As we walked in a fog-moistened forest on the side of Mount Tam, Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry – Innovation Inspired by Nature, was excitedly showing me the elegant connectedness of the whole system – an interwoven living network of organisms that she calls “the wood-wide web.”

We were talking about using biomimicry for social innovation. Janine is both seer and sage of a growing movement that looks into nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary intelligence as guidance for solving our own sustainability challenges. She said, with the humble confidence that comes from a deep relationship with the natural world, “We are looking for a coherent vision of a world that works, and a practical pathway to get there. It’s all around us…”

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Pioneering a Harmonious Future

My last post on biomimicry talked about the importance of sacredness as a biomimetic practice. This post will focus on the power of applying biomimicry to social innovation, or the work we do that leverages relationships, communication, and behavior change in diverse professional settings.

For the last six days, I participated in a Biomimicry Thinking for Social Innovation Immersion Workshop at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, led by intrepid instructors Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. This first-of-its-kind workshop is part of a movement called Biomimicry for Social Innovation; the goal is to shape human communication, cooperation, and action in ways that mimic nature to create conditions conducive to life.

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In order to survive, all organisms are intimately attuned to their environment, aligned with the realities of that particular place and the other living beings with whom they interact. Their success depends on being able to fit within the larger context and then adapt as conditions change.

The challenges of any particular environment – temperature, humidity, sunlight, other creatures — become the “selection pressures” shaping an organism’s adaptations to help it thrive. Life solves its functional needs in context.

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We have an idea about nature being competitive – this is a misunderstanding of what “survival of the fittest” actually means. It doesn’t suggest that whoever is the most dominant and can outperform others is at an advantage. Yet this false understanding has influenced our economy, our organizational behaviors, our funding strategies, and our outreach approaches.

“Survival of the fittest” in truth means that those who are most “fit” – most well adapted to their conditions, able to optimize their energy use, and able to partner well with others – are most likely to survive.

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Life is constantly communicating – both within and across species. Signaling and responding. Feedback loops provide important information to help organisms and systems appropriately respond to change.

Like clover, strawberries send out “runners” – horizontal stems that bud into new plants while maintaining a relationship with the parent. When nibbled by a rabbit or a deer, warnings are sent through the runners. Adjacent plants use that feedback to actually change their flavor so they are less tasty, and less likely to be eaten.

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The Octopus is a champion of adaptability, learning to survive and thrive in almost any environment. With a soft meaty body that is attractive to predators, they’ve found all kinds of ways to hide and protect themselves, including learning to forage the coconut shells discarded from tourist boats. They pull together two halves to make a suit of armor and wiggle their way inside.

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The tricky thing about learning leadership from nature is that in the natural world, no one is in charge. There is no ED or CEO in nature, and yet very complex tasks are accomplished. Life builds from the bottom up, guided by simple rules and adapting through feedback loops. Complex challenges are sorted out among individuals within a system, who self-organize using a small set of simple rules.

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evolve to survive

We think of evolution as being only about change – but it’s also about repeating successful approaches and institutionalizing the adaptations that work. What works to help the species survive and thrive is passed on to the next generation. Those adaptations that make the organism less fit get weeded out over time. If a strategy doesn’t work, you die or go extinct. Your genes don’t get passed on.

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