaging the
• Robustness: even when one or more individuals
community by attending local events, town hall
fail, the group can still perform its tasks
meetings and interest group meetings.
• Self-organization: the group needs relatively
SPECIES BEHAVIOR TO MANAGEMENT little supervision or top-down control
Social insects such as ants and termites are among the
most prolific species on Earth. With little intelligence
and no imposed management, ants make up 15-20
percent of the total weight of all land animals on
Earth.26 How can businesses learn from these masters
of survival? Eric Bonabeau is one of the world’s
leading experts in complex systems and distributed
Biologist Anna Dornhaus colors ants to identify individuals
adaptive problem solving and Christopher Meyer is
and study behavior. Source:
26 Schultz, Thomas R. “In search of ant ancestors.”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97.26 (2000): 27 Bonabeau, Eric, and Christopher Meyer. “Swarm
14028-4029. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business.”
Web. < Harvard Business Review R0105G (2001): 106-14. Harvard
pdf+html>. Business Review. p. 108

How do managers develop rules similar to the ones
ingrained in social insects and reduce the need for
command-and-control? An example comes from Jim
Donehey, when he was CIO of Capital One. Donehey,
in an attempt to encourage individual efficiency with
a more hands-free management approach, applied a
set of simple rules to guide members of the IT staff to
work towards the same goal.
1. Always align IT activities with the business (that
is, keep the company’s overall goals in mind).
2. Use good economic judgment (spend the money
like it is your own).
3. Be flexible (do not box yourself into one thought
4. Have empathy for others in the organization
(when people ask you to do something you do
notagree with, put yourself in their shoes).

To further encourage the rules, Donehey provided

gaming chips to the business managers with
instructions to pass them out to IT staffers whenever
they followed any of the four guidelines. Within
a year the group was more unified, empowered
to make decisions and work with little top-down
management. This resulted in an “attrition rate of
4 percent, compared with 20 percent for the IT
industry as a whole.”28

Small businesses may not require excessive

administration to start the ideas of swarm
intelligence. Excessive rule making may interfere
with the creative process.

28 Ibid., p. 111

Summary and Notes on the
In these examples, we have seen different perspectives using a natural analogy is just one way to arrive at an
on ways to approach product design, the value of appropriate solution. A careful study of management
community, decision making, management strategies science, for example, may end up coming to a similar
that are sensitive to workplace ecosystem constraints, solution. The distinction between an idea that is
the importance of niche finding, value of inclusive derived from nature and one that is an industry-
perspective gathering, solution generation, and derived best practice may not always be clear. While
experimentation. This is by no means an exhaustive it can be argued that all innovations must be derived
list, but an introduction to the possibilities of from “nature” in one way or another the goal of
biomimicry’s application. It is important to note the biomimics is not to claim every good idea as their
disregard for scale in the application of some of these own, but to pragmatically approach nature and
metaphors. A concept with large governance, say the learn from her vast treasures of knowledge, beauty,
natural principle of resource cycling, can be applied and inspiration that is present in the world around
to something as specific as a paper purchasing policy us. Biomimicry comes in the form of illustrations
for the department or the organization may pledge or metaphors—such as the “organization as an
to become a zero waste organization. organism” example, in which case, it is the new
perspective that may shed beneficial insight for
Attaining biomimicry’s potential rests on an ability
the organization. Another form of biomimicry is
to appreciate the natural world. Surely, it is possible
the application of a rigorously studied process or
to use a biomimetic principle to achieve an end that
behavior as in the example with the social insects.
is not conducive to life. But this is inherently an
As biomimicry is still an emerging discipline,
unsustainable aim and inconsistent with survivability
undoubtedly there are other types of lessons to be
in the long term. An oil company, for example, may
learned from the natural world that are not yet
take inspiration from trees and their ability to pull
known. The life sciences that form the basis for
water out of the ground only to increase the rate of
biomimicry are, of course, legitimate sciences, but
extraction of oil. But this would be missing the deeper
the means of linking these data to human processes
and larger picture of biomimicry. The processes and
is just beginning and can be informal and cross-
designs of nature are only effective and sustainable
disciplinary. We can call it an art of linking and
because they adhere to the laws of other life-conducive
learning from disparate disciplines.
natural systems. To extract a singular idea from nature
and apply it out of context, that is, without regard for How organizations are able to take advantage
environmental or social consequences is shortsighted of biomimicry is only bounded by their
and an abuse to nature and humanity. imagination and knowledge of the natural
Industry best practices and biomimetic solutions
are not mutually exclusive. Approaching problems

Learning to Use Biomimicry

For businesses, biomimicry is a strategy for 100 percent conversion may not need to be the goal.
innovation generation. In the generation process According to the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell, a New
itself, it allows the people involved to exercise York Times best selling author of pop sociology and
important skills for innovative thinking. Like one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people,
any other strategy it must be planned for and only a “tipping point” needs to be reached for the
implemented diligently. The following set of steps whole to come around. First try bouncing ideas off
is designed to help the organization produce a employees to get a sense for how to approach an
work environment conducive to employing the implementation.
biomimicry metaphor. The reader will notice some
Half of the non-farm gross domestic product
of the steps themselves are composed of metaphors
(GDP) is produced through firms that have
previously mentioned. The framework for change
fewer than 20 employees. Improving the way
is quite basic and partially borrows from the
small businesses operate will be significant
framework for change provided in The Natural Step
step towards making business in the US more
for Business.29
environmentally responsible.
This starts with understanding the global pattern. The ideologies of the traditionally managed
Become informed about why the existing paradigm organization are ingrained and many people are
of business is ruining the biosphere and increasingly inherently afraid of the unknown. Change this by
separating the rich and the poor. Change in making the goals concrete and the means clear.
understanding will give way to a change in attitude. Encourage thought exploration of basic company
The case for climate change, unsustainable resource goals by asking heretical questions such as “Can we
extraction, and ecosystem destruction is undeniably run our business with no waste?” The aim of asking
evident. Biomimicry is a means for a business to turn “What would nature do?” is a design question to
the tide and take up our evolutionary imperative. change the business from the ground up—it is not a
Present the case by linking the motivations of your tangential pursuit or separate department.
employees with the motivations for a new paradigm.
Employees may feel comfortable with the status quo,
For example, negative health effects resulting from
but continuous improvement requires continuous
poor environmental quality is something we can
learning and applying. Organizations may find
all agree is something we would like to avoid.
employees feel empowered by the fact that they are
29 Nattrass, Brian, Altomare, Mary 1999. The Natural able to influence the direction of the business. While
Step for Business. Wealth, Ecology, and the Evolutionary influencing people’s worldviews is a task requiring
Corporation. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

tact and sensitivity, specific mental hurdles are easier Emergent leaders realize the systems within the
to overcome. A typical outdated misconception is employees’ heads, the organization as a whole,
that all environmental practices cost a lot of money. and society at large are too complex to predict. By
Prioritize those initiatives with the fastest payback putting their fingers on the pulse of the change in
first to realize savings. Examples of these include the workplace, community or world, leaders can
lighting retrofits, and energy efficient building create more contextually sensitive directives. A single
improvements to reduce heating and cooling costs. controller at the top of a hierarchy is an organization
Waste reduction strategies and increased recycling unwieldy in an era of rapidly changing social desires
can reduce waste hauling charges. These relatively and resource constraints.
easy and quick changes will accrue savings that can
Get your employees excited to solve their own, the
be turned over for projects with longer paybacks.
company’s, and even the world’s environmental
The operating environment of all business will challenges.31 Make sure they know their input is
change substantially; those wishing to survive must necessary and appreciated. In the future, as talented
undergo substantial internal change to become more workers seek meaningful work, they will look to the
flexible and transparent. ethical and responsible thought leaders in the field
that provide experiences relevant to the evolving
Let go of the dominator model of social
organization. These models consist of a win-lose ASSESS STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES,
paradigm involving rank, hierarchies of power and OPPORTUNITIES AND THREATS
control, and competition.30 If a group were traveling This is a standard point, applicable to any
the globe, the skills and knowledge of the sailor, implementation of strategy. A company must
medic, mountaineer, and navigator become useful know itself to understand potential outcomes of
in response to the situation at hand. Each member changing its strategy. Without knowing the areas
has immense value and is, at different points in in need of improvement, an organization cannot
time, called to influence the group. The web of realize its potential. Start off by conducting an
interconnections and dependence is larger and ‘environmental audit’ to assess the material and
stronger in this type of organization. energy inflows and outflows of your organization.
Do not forget to include input from employees,
Emergent leaders seek the input of their constituents
suppliers, and customers for qualitative information
to help shape the path of the organization while
such as employee assessments of the workspace,
realizing they cannot possibly micromanage for
management, work culture, quality of interaction
results. In doing so, no one side dominates while
etc. After assessing inward characteristics, observe
the other submits. Each possesses the power to have
outwards towards the strategy of peers and the
their say and the potential of the team awakens.
31 Winston, Andrew Green Recovery Get Lean, Get Smart,
30 Eisler, Riane 1987. The chalice and the blade: Our history, and Emerge from the Downturn on Top Harvard Business
our future. Cambridge: Harper & Row. Press.

market at large. This will help identify market can be thought of as learning the principles of
segments to engage in and those to avoid. biomimicry and proceeding straight to the business
advantage this creates (See figure below). These
corporations may not find value in learning either
the first principles or in fundamentally changing
Develop a clear vision and translate it into a the nature of the organization by incorporating
meaningful mission statement or objective. How biomimicry into the corporate DNA, that is, to
can the organization improve its core competencies become a learning or evolutionary organization. If
through biomimicry? The consulting firm, this is the case, the learned biomimetics will be only
Biomimicry Guild translates Life’s Principles of...: a single injection of innovation while approaching
• Build from the bottom up. from the left side of the diagram will allow
• Self-assemble. organization to continually discover and employ
• Optimize rather than maximize. principles of biomimicry.
• Use free energy.
• Cross-pollinate. Evolutionary
• Embrace diversity. Organization
• Adapt and evolve.
• Use life-friendly materials and processes.
• Engage in symbiotic relationships. First Principles/ Competitive
Need for Business Advantage/
• Enhance the bio-sphere. Paradigm Shift Innovation
(A) (D)
...into valuable business returns32:
• Saving energy
• Cutting material costs Principles of
• Redefining and eliminating “Waste”
• Heightening existing product categories
• Defining new product categories and industries
• Driving revenue
• Brand building

These are the typical benefits of the lessons learned For maximum benefit, businesses should choose the route from
from nature. Large companies like Nike, GE, and A to B to C to D. As the business environment changes the
learning organization should adapt by employing appropriate
Hewlett-Packard are beginning to realize these
applications of biomimicry.
benefits but unless you can afford services of cutting-
edge consulting services, it will be up to leaders in Merely acting upon the recommendations of
the organization to set the vision. These corporations a consulting firm may not change the internal
functioning of a company compared to if the
company underwent the learning process themselves.

A separate set of benefits will accrue from BECOMING A LEARNING ORGANIZATION
understanding the value of studying the life sciences,
Just as human beings are constantly reacting
becoming a learning organization and employing
to new information, so too must companies be
the principles of biomimicry for innovation. These
sensitive to social trends, key relationships, and
benefits include those already discussed in the
internal threats. These types of knowledge have
leadership section but also include experiential
always been important sources of competitive
benefits and skills learned by employees. Associating
advantage for most companies. However, create
seemingly unrelated topics, ability to experiment
an organization and climate of continual learning;
and questioning the status quo to open up the bigger
the management’s task is to establish conditions, or
picture are important skills for innovative thinking33
design the workplace processes to create creativity
and are developed during the act of employing
and synergy. World renowned management strategist
biomimicry. Gaining these skills is both empowering
Peter Senge describes the learning organization in
to the employee and useful for any organization.
the often quoted The Fifth Discipline as a place
According to Nattrass and Altomare, authors of where “people continually expand their capacity to
The Natural Step for Business, rewards received create the results they truly desire, where new and
by companies engaged in sustainable business expansive patterns of thinking are nurtures, where
practices include an increase in efficiency, collective aspiration is set free, and where people
attraction of talent, innovation of new products are continually learning how to learn together”.35
and services, development of knowledge base and Ideas must be encouraged, mistakes must be made
core competencies for the market of the future, and lessons must be learned along the way. This is
improvement of relations with local communities, especially important in times of rapid change. Each
among others.34 Most importantly, small businesses person’s commitment and ability to learn must be
are in a better position to offer positions where tapped for the entire organization to be adaptive
employees can derive meaning and value. and productive. This shift in responsibility is a
Increasingly talent is drawn towards businesses with relatively unpracticed and will require a significant
matching ideals and ethics. shift of mind among employees. Senge notes, it is
not enough for companies to know how to survive.
Remember, biomimicry is not the ends but a means
Learning organizations must learn how to enhance
towards known beneficial trends, identifying your
their capacity to create, what he calls “generative
business’s role in the community, however it is
learning”.36 Having a diverse and independent
defined, will be critical in specifying your vision.
workgroup will mitigate the costs of mistakes made.
Create organizational or department goals and
objectives as realistic, definable and achievable steps Incorporating all stakeholders in the idea farming
towards the vision. process will help you view your business from more
35 Senge, Peter 1993. The Fifth Discipline: The art and
33 practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday
how_do_innovators_think.html Currency.
34 Nattrass, Brian, Altomare, Mary 1999. p. 192-198. 36 Ibid., p. 14

perspectives. It will be easier to see it as an organism, in offering training and advancement opportunities
depended on and dependent upon other organism in to workers.37 Although including employees in
the community. Taking these soft data and including innovative work practices may be informal and in-
them into the fabric of how you do business will require house, it offers novel and valuable work experience
a culture of innovation and experimentation. Please see
the resources on becoming a learning organization.
Ecosystems maintain their balance and elegance
Three types of knowledge necessary for through constant material and energy feedback
contemporary, evolutionary business must have systems. Imagine trying to manage a plot of Amazonian
to create value and innovate (Laszlo, 2003): rainforest with its dizzying number of plants, fruits,
soil conditions, and animals! But this is not the case;
1. Basic scientific management
the resiliency of this system is in its diversity, efficiency,
2. Knowledge outside of the enterprise, about and accurate communication of resource levels. A
industry, the market, consumers, etc. system with such interconnectedness, dependence and
communication requires less management, and relies
3. Sociocultural dynamics both within and
on self-regulating feedback to maintain balance. In
outside of the organization. Insight drawn
plots of a forest, taller plants shade out the understory,
from other sciences.
this sends a “signal” to smaller plants that there are is
insufficient sunlight here to prosper.
FIRST PRINCIPLES In nature, there is no intent on the part of the tress
to send signals, but in the workplace these are the
Regardless of the position, everyone should be
types of feedback communications that must take
somewhat familiar with the role of business in
place to achieve a type of self-organization. As in the
producing wealth disparity, resource consumption,
case of the swarm intelligence, the signals must be
reduced well-being, biodiversity loss, water resource
simple and easily recognizable while the triggered
constraints, public health issues and climate change.
response must be equally simple and effective. In
From there it will be up to the leaders in the
effect, more nodes of regulation are being created
organization to propose biomimicry as an engine
and management is becoming more diffuse. At each
to diverge from the trend and innovate towards a
point an employee who is in touch with the situation
restorative business model. Spreading the ability to
will be able to proactively deal with complications
innovate through biomimicry releases the burden
before they snowball. Invariably, kinks in the road will
of innovation from a limited set of perspectives
need to be dealt with, but setting up a self-managing
and multiplies the possibilities with a larger set
organization will go a long way in reducing time spent
of perspectives. This allows all employees to feel
managing and free more time for leading.
they have more control in the direction of the
37 Scarborough, Norman M., and Thomas W. Zimmerer.
whole, while it increases the organization’s base of
Effective Small Business Management. 6th ed. Pearson
innovation generation. Small businesses are leaders
Education, 1999. Print.


Mankind currently faces a wide assortment of global which are complex, holistic, interdependent and
development problems that include unsustainable often nonlinear. While organizations under more
energy production, life threatening water scarcity traditional management theory might regard
issues,38 inefficient and wasteful production responsibilities to the environment and society
processes, and corporate social irresponsibility. as irrelevant or economic burdens, innovative
Our eyes are only just being opened to the global organizations are discovering sources of competitive
intricacies we have muddled up. Both the scale advantage.
and the extent to which our systems have degraded
Smaller businesses employ much of the nation’s
the environment are unprecedented. These man-
workforce and provide valuable opportunities
made processes are inherently unsustainable when
for employee training. Advancements in socio-
considering there are limited Earth-bound resources.
environmental practices at the small business level
Continuing to ignore our dependency on these
would represent a significant advancement for
environmentally-based problems will prove to rob
sustainable development. Organizations with a less
the current and future generations of life, liberty,
formal hierarchy may be more adaptable to the
and the pursuit of happiness. If the mankind desires
management styles and ideas required to thrive in
to achieve a state of sustainability, a paradigm shift
the new business climate. Those companies able to
must occur in the goals and means of the businesses
grasp the relatedness in today’s flurry of knowledge
that make up our current economy.
will be the first to piece together sustainable systems.
Businesses are an integral force of change in the
All of the examples found in the paper can be
economic and environmental landscape and are in a
seen as an undertaking of design. As natural forces
position to lead the way to become more than just
designed the environment and all species, our study
sustainable. Many economic and environmental
of the world around us allows us access to successful,
incentives are in place to radically change the
underlying design tools to shape our economy and
pursuit of business, however, the design of our
companies. Companies that increase effectiveness,
industrial processes and business hierarchies are
reduce negative socio-environmental impact,
both examples of reductionist tendencies that tend
and create community will be the ones making
to inhibit change. Businesses employ a variety of
intelligent use of those tools.
personalities, skills sets and knowledge sets. To use
each employee as a cog in the machine, as traditional Biomimicry attempts to parallel the survival
and ongoing management suggests, is an unrealistic strategies of nature and the human survival strategy
approach to productivity. Traditional management and for businesses this can be an effective tool.
thought tries to maintain simple systems for those, At all scales of nature, from a simple leaf to a
bustling rainforest, we see principles, processes and
38 designs, which are conducive to survival. While
understanding the basic natural laws and basic
ecological principles is more or less straightforward
changing the business model to imitate nature and
operate in harmony with natural laws is profoundly
complex because it necessitates a rethinking or
redesigning of many foundational assumptions. The
act of employing nature’s design requires a humility
that was lost in our industrial age. Biomimicry is
a demonstration of the awareness that we too are
bound by ecological constraints. Just as nature
flourishes within these constraints, the evolved
business will find a wealth of ideas to bring success
in a responsible and respectable manner.


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