Bio-mimetic Organizations

Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash

There are a lot of challenging, complex and deeply entrenched problems that we come together into groups as humans to try to figure out how to solve. We create organizations to help us do that and we've been doing that as long as we've been social creatures.

That said, I think there is room to improve on the sometimes mechanistic and Tayloristic way of thinking that we often use to work through our organizational life. I'm certain we've all seen the models of efficiency, the push for better metrics and dashboards, the decision making based on rational models.

I think we need to explore different ways of thinking for the increasingly complex problems we face. Luckily, our world is filled with a well of inspiration: the natural world.  

Biomimicry means literally "imitating life". A biomimetic engineer who is interested in solving problems in their work might try to work on their problem - let's say it's that they want to make a building that responds to a desert landscape. Then they might turn to the existing biology for ideas on how to make that happen. That's how you conceive of buildings like the cactus skyscraper:

Inhabit - Qatar Sprouts a Towering Cactus Skyscraper

How does this relate to organizations? Much like buildings, organizations are composed of systems. What kinds of problems exist in those systems will help us to figure what kinds of natural or biological systems we could explore to solve those problems.

Guidance for using bio-mimicry in architecture suggests three different types of mimicry:

  • Mimicking Form - The example above: the building is mimicking the form that a cactus takes.  
  • Mimicking Process - The building is made through a specific process that can be tied back to biological or natural processes. For instance, if we were to 3D print a building, we might draw from the practices of a beehive or a wasp to create dome like structures.
  • Mimicking Ecosystems -  The building exists inside of a larger ecosystem, and the qualities of that ecosystem is something we model our systems on.

I find these three ways of thinking a useful framework for asking how we could draw from bio-mimetic principles to work with organizational problems

Organizations Mimicking Form

Systems in the organization are here to mimic an aspect of the natural world in an effort to solve or address problems the organization seeks to address.

  • What would an organizational structure look like if we designed it to be like a tree? Who would be the leaves? Trunk? What is at the root? What nourishes the organization? What is the sunlight?
  • Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing is a way of seeing the systems we build in manufacturing as a closed loop. What would it look like to think of our institution's systems as being a loop?
Source

Organizations Mimicking Processes

Processes that the organization uses to do their work are connected to process we see in the natural world

  • What could we learn from rivers and streams about how to adapt in the face of change? How might we carve new paths given the needs and flows of the moment?
  • Could we look at healing processes inside of our bodies and think of self-healing communities or organizations? What would it look like to see our families, communities or organizations as self-healing?

Organizations Mimicking Ecosystems

Consider the larger environment within which an organization operates and mimic systems we see inside of the natural world.

  • We know more about forests using mycological networks as a way for trees to be in communication. What can we learn from fungi and mushrooms as we seek to communicate better?
  • Do we consider the full life cycle of our projects and organizations? What might we do if an organization, project or department dies? How do we mourn and respond to organizational death?
  • Could we think through permaculture principles and integrate them into our organizational thinking? For instance, how might we catch and store volunteer energy? What are the small and slow solutions that might help us make changes? How might we integrate groups in our schools instead of segregating them?  

How could we start to do this work? We'd need to consider our challenges and start to play with how we might connect different natural processes to our problems. We'd then need to grapple with a variety of different natural worlds and draw from the vast scientific knowledge base we have to iterate on new ways of thinking.

This is one of many topics we're exploring our Oblique Thinking Hour each month. Join us!

Beth Duckles

Beth Duckles