Biomimicry and teaching business the 'secrets of life'

Radical Industrialists

Biomimicry and teaching business the 'secrets of life'

Ray Anderson often asked a rhetorical question: does business exist to make a profit, or does business make a profit to exist? With this line of questioning, Ray called upon us to understand that while making a profit is the lifeblood of a company's survival, it shouldn't be the only reason for a company to exist.

With his talent for translating lofty vision into everyday reality, Ray would ask: what you would rather get out of bed to do each day: make carpet, or make history?

Making history by making carpet is a unifying sentiment for the people of Interface. How, exactly, are we making history? By proving the business model for sustainability, while taking on Ray's challenge to eliminate our negative environmental footprint.

Ray believed there must be a better way for business to thrive on our planet, without the assumed ecological and social impacts that our current industrial take-make-waste system creates. With such ambitious goals, where do we look for inspiration in redesigning a system as pervasive and complex as business?

As an avid student of biomimicry, I believe nature offers inspiration for exactly these types of system-level design challenges, not only product innovation. Recalling Ray's question about the purpose of business, is there something to learn by reflecting on the "purpose" of all the other forms of life in the natural world?

Based on our understanding of biology, we may surmise that the purpose of life is to pass along DNA through reproduction. That response stems from our mechanistic, Cartesian view of the natural world. A systems view, however, yields a different answer -- an answer that reveals a hidden secret of life.

To understand this secret, consider what our planet was like four and a half billion years ago, and contrast that to how it is today. Our primordial planet had no ozone layer to protect against solar radiation, little atmospheric oxygen, and, of course, no life.

Roughly 3.8 billion years ago, life mysteriously appeared and persisted. Over billions of years, life has shaped its surroundings to be more conducive for even more forms of life: photosynthesis converted carbon dioxide into oxygen and sunlight into chemical energy, opening doors for aerobic organisms (like us!); microbes transformed rock substrates into soil providing fertile ground for plants; food webs balanced predators and prey yielding environmental niches for diversity to flourish.

In essence, life has survived and thrived for billions of years through adaptation and evolution, and by each species continually shaping the surrounding environment with a net benefit to the biosphere. Wielding an ecological, systems view of the natural world, we see that the secret of life's 3.8 billion year success story is -- as Janine Benyus so eloquently states -- life creates conditions conducive to life.

Creating conditions conducive to life could very well be considered life's "purpose," and this secret of life is one that we have forgotten in our industrial system design. We can't currently claim that business creates conditions conducive to all life -- but imagine if we could.

At a systems level, life is more than simply sustainable; it's regenerative. Which brings to bear the question: should we be striving for merely sustainable business, or should we aspire for business to be regenerative?

This isn't just a theoretical conversation; regenerative design is practiced today. There is a growing movement in the world of green building design that offers an inspirational vision of a thriving, living future heralded by regenerative design. Inspired by biomimicry, the Living Building Challenge calls for transformative change. After all, if collective efforts of reducing our impacts are not enough to ensure a healthy planet for our children's children, then we must aspire to actually improve the ecological fabric of our planet.

Looking beyond the green building movement, what would our world look like if our products and processes created conditions conducive to life? Imagine inhibiting bacterial growth on surfaces through structure (not chemistry) and without creating antibiotic resistance. Sharklet Technologies' designs do just that. Or imagine converting ambient carbon dioxide gas into cement, much the way coral does, shifting a carbon source to a carbon sink. Calera is emulating coral and flipping the carbon equation on its head.

While products and processes are making great strides, ultimately, we must redesign commerce itself to be regenerative, so that the system-level impacts of industry improve the ecology of our planet. Do we know what this would look like or where to begin?

Factories where the only energy input is direct sunlight and the only effluents are clean water (a la photosynthesis)? Incredibly, we have a great start to understanding life's regenerative strategies, thanks to Dr. Dayna Baumeister and Janine Benyus, co-founders of Biomimicry 3.8.

Dayna and Janine have distilled the deep principles that allow life to create conditions conducive for more life. These "Life's Principles" [PDF] offer design lessons for how nature has solved countless challenges -- providing an invaluable guide for how we may solve our own challenges -- and a critically important starting point for understanding how to approach this ideal of regenerative commerce.

By embedding Life's Principles into our business operations, I believe we can turn Ray's dream of a restorative enterprise and a living, thriving future into a reality. Making history by making carpet a regenerative business? That's enough to get me out of bed every morning.

Photo courtesy of the author.