I think the answer is two-fold. One, we're a pretty young species. We've been doing things this way for only really the last 50,000 years, and its open to debate whether natural selection is going to take us out before the next 50,000 years are up. Compare that to sharks, which have been around largely unchanged for 400 million years. Now THAT'S sustainability. Two, our societies ARE emergent, just like the rest of nature. But we've settled on our traditional social structures because our communication technologies have been limited in efficiency. In the very recent past, individuals were just not well networked. When information-flow and decision-making are linear (if you remember the party game 'telephone'), they are prone to errors of interpretation and judgement. With a system like that, an organization needs a centralized administrative ‘brain’ to direct and coordinate actions, and someone to take responsibility when things go wrong. It's also difficult to change a system like that, because it lacks transparency and access, and those with the most to lose hold the lion's share of information and resources.
This is how the rest of Nature has solved problems in changing environments for billions of years, and now humans can do it too. The internet gives us the power to evolve flexible, resilient, and adaptive structures for solving problems quickly, effectively, and sustainably. In fact, we can't even stop these systems from emerging. Big things will come from the collective tiny, simple acts of seven billion highly networked individuals, as several Arab governments recently discovered.
Biomimicry is the art and science of borrowing Nature’s best ideas to solve human challenges in sustainable ways. By consciously imitating the special powers of other species, we can broaden our ability to address novel situations. After 3.8 billion years of evolutionary research and development, only the best ideas are still around. Each of Nature’s ‘designs’ has been subject to rigorous and exhaustive testing. Is it efficient, flexible, and sustainable? Is it resilient to change and failure? Does it leverage webs of interconnectedness with other life? If not, even the cleverest idea will be removed by natural selection. And so it is with organizations today. Businesses become obsolete, institutions irrelevant, and governments are overturned.
Successful species evolve systems that respond quickly and effectively to changing local conditions. They don’t perfect or maximize a one-time solution for each challenge, because the conditions to "survive and thrive" are constantly shifting. Species that persist have flexible, resilient, adaptive ways of detecting environmental change and responding locally. With our Internet and cellular capabilities, we can mimic Nature’s ‘smart swarms’ and ‘super-organism societies’ (like ants, termites, fungus, and honeybees), to create similar systems that respond and self-heal in the face of change, resource instability, and disturbance.
By looking at these natural systems, I've put together 12 simple principles that nature uses to create ‘adaptive cascades,’ in which small adaptive actions trigger other actions that ultimately generate systemic 'self-healing' responses to change, with no need for centralized command. Natural systems built on these principles not only adapt quickly, but they learn how to respond and get better at it. Evolution is an arms race, yes, but one that results in unimaginable diversity, innovation, and ever denser webs of interconnection and interdependence between all living organisms. The more diverse and interconnected these webs, the more resilient the ecosystem becomes.
Humans are part of nature too, and our social systems are no different. Business is competitive, driving innovation and diversity, but often, the next level of success demands partnership and collaboration. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As stakeholders become more interconnected and interdependent, the business environment grows more resilient as well. The trick lies in aligning the values and goals of all stakeholders, so the organization moves toward a unified purpose. You can see how this is accomplished in an ant colony: all the workers are sisters, sharing half or more of their DNA. Lock-step collaboration emerges easily when the success of your nest-mate isn't much different than your own. It's trickier in a complex system of unrelated individuals, each with her own goals, values, and incentives. Nonetheless, many successful, cutting-edge companies (like Nike, InterfaceFLOR, Virgin, and Ecover) are implementing policies that encourage the emergence of a decentralized, purpose-driven, sustainable culture. By adopting these simple rules, honed by 3.8 billion years of ruthless R&D, human organizations can achieve sustainable success as well. And yes, I will elucidate on all of these, with examples, in upcoming posts!
- Create dense decentralized networks.
- Embrace diversity.
- Unify action around a purpose.
- Optimize the whole system, not the parts.
- Waste nothing.
- Seek symbiosis.
- Cultivate redundancy. Make every structure perform more than one function, and every function be performed by more than one structure.
- Minimize uncertainty. Become transparent.
- Seek opportunity at the ecosystem edge.
- Utilize ‘living organs' for indirect communication.
- Cultivate ‘tipping-point’ decision-making.
- Build from the bottom up. Embrace emergence.
And yes, I realize this looks suspiciously like a 12-step recovery program. But when the party is over, and the punchbowl is gone, maybe that's just what we need.