Nature’s Business Lesson: Design for Cooperation, Not Competition

By Denny Royal

July 26, 2016

Biomimicry examples demonstrate a new model for business success that grows strength and resilience within an “ecosystem” network.

These days it seems that growth is often the primary measure of business success.

We’ve misinterpreted Darwin’s survival of the fittest to justify growth for growth’s sake and a winner-takes-all mentality.

In fact, this type of “competition” rarely takes place in nature, and only when there’s a scarcity of resources. By adopting this mindset in our market economies, we’re actually causing resource scarcity in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In order to maintain civilization as we know it, we can replace this linear mindset with one that more accurately reflects the cyclical nature of how healthy ecosystems function on Earth.

There will be tremendous long-term value for companies that adopt such a mindset. They will create the connections—the patterns of behavior and cooperation—that result in resilience and true sustainability.

Nature Is the Great Collaborator

If we look closely at large, complex ecosystems, we begin to see deep patterns of cooperation and commensalism—not competition.

In biomimicry, we call these patterns Life’s Principles. The fundamental Principle, from which all others derive, is that life must create conditions conducive to life.

Sounds simple, right? But humans aren’t doing it.

Coral reefs do it brilliantly.

They typically form in nutrient-poor waters that aren’t particularly friendly to marine life. Yet we’ve all seen how a healthy coral reef is thriving with a diversity of life.

These successful ecosystems are the result of incredible adaptations and cooperative relationships that have developed to create a generosity of resources where previously there was little.

It all begins with the coral itself, which is really two separate organisms, coral and zooxanthellae, that work together to survive. As these organisms grow they begin to build the structure of the reef, creating a condition that attracts and supports other life.

As the system matures, it feeds itself in a closed-loop. What is one organism’s waste is another organism’s nutrient stream. Thus, no single organism outgrows its niche. Rather, the niches grow as the entire system grows in balance, and generates more resources.

Can We Make Economies Function Like Generous Ecosystems?

Science is only beginning to understand the complexity in which organisms are intertwined in most ecosystems.

However, we do know the design principles at the root of their day-to-day business, if you will. Through biomimicry, we employ Life’s Principles to design products, services, processes, and systems that create conditions that are conducive to all life—not just humans.

Rather than attempting to be slightly less destructive (as with the current state of most sustainability practices) the biomimetic mindset allows businesses to establish contributing, resource-generative niches in healthier systems. These are known as “ecosystem services.”

What does this look like in practice? It means water leaving a production facility is cleaner than when it entered. It means big-box stores that produce more energy than they consume. It means one company’s scrap metal serves as another’s material requirement.

These ecosystem services can be measured and improved through time. They are what will delineate between the economies of the industrial age and the economies of the ecological age.

The multiplication of relationships like these can form a generous and thriving system that includes businesses, communities, individuals, the economy and the environment. If we start creating them now, we may have enough time to get out of environmental debt and actually begin investing in the future of our planet.

If you want to talk about how Azul Seven’s practice is evolving, connect with us. We want others to join us on this journey. Let’s see what we can make, change and do to create value while making our world better and more sustainable for all.

Click here to read Denny’s biomimicry ethos

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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