Organizational Innovation Inspired by Nature
How can living systems inspire and inform new approaches to organizational innovation?
As a starting point for exploration of this question, this resource list was developed for the “Organizational Innovation Inspired by Nature” panel at the 2012 SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas. We hope you find these touch points useful and look forward to continuing the conversation. Comments are now closed—thank you to all contributors for sharing additional resources below.
- The U.S. Green Building Council applied biomimicry to redesign their organizational structure in 2010. This process was documented by Fast Company in “Biomimicry Challenge: IDEO Taps Octopi and Flamingos to Reorganize the USGBC.” IDEO also wrote up the project.
- In a second “Biomimicry Challenge: TOA Uses Fungi to Reimagine Sustainable Neighborhoods,” Fast Company describes a collaboration between Brightworks and the City of Portland’s EcoDistricts Initiative to organize networks of resources in an urban environment.
- IBM’s SmarterCity Initiative and Smart Design teamed up for a third “Biomimicry Challenge: For IBM, Smart Design Draws Water Conservation Inspiration from Ecosystems,” to design innovative new approaches to organizing and self-regulating communal water use among city residents.
- A fourth “Biomimicry Challenge: Could Biomimicry Build a Better Company Than Your Boss?” offers leaders’ reflections on integrating biomimicry into their problem-solving processes.
- This 2001 Harvard Business Review piece on “Swarm Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business” discusses how the concept of “a few simple rules” inspired by social insects was used to make processes such as freight transfer at Southwest and IT support at Capitol One more effective. (Full article)
- This analysis of an interconnected business park in Kalundberg, Denmark highlights the systems, challenges, and biological principles that can inform strategic alliances at an industrial scale.
- In 2011, an Executive Director at the Bank of England published a financial ecology article in Nature (issue 469) on “Systemic risk in banking ecosystems,” as described in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and this speech.
- A piece in Central Banking on “Preventing system failure” builds on this and describes how a model for resilience in ecosystems supports the case for restructuring the banking industry.
Collaboration & Teamwork
- The Bioteaming Manifesto tackles the challenge of high-performing virtual teams by looking at nature.
- In this piece on “Natural Relationships,” the BCI consulting group draws parallels between different types of relationships found in natural systems and new forms of business collaboration.
- This Harvard Business Review article on “Creating Value in Your Business Ecosystem” describes a role and relationships for ‘keystone’ organizations in a market, drawing upon insights from keystone species found in ecological systems.
- In this classic piece from 1998 titled “The Irresistible Future of Organizing,” Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers describe three conditions of self-organizing systems for human collaboration: identity, information, and relationship.
- Explore three stages of self-organization for social innovation: 1) Networks, 2) Communities of Practice, 3) Systems of Influence in this piece on “Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale” from the Berkana Institute.
- This opinion piece suggests that education would benefit from biomimicry.
- This white paper describes organizational design and management implications for the U.S. healthcare industry when seen through the lens of complex adaptive systems.
- This “Natural Innovation” piece offers pointers for seeding new ideas, as well as innovating under adverse conditions.
- This white paper explores how biomimicry can inform innovation management for small and medium sized businesses.
- Biomimicry 3.8 describes its vision and high-level process for biomimicry-based innovation in this Management Innovation eXchange M-Prize finalist entry.
- This piece on “Building Highly Effective Idea Management Systems With Living Systems Principles” is applicable during the ideation and innovation processes.
Leadership & Management
- This Harvard Business Review article on “Strategy as Ecology” argues that “like an individual species in a biological ecosystem, each member of a business ecosystem ultimately shares the fate of the network as a whole, regardless of that member’s apparent strength.” (Full article)
- This Harvard Business Review article, “Simple Rules for a Complex World,” discusses what makes simple rules effective.
- Explore organizational applications in this GreenBiz article on “How to Use the Twelve Principles of Permaculture to Grow Sustainable Organizations.”
- “Organizations as Living Systems – Crafting a New Story to Get New Results” offers guidance for changing the narrative and metaphor of organizational design.
- This piece from Biomimicry for Creative Innovation describes a changing model of organizational leadership called “Natural Leadership” along with three case examples.
- Originally published in the Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement in 1998, this article on “Bringing Life to Organizational Change” offers principles and inquiry practices to guide change processes.
- In a simulation described in Science in 2010 (and summarized on this blog), slime molds convergently designed the Tokyo railway network, showing that biological networks developed “without centralized control” may yield solutions to optimization problems.
- Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Chapter 7 discusses principles for a closed-loop economy.
- Business Ecology: Why Most Green Business Practices Don’t Work…and What To Do About It. Describes twelve guiding principles for designing an organizational ecology.
- Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software offers a broad introduction to self-organizing systems.
- Honeybee Democracy tells the story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees. Chapter 1 excerpt.
- The Keystone Advantage: What the New Dynamics of Business Ecosystems Mean for Strategy, Innovation, and Sustainability draws parallels between strategic alliances and biological ecosystems.
- Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World applies insights from physics and biology to improve organizational leadership and performance, with an emphasis on information management.
- Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets From Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease. Excerpt discussing how nature’s security systems are based on adaptability.
- The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment. The founder of the ‘learning organization’ concept explores strategies for community, connectivity, and adaptation taken from the world’s longest-running companies.
- The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done. Excerpt on an ant-based simulation used by Southwest to determine efficient plane boarding.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer is a seminal book on understanding and solving problems using whole systems thinking.
Resources for Practice
- Visual overview of the Biomimicry Thinking process as defined by Biomimicry 3.8.
- Scoping Phase: Use the Biomimicry Taxonomy to help identify the function your design seeks to solve.
- Discovering Phase: Find natural models for key functions in the Ask Nature Database and find groups of adaptive solutions in the University of Cambridge Map of Life.
- Emulating Phase: Evaluate how well Life’s Principles are reflected in the resulting design.
- The Biomimicry Education Network blog provides suggestions for teaching biomimicry, some applicable to teaching it within an organization.
- This module on group behavior from Arizona State University is designed to engage non-biologists in learning about the process of self-organization.
- The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute is the global leader in biomimicry education and training, with programs ranging from a two-year professional certificate to multi-day “backyard” workshops and online self-paced courses.
- The San Diego Zoo offers corporate and school workshops.
- BeeDance is a consultancy that works on solutions inspired by nine lessons from the honeybee.
- Biomimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild) has pioneered the practice of biomimicry with companies and communities since 1998.
- Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI) is a network of consultants that applies ‘ecological thinking for radical transformation.’
- HOLOS Collaborative specializes in sustainable and systemic solutions integrated with the built environment.
- Toby Herzlich and Company applies biomimicry to organizational and social change leadership.