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Reconnecting business and nature can help companies be more resilient

October 1, 2012

The way in which humans engage with, and respond to, the environment has undergone some significant developments in the last century. Major transformations in rapid industrialisation and urbanisation have continued to reinforce a sense of separation between society and nature, human and non-human worlds. It is arguably this sense of separation that has enabled society to capitalise on the fruits of science, industry and global economics. Conversely, it is also what underwrites the parallel dysfunction and destruction of our social and ecological systems.

The world’s ecological, social and economic crises are as much a crisis of spirit as a crisis of resources. Part of the crisis of spirit is because modern society and industry tends to perceive the Earth as a set of resources, and then values it as such. What scope is there for this paradigm to change in order to perceive the Earth as an animate, living system in which humans play a constructive, not destructive, part?

In 2010 The Royal Society of Arts coined its new strapline: a 21st century enlightenment. Matthew Taylor, the society’s director, proposes that the core ideals, values and norms that the initial Enlightenment enabled may no longer be adequate or fit for purpose for the challenges society faces. In order to live differently, he argues, we must think differently, and this relates to the way that we see ourselves in the world.

Just as our need to transform business is now becoming apparent, so is our need to transform our engagement with, and response to, nature. Understanding our relationship with nature can help business to transform, and the patterns and principles of nature can provide insight into how best to future-proof companies for an unpredictable future.

All organisations operate within a community – an environment of interconnections – as do the people within organisations. The age-old adage “No man is an island” is the same for an organisation. In fact, just like an ecosystem in nature, the more diverse the relationships and resources an organisation makes use of, the more resilient it becomes.

In building a bridge between nature and business, we start to re-ignite our vital bond with nature.

What do organisations of the future look like?

Collaborative, innovative, networking, emergent, dynamic organisations more akin to living organisms. There are a plethora of nature’s insights that can be applied to business – all that is lacking is the ability to convert these insights into a business frame. For example:

• Mycelium networks provide insight for a responsive and adaptive organisation.

• Nature (and business) is emergent and interconnected, not predictable and linear.

• Nature does not do waste; waste of one is food for another.

• Natural ecosystems develop niches where every aspect of the material throughput is used.

A business inspired by nature is one that is resilient, optimising, adaptive, systems-based, values-led, and life supporting – these are “nature’s business principles”.

These principles do not seek to reduce organisational behaviour to biology; rather, they suggest a set of behaviours and qualities that simply echo the law of the system – Earth – upon which our lives and our businesses depend. They recognise the complexity of human nature and nurture, and are neither a model nor a theory, but rather a philosophy that reminds us that, while humans are a special species on Earth, we are still part of nature and subject to its law. If we do not conduct our business within the constraints of the system, we will inevitably go out of business. The circular economy, industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, the learning organisation and bio-mimicry all share a common foundation: they take inspiration from nature.

What is desperately lacking in today’s framing of sustainable business, and for that matter wider business transformation, is a language and engagement approach for business people to unlock nature’s wisdom and, in so doing, re-enchant ourselves with nature – re-establishing our vital bond with our environment.

By framing experiences people have with nature and giving examples of business inspired by nature, we can reconnect business and nature. To do this, skills and expertise from multi-disciplines are needed: biology, eco-psychology and business change, for instance. This fusion of skillsets, with the right vision and mission, can help equip local, national and global business people with the wherewithal they need to adapt, innovate, embrace change and engage in meaningful business transformation towards a sustainable future.

see the orginal blog post for The Guardian here:

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