3 heretical questions about competition, efficiency and scale

I have a confession: For the first 22 years of my life, I had no interest in business. In fact, I considered it to be the enemy of everything I believed in.  

But a single day in September 1997 changed that and set me on my current path to happily working for a multinational corporation.

As a 21-year-old college senior, I rolled up to the EcoTech III Conference in Monterey, Calif., with a long ponytail, a short history of environmental civil disobedience and a depressingly in-depth knowledge of the ecological problems confronting our society. That day I met Ray Anderson, Interface's founder and then-CEO, who died two years ago this month.

Many business people have remarked that hearing Anderson speak was the first time they understood the importance of the environment to business. My epiphany went the other way. Anderson's beautiful self-incrimination as a "plunderer of the earth" and his clear-eyed determination to do better showed me the importance that business could have in solving environmental problems. My assumptions about business were turned upside down.

But my eye-opening day didn't stop there because a little-known naturalist and author from Montana followed Anderson in the program to promote her new book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." If Anderson upended my longhaired ideas of who would lead the ecological revolution, Janine Benyus transformed my notions of how to do it. With relief, I thought that if the sustainable models and technologies we need already have been developed by nature, maybe we're not doomed after all -- and all those years studying biology weren't a total waste of time.

So, in honor of my favorite business heretics, Anderson and Benyus, I want to challenge three core assumptions about business that may need rethinking if we are to seriously challenge another widespread assumption: More business means more ecological destruction.  

Competitive advantage is the ultimate goal

Benyus used her keynote at the first Global Biomimicry Conference this summer to take aim squarely at the assumption that success in nature (and business) depends on competition. The latest biological research shows that the vast majority of organisms avoid direct competition whenever possible and ecosystems actually depend far more on complimentary, cooperative strategies. There is a strategy of cooperation and even generosity to how nature does business that we are only beginning to try to emulate with some of our sharing and open source business models.  

Humans, for example, could not survive without the cooperation of millions of microorganisms that live in our gut and digest our food. Redwood trees capture fog and create local rain for all the other species around them. As they grow, mangrove tidal forests create essential habitats for fish, birds and invertebrates in their roots and branches, which in turn fertilize the forest. Our economy as it exists today depends on competition, but it could be that the new sources of "competitive" advantage will in fact be cooperation and generosity that strengthen the economic system, as modeled by nature.

Efficiency is always good

Another theme at the Global Biomimicry Conference this year was resilience. How do we build systems, buildings, organizations, supply chains and communities that maintain their essential functions in the face of unexpected disturbance?  

It turns out that developing ever more resource- and cost-efficient systems may mean we are creating systems that sacrifice resilience. If all you can do is one thing, one way, very efficiently, you are much less likely to thrive or even survive if business conditions change unexpectedly.  

Economies of scale are essential to manufacturing

At the biomimicry conference, Benyus convened sessions on "Rewriting the Story of Stuff," including exploring the relationship between biomimicry and 3D printing. The future of 3D printing could mean putting a miniature "volcano" on everyone's desktop that can "heat, beat and treat" new products into existence, the same brute-force way we make things today (while bringing a little more toxic waste into everyone's home).  

Or will 3D printing look to nature as a model, and build locally appropriate designs from simple, local materials, at ambient temperatures, using life-friendly chemistry? This would also make obsolete the old idea that we need to export the manufacturing of identical widgets to areas where labor is cheap. In a world with biomimicry-inspired 3D printing, we would only import and exports designs, and all materials and manufacturing would be local.

Nineteen years ago, in 1994, the idea that a publicly traded corporation would change its mission to include sustaining our ecological systems was heresy, and many people -- inside and outside Interface -- told Anderson as much. Nowadays, this "heresy" has become an expectation for every responsible business.

Which of the three business heresies above do you think is most likely to be mainstream in another 19 years? Which heresy will you help bring to the mainstream sooner?

Ray Anderson image courtesy of Interface.