26 Business Lessons Taken from Nature: Lesson #1 Context Matters

By Denny Royal

May 5, 2017

With Biomimicry, we typically look to nature to help us solve design challenges. But nature also can show us how to run a better, more resilient business.

In nature there are deep, recurring patterns, we call Life’s Principles. All organisms that thrive on Earth adhere to these patterns. Functionally, there are many parallels between an organism (or a group of organisms) and a business. As a result, Life’s Principles offer a framework for designing and running a thriving business.

This article is the first in a series that will unpack the lessons for business and innovation found in the 26 Life’s Principles. But first, let’s talk about the importance of context.

One reason Life’s Principles are applicable to both organisms and businesses, is that they share the same context. In biomimicry, we call this context “Earth’s operating conditions,” and these conditions apply to every organism, big or small, and to businesses.

Sunlight, Water and Gravity

The most obvious set of contextual conditions in which nature must operate is the combination of sunlight, water and gravity. All organisms are subject to these three things and have adapted to them in unique ways.

These conditions may not impact every business in obvious or immediate ways, but they’re important considerations. Take water for example. Almost anything that’s manufactured is heavily reliant on water, and most of our businesses use some sort of manufactured product, even if we’re not in the manufacturing game.

So it’s important that businesses consider their exposure to global water risks associated with increasing pressure on freshwater supplies.

Dynamic Non-Equilibrium

The planet and its ecosystems are in a state of constant change—what biologists call “dynamic non-equilibrium.” So is the world of business and its many ecosystems. Nothing is static. Successful organisms exhibit patterned strategies of adaptation that can be mimicked by organizations that wish to optimize for constant change.

Any ecosystem, whether nature-based or a market-based, has emergent properties. In other words, the system is changing in ways that go beyond the sum of its parts. Being aware of, and in tune with, these properties allows businesses to adapt to ever-changing market conditions.

Limits and Boundaries

In nature there are limits and boundaries to which all organisms must adhere. For example, natural resources are not infinite. There’s a limit to the amount of fossil fuels available for consumption by humans, or the amount of precious metals that can be used to make devices. Once these limits are reached, that’s it. Something has to give.

Understanding limits and boundaries allows businesses to plan transitional strategies as they consider their resources or markets. For instance, as we reach peak fossil fuels many businesses are transitioning (or planning their transition) to renewables. Understanding the long-term limits and boundaries of running your business on fossil fuels is just good business sense.

It’s also important to note that as we reach the limits and boundaries of any resource there may not necessarily be a replacement. So how we extract and recycle these resources will become a more important factor in future business strategies.

Cyclic Processes

Nature also is subject to cyclic processes. After all, we’re on a big spinning ball, doing laps around another big spinning ball. Therefore, almost everything in nature is cyclical. As we know, business runs in cycles, too. Awareness of these cycles allows us to take advantage of them through strategic planning.

Think about when Apple releases new iPhones. For the last five years, these releases have occurred in September. This date sets them up nicely to be a hot item going into the holiday season, but it’s also spaced out from the release of other flagship items. The staggered, cyclical release strategy guarantees a certain level of foot traffic in Apple stores and likely boosts cross selling of other items.

Apple has established the cycle so successfully that customers and media have come to expect the timing of product upgrades. Others businesses can create similar strategic advantages by understanding the cyclic processes that affect them.

One Principle to Rule Them All

We’re going to cover 26 Life’s Principles in this series. But there’s one principle at the root of them all. The core principle in biomimicry is: Life creates conditions conducive to life. In other words, life is the ultimate circular economy.

Everything in nature is interconnected and interdependent. What is one species’ waste is another’s nutrients—nothing exists independent of the whole.

The same principle holds true in business. We’re connected to our suppliers, affected by market forces, driven by current trade agreements, and part of the global economy. For better or for worse, the conditions we help create either increase our chances of thriving, or guarantee we’ll be pushed out of the game of business/life.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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