Mother Nature as Head of Research – Part 2 of 2
“The good news is that wisdom is widespread, not only in indigenous peoples but also in the species that have lived on Earth far longer than humans.”
– Janine Benyus
Years ago, I helped launch the first global practice in social issues and sustainability communications at WPP. Many marketers, young and old, approached us wanting to work in our group, with the same phrase on their lips, “I’d like to use my powers for good.” Unfortunately, we only had a few spots available, much fewer than the legions we met with good intentions and skills.
But in truth, you don’t have to work at a philanthropy or a “cause” to do good. In any type of company or sector, you can effect positive change that benefits humankind. But it requires that we look at everything we do, from how we use paper in our offices and control the temperature, to how we order food for meetings, to how we treat others in the workplace. Additionally, if you work at an advertising agency, you must be mindful of the values and behaviours you are promoting to the public as you do your client work. The world we live in today demands that we become ever more conscious of what we’re doing, and to make decisions that align with that evolving consciousness.
And while all of us, including those of us at Humanise, have a long way to go, it’s a journey we should take. And it’s a journey that should be informed and inspired by nature. Of that I’m completely certain.
At BBR and L’Institut Idée we are profoundly inspired by the genius of the natural world, from the encoded information of DNA that provided the basis for our unique Structural Mapping Process® (SMP), a technique for revealing the emotional DNA of brands, to the concept of “currents” that underlies our view of the movements in mass consciousness and pop culture.
But there are brilliant innovators and thought leaders who have taken an enormous step further to study how nature, over the last billion years, has developed ingenious ways for organisms and species to collaborate sustainably and to their great mutual benefit. Innovations that we as business and civic leaders need to be studying.
Back in the 90s when Janine Benyus wrote the first edition of her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, her final chapter “How Will We Conduct Business” introduced us to what was at that time a new field: Industrial Ecology. Benyus calls the term “perhaps the biggest oxymoron in all of science” (which I find quite entertaining) but nevertheless, she is a passionate proponent of this school of thinking. A synonym for this is the term “the ecology of commerce”.
One example that struck me was the discovery that Benyus and her fellow botanists made about trees. For the longest time, human beings have assumed that individual trees in a forest were competing with each other for sunlight and nutrients. This turns out to be entirely incorrect. Trees within a given forest are vastly interconnected, communicating and cooperating with each other to share resources and protect each other from threats. She also discovered that some species of trees actually use a type of fungus to communicate key information across distances—not entirely different from how brands use social media and PR firms to enhance their ability to communicate to priority audiences.
The prevalence of cooperative relationships in nature (called “mutualism”), not only within groups of the same species, but also across multiple species in an ecosystem, is many orders of magnitude beyond what we had assumed. Nature is far more cooperative than it is competitive.
More recently, even large corporations have adopted this kind of mentality by forming new cooperative alliances, such as the Sustainable Food Lab. The SFL is an alliance of the world’s largest food companies, who joined forces to fund research into sustainable agriculture when economists and agricultural scientists informed them that without more sustainable methods of producing food, there would be no food industry to speak of within a quarter century. It seems that only when the wolves are at our door, do we start to pay attention!
I’ll finish by quoting a manifesto of sorts from Benyus’s book, a credo that outlines the principles that nature employs to sustain life. Principles that we should—and must—adopt if we’re to survive and flourish on this planet:
- Use waste as a resource
- Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat
- Gather and use energy efficiently
- Optimize rather than maximize
- Use materials sparingly
- Don’t foul your nests
- Don’t draw down resources
- Remain in balance with the biosphere
- Run on information
- Shop locally