Biophilia and innovation: Can changing your view change your worldview?

Radical Industrialists

Biophilia and innovation: Can changing your view change your worldview?

You don’t have to look at the business press for long to find someone’s new idea for how to spur innovation. We all want innovation, whether to solve humanity’s most pressing problems or to further differentiate our companies in a crowded marketplace (ideally, both). So where does innovation come from?

Innovation, of course, requires people. More specifically, engaged people. In the knowledge and innovation economy, our people and their talents are our most critical asset, and in order to protect that investment, we consciously seek ways to engage and retain our human capital.

How do we enhance creativity and the ability to maintain attention in today’s distracted, stress-filled world? How do we ensure that our people are fully engaged, so that in addition to being highly productive today, they’re also optimizing their well-being over the long-term?

Many business leaders do not know that there’s an existing, straightforward strategy that is proven to improve the productivity and wellness of employees by decreasing stress and irritability, and increasing our ability to concentrate. The same strategy results in lower blood pressure, improved cognitive functioning, enhanced mental stamina and focus, elevated moods, and increased learning rates.

The answer is literally all around us: improving the design of our built environment. Our offices, it turns out, could do more than convene us. These spaces can be more than a place to work: They can actually work for us at a deeply biological level.

While many architects and designers have intuitively known this all along, we now have scientific evidence concluding that our surroundings affect us deeply, physically and emotionally. We now know that exposure to nature, or spaces that are evocative of nature, offers an amazing wellspring of renewal for our bodies and our minds.

By incorporating elements of biophilic design (defined by Dr. Stephen Kellert as “building and landscape design that enhances human physical and mental well-being by fostering positive connections between people and nature”), we can leverage the powerful intersection of neuroscience and architecture to enhance our own well-being and productivity. From health care to corporate offices, the practice of biophilic design could have staggering economic benefits, as outlined by Bill Browning and his Terrapin Bright Green colleagues in their white paper, “The Economics of Biophilia.”

The theory of biophilia roots this groundbreaking potential firmly in our human biology. Our brains and bodies evolved over tens of thousands of years without buildings, and we now realize that we are at our best when we can recreate physical and psychological reminders of our most ancient home. As Dr. Judith Heerwagen concludes:

If there is an evolutionary basis for biophilia, ... then contact with nature is a basic human need: not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need. Just as we need healthy food and regular exercise to flourish, we need ongoing connections with the natural world.

To be clear, biophilic design isn’t an aesthetic; it’s a methodology. This isn’t just about “bringing the outdoors inside. It’s about bringing the proven benefits of being outdoors into our spaces. Elements of biophilic design can be found in many examples of our most iconic architecture — Grand Central Station, Taj Mahal, Basilica of San Francisco d’Assisi, to name a few — buildings whose appeal has stood the test of time. Through this new lens, we begin to understand why.

This scientific understanding couldn’t have come at a more important time, as more than 50 percent of people worldwide now live in urban environments, and in the industrialized world we spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. As more and more of us become separated from the biological benefits of contact with nature, now is the time to act on this knowledge that our buildings affect us, and have the potential to either enhance or diminish our well-being and our productivity. Leading companies like Google are beginning to incorporate echoes of nature into their spaces. Clearly, having an office with a view is no longer just for the elite few.

Now that we know our brains respond to our surroundings in profound and lasting ways, what else should we be considering as we build the spaces that support our work? Beyond stress hormones and learning rates, what else might the built environment influence? Could our surroundings shape our beliefs? Could changing your view change your worldview?

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson noted, “The more clearly we focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” By intentionally using biophilic design to connect humans with nature, could we heighten our collective appreciation of the “wonders and realities” of our natural world, and thus cultivate a greater understanding of the need to redesign our unsustainable industrial model?

Ray Anderson, our company’s founder, often reminded us, “Anything we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.” Many of us recognize the truth in that statement, but as we spend less time in nature and become disconnected from the web of life, that statement may sound like an abstraction, an intellectual insight, a faraway truth. And this may partially (or fully) explain the predominance of apathy when it comes to sustainability issues. They’re just not real enough for the majority of us — and certainly not as real as other pressing business and personal issues.

Biophilic design holds the promise of embedding this reminder — that we are a part of the web of life and not apart from it — in every space we create, moving that truth from the abstract to the visceral, from the intellectual to the emotional. For those of us whose work involves reconciling human commerce and its impacts on the biosphere, we know there’s no way to affect meaningful change without sustained emotional engagement in our people, and biophilic design may be critical for creating renewable motivation for the big changes we must make.

Whether solving the world’s biggest problems or striving for marketplace differentiation, we need innovation. By tapping into our biologically driven affinity for nature, biophilic design can create work spaces that are conducive to innovation. Moreover, biophilic design has the potential to reveal to all of us how valuable our interconnectedness with nature truly is.

And to think, we started out assuming the business case for green building was about reducing our utility bill.

Image by Im Perfect Lazybones via Shutterstock