The Nature Of Innovation

October 15th, 2014


Building Your Business From The Ground Up

Guest Blog by Victoria Kindred Keziah

In the words of mathematician George E. P. Box, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”    No worldview can contain all that we seek to understand, but each can launch us toward new discoveries.  Perhaps your model for innovation involves Design Thinking, deep empathy, pain points, or needs-maps.  My chosen model is Biomimicry, which is broadly defined as “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius.” Biomimicry has long inspired designers, architects and engineers, but as the practice has taken hold, it has been adopted by less obvious practitioners – investors, organizational gurus, and strategists like myself.

Lessons from Nature

The question a Biomimic asks, quite simply, is “what would nature do?”   This approach is worth a closer look, given that nature has been innovating long enough to provide us with some enduring breakthroughs, like photosynthesis, carbon absorption, and pollination.  The process of iterative prototyping takes on new meaning when you consider that the 30 million species currently inhabiting our planet represent only one percent of all the species ever to exist on earth.  Life has been adapting to changing conditions, re-shuffling information, and improvising in place for some 3.8 billion years.  That’s an impressive track record.

This is true everywhere on Earth, of course, including right here in Boulder.  There’s a place I’m thinking of that you may know, too … where there once was an open field there is now a fairly robust tributary of the Boulder Creek, a result of the 1,000-year flood.  In that new tributary there are likely some brook trout that survived the ride of their life last fall.

Grass seeds delivered by the wind have found purchase in the moist soil, and now their roots are stabilizing the banks.  The grasses provide habitat for insects and birds, and browsing animals that come to sample the menu.  The browsers redistribute grass seeds that attach to their hides, and their digestive waste, ever so useful in nature, enriches the soil underground, where microbes, earthworms and mycelia churn the decaying matter back into useful nutrients. And so it goes.  Moment-by-moment, circumstance by circumstance, a web of life emerges from a flooded field.  Nature’s innovation.

What can the innovators contributing to our emerging economy learn from this sudden stream?  If I look through my Biomimic’s lens, here is what I observe:

Learn the Currents

Along our new creek bed, seeds traveled on the wind and stowed away in animal fur, grasses grew where water and sunlight were all but inevitable.  In the natural world, energy and resources are not extracted as much as they are intimately understood.  Now look at an innovator like AirBnB.  Did they create anything new?  Or did they ride existing, if untapped currents?  AirBnB didn’t  pave paradise to put up new hotels, it paved the way for hosts and guests to make the most of spare bedrooms, by building a network of mutual vetting and earned trust.  By understanding and optimizing an untapped commercial current, and setting this current aloft on a global scale, AirBnB has tapped into a major trade wind of the new economy.

Innovate Within Limits

The inhabitants of the creek bed couldn’t import construction materials or raise start-up capital to build an ecosystem.  Instead they had to work within the limits of their immediate surroundings, to make the most of what was available.  Similarly, innovators can take a closer look at the genius of their immediate reality.  What opportunities lurk behind a facade of limitation?  Colorado Springs-based Blue Star Recyclers has done just this.  They take electronic discards like old computers, which are often hard to dismantle and recycle responsibly, and put them in the hands of staff members who are uniquely qualified to perform repetitive, intricate, hands-on tasks.

It turns out that this ability is a trait that often comes with autism, and so Blue Star’s staff is highly concentrated with these individuals. Blue Star turns millions of pounds of discards into raw material for recycling, all while engaging the unique talents of a staff comprised of otherwise marginalized workers.  Like the creatures along the creek bed, the creators of Blue Star worked within the resources and relationships that were immediately available, seeing beyond their limits to their inherent value, especially when combined together.  With plans to expand to Denver, ready and able to absorb the electronic detritus of the information age, Blue Star may be the unsung hero of Colorado’s innovation frontier.

Create Whole-Systems Solutions

No single creature on the creek bed is disconnected from any other.  Each contributes to and benefits from its participation in a trophic web, the connective network that ties insects to soil, soil to grass, grass to grazers, grazers back to soil, and so on.  For our innovations to really matter, they will have to be whole-systems solutions -solutions that reimagine the interface between commercial markets and the natural world.  We are all at least implicitly aware of the notion that we cannot continue to extract and erode natural resources in perpetuity. Beyond that, we are coming to learn that the great opportunity of our era is not only to limit impact, but to add value, to contribute lifegiving energy to our own trophic web.

Boulder’s Savory Institute (to my delight, a Net Generative client) is an example of systems innovation.  They help farmers, ranchers and pastoralists around the world re-think agriculture as an act of facilitation; in this case, facilitation of the working relationship between soil, plants, animals, energy and people.  Savory-trained ranchers talk a lot about managing complex wholes rather than manipulating individual parts. With millions of acres under management, stewarded by a growing network of next-generation ranchers, the Savory Institute offers a systemic re-boot of how we view agriculture: not as extraction from the land but as participatory interaction with it.  And while the Institute is a non-profit, many of the ranches in their global network are for-profit operations facing real cash consequences for families and communities.  Many of them have already attested to the fiscal, communal and ecological returns brought by this wholesystems approach.

Each of these innovation examples is unique, but together they share one resounding theme: none of these innovators made a bright, shiny, ready-to-ship object as their primary offering.  Instead, like the creatures in the flooded field, they optimized existing resources, fostered and facilitated collaborative relationships, and helped to create a healthy, functioning community. These innovators grew their ideas from the ground up, simply by appreciating what was already alive.  I am reminded of the words of Biomimicry founder Janine Benyus: “It’s not a new gadget that’s going to make us more sustainable as a culture, it’s a change of heart and a new set of eyes, a new way of viewing and valuing the natural world in which we are embedded and on which we depend.”

Asking “what would nature do” as a lens for innovation can point us toward long-term, evolutionary, game-changing solutions.  But beware: this lens can be a shock to the viewer.  There is no single, stationary place for your eye to land.  Nature’s lens is more like a view through a kaleidoscope: confounding and disorienting.   But if you slow down and steady your gaze, the colorful chaos gives way to a pulsating beauty. Eventually a pattern floods up and washes over you, like a new river running, and it begins to make infinite sense.

Editor’s Note: To download a PDF file of this post, please click here.

Image Credit: Marilyn Stevens Photography

6 Responses to “The Nature Of Innovation”

  1. Cheryl Spector says:

    Thanks Victoria for helping us to see the inherent harmony of Nature and the wonderful examples of how we can emulate her genius!

  2. Thank you, Patrick!! It’s cool to think of you out there reading this halfway around the world. I’m sure you have plenty of natural beauty and innovation there, too.

  3. Jason Cuomo says:

    This is a great piece, Victoria, and really helpful in expanding the application of biomimicry beyond product design into systems development and business opportunities.

  4. Thank you Jason! We bio-inspired practitioners are stepping into new territory, moving beyond product design and into strategy, and making our way as we go. Glad the piece resonated for you in this way.

  5. John Tayer says:

    Victoria: This is an excellent piece! I see a parallel in the virtuous natural cycle you describe to the balanced approach we take to business advocacy at the Boulder Chamber, always being cognizant of the benefits to our local economy from the environmental and social values Boulder has sustained, while the reverse is also true. Thanks for sharing your insights with the Innovation Blueprint audience!