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Connecting Business to Nature

August 16, 2012

Here is a guest blog by Simon Robinson is a consultant and teacher of Complexity, Innovation, Creativity and Sustainability in São Paulo, Brazil.  He has been teaching the good work of ‘business inspired by nature’ to business people recently.  Here are some of his findings; I hope you enjoy the read.

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a day’s workshop on sustainability to the Community of Strategic Management in São Paulo. The community meet once every two months, the members of whom are all business executives responsible for strategy in a broad cross-section of some of the largest national and international companies in Brazil, including transport, energy, contraction, banking, manufacturing and government bodies. The group is managed by Maria Auxiliadora Robinson, Director of Education at Symnetics, a Brazilian management consultancy, who had the inspiration and vision for creating the extremely innovative format of dialogue, discussion and learning of this community.

The whole focus of this day was to explore new business models, methodologies, metrics and strategies for sustainability, the emphasis being on providing members of the group with practical actions that they can immediately take back to their organisations and implement. Before discussing case studies and methodologies such as Triple Bottom Line, balanced Scorecard and the Global Reporting Initiative in the afternoon, Maria and I spent the morning examining the nature of thinking, the nature of systems thinking, and why it can be so difficult for those of us who have only received an education in analysis, the verbal-intellectual mode of thought which is the only mode of thought taught in western universities.

Maria has done a large amount of work developing a more systemic methodology, demonstrating just how Triple Bottom Line can be integrated in with the balanced Scorecard, and this teaching is included in the business courses run by Symnetics Education. But the format of this highly innovative dialogue group gives her the opportunity to help executives develop not just their intellectual knowledge and understanding, but to explore a deeper connection to nature from which springs creativity and innovation, an example being of her amazing activity asking the group to work blindfolded with clay, to create some form of artwork which expressed that person’s connection to nature.

To explore further the difference between verbal-intellectual thought and sensory-intuitive thought, I showed the group both my Nokia 2110 from 1992, and a brand new iPhone. I made the point that both the Nokia and Apple were complicated mechanisms, since although you had to have expert knowledge to understand their functioning, it was perfectly possible to do so. I then referred to a plant in front of me, and said that there are in fact some plants where you can take a small piece of say a stem or leaf, plant that in a new location, and an entire new plant will grow. But if you take one piece out of the phone circuitry it will fail. There is something fundamentally different about the organisation of a plant, whereby the whole is contained within the parts. The great advance in technological thinking that has got us from the 2110 to the iPhone is not the same type of thinking that we need to understand a complex dynamic and organic living plant. But many people in business are now discovering that the same organisational principles that are required to understand the plant can now be used to understand their own organisations, organisations which are also living dynamic systems, and not just fixed hierarchical structures.

These organisational principles are succinctly captured in a diagram created by BCI (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation www.businessinspiredbynature.com ) which I discussed with the group. I used this diagram to summarise many of the key learning points from the various case studies we looked at which included Patagonia’s business model, Gore Associate’s lattice network organisation, Kyocera’s Amoeba Management system, the principles of Transition Towns movement, and Simplicity Computer’s Homekey solution for recycling computers.

What is striking in all of these examples is that they are all inspired by nature, of a deep reverence for nature, and a connection to nature, people and our planet which does not just come through an intellectual understanding, where nature is viewed as some kind of object separate from us. Although we have now moved from the industrial age into what are now referred to as Knowledge Economies, it is remarkable how little attention companies and organisations are giving to the process of thought, and how developing new ways of thinking can be a source of competitive advantage and can lead to new business models. For me, the answer lies in helping to show businesses how they can be inspired by nature, not in order to exploit nature further, but to make the transition to a more harmonious, happy, resilient and sustainable future.

About Simon Robinson

Simon Robinson is a consultant and teacher of Complexity, Innovation, Creativity and Sustainability in São Paulo, Brazil. He spent many years in the mobile telecommunications and gaming industries in the UK, and was a co-founder of Genie Internet, the world’s first mobile internet portal. He has a masters degree in Holistic Science from Schumacher College and Plymouth University. Schumacher College is a unique international educational institution, providing individuals and groups from across the world with the opportunity to learn on numerous levels about subjects relating to the environment, economics, complexity and social sustainability. Simon is also the editor of www.transitionconsciousness.org.

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