The next big idea is a billion years old.

When we start something new, when we’re looking for solutions or are making an important decision we often look for sources of inspiration and perspective within our companies or sectors. We might interview our customers, employees, or suppliers. We might ask academic institutions or experts. We could commission research to see what competitors or even other sectors are doing.

Too often we miss out on asking advice of a rich source of wise answers that exists right in front of our eyes… nature.

Our planet is old – 4.5 billion years old. And for an astounding 3.8 billion years, it has harboured life. Life has had a bit of time to evolve strategies to maximise existence and sustain itself! It has arrived at well-adapted solutions that have stood the test of time, within the constraints of a planet with finite resources. Each new shoot or seed is nature taking a lean methodology approach to experimentation and rapid prototyping to find better solutions every time they grow. Millions of organisms have adapted and evolved to survive, to meet their needs efficiently within the limits of the planet and alongside all other life forms.

How could we learn from and emulate nature’s successful strategies?

  1. PRODUCT DESIGN

Nature is a master designer – and companies are catching on to the fact that they should look to how nature has addressed a specific challenge in order to come up with an optimised solution. This means looking at how shark skin is able to move sleekly through water and using that in swimsuit fabric and ship paint. It’s about a shift from rectangular, flat solar panels to ones that are shaped like leaves – the longest ever experiment in optimising surfaces for capturing sunlight. Interface designed pads to secure its carpet tiles to floors inspired by the way lizards have foot pads that enable them to cling to surfaces. This has transformed the carpet industry, created disruption in the glue industry and cut costs, reduced impact and provided a competitive differentiator for the organisation.

Questions to ask: What is the challenge I’m trying to solve?  How does nature perform this function?

2. PROCESS DESIGN

In comparison to the sleek processes of nature, human processes are clumsy, wasteful and inefficient.  Take manufacturing, a “take, make waste” process. We draw components out of the ground, turn them into products that may or may not be used and that ultimately land up in landfill. A tree takes resources out of the ground, moves it up a spiral and produces leaves. These resources are deposited on another side of the tree, ensuring broad distribution of essential elements that become resources for the next leaf.

Or look at innovation processes – many run by specialist teams stuck away in a room of a large building, silo’d and shut off. Nature innovates mostly in the edges – bringing together diversity between habitats (e.g. swamp land and grassland) and seeing what emerges. As the edge increases, the boundary habitat allows for greater biodiversity. Change happens at the fringes and the longer the ‘edges’ the more diversity and more change can happen.

Questions to ask: How does nature perform this process? Specifically, how could my organisation manufacture in a way that optimises resources? How can we create ‘edges’ and ‘intersections’ for our organisation to collide with others for increased diversity of thinking and accelerated innovation?

  1. ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND VENTURING

Recently I worked with a bright Imperial College graduate with an excellent idea that could shift the virtual reality industry by allowing better understanding of location for the user. He thought of how a new ecosystem would replace an old one in order to ensure that his product could be part of a technology shift into a new space. Steve Jobs did this with the iPod. Instead of just launching a ‘me too ‘music player, like the Sony Walkman, he defined the entirely new ecosystem that his music player would operate within – and the route to shift the industry. For this to work we need to think like nature – what is the broader function of this ecosystem, what are the elements that are needed to sustain it, which are key stone species?

Questions to ask: What is the broader ecosystem my venture is operating within? How do I effectively inhabit that?

  1. ORGANISATION RESILIENCE

Oak trees feed squirrels acorns, and squirrels eat harmful fungi off the oak. SABMiller buys its hops from farmers that buy its beer. Lloyd’s Bank worked with me to understand how to make the communities it operates within and takes transaction fees from, wealthier. We don’t operate in silos – everything is interconnected. Shifting thinking from being separate from the world around to being interdependent allows for greater resilience.

Questions to ask: Where can I increase my resilience by understanding and leveraging inter-dependencies?

  1. CHANGE

Nature is always in flux. We can see a tree as a static object – trunk, branches and leaves.  Or we can see it as a process in motion, taking up water and nutrients, depositing them, storing them and releasing them.  All organisations (and individuals within them) are in motion. We resist change, but it is inevitable. We can learn to flow with the changes and adapt, rather than take a static view of where we are. This involves seeing the emerging seeds of change and consciously deciding which ones to water and which ones to pluck out. It requires us to see beyond our current horizon into horizon two where these seeds will start growing to horizon three where the change will take root – and to plan and organise accordingly.

Questions to ask: What are the emergent properties of this current situation?  How do I leverage them for future success?

Einstein famously said you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.  Looking for answers in nature allows you to use ancient tried and tested wisdom to leapfrog contemporary thinking and to come up with better ideas.

Step away from your desk.  Walk away from the board room.  Take a walk in a park nearby. Look at patterns, look at functions and look at the way nature has worked out how to live. Be inspired. And please do remember to respect, protect and, even better to regenerate this great mentor.  

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This article is taken from a speech delivered for Interface in 2016 and to the Swiss Advisory Group in 2017. If you’d like me to speak to your audience on this and other topics that inspire action and shift perspective or to find solutions with you to tricky challenges, please do get in touch nicola.millson@future-academy.co.uk.

Learning our way into tomorrow. 

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