Regenerating health, meaning and true wealth: systemic biomimicry
We have a lot to learn from the ingenuity of the rest of nature. As the co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, Janine Benyus, likes to say “life has a 3.8 billion year head start in research and development.” We can usher in an era of profound transformative innovation if we apply the ingenious ways that life has found solutions for many problems we are faced with.
Biomimicry and bio-inspired design have demonstrated that it can innovate more sustainable solutions based on learning from other organisms and their interactions. Such innovations range from nontoxic glues, anti-bacterial surfaces, energy saving through adapting form of transport devices to aero- and fluid-dynamics, and even more importantly the optimization of whole systems through synergistic integration of diversity at the level of ecosystems.
The first two decades of biomimicry have seen a huge rise in biomimetic patents and technologies in the fields of product and process design. We are now moving into applying life’s principles and lessons to whole systems design at the scale of whole cities and regions.
The central insight of biomimicry is that “life creates conditions conducive to life” (Janine Benyus). The central promise of regenerative development is that by learning from ecosystems and understanding ourselves — human beings — as part of nature and participants in life as a planetary process, we too can create diverse regenerative cultures that create conditions conducive to life. We can heal the ecosystems we have damaged, regenerate forests, soils, oceans and waterways, and create a future for humanity as a regenerative keystone species and stewards of ecosystems and planetary health.
Re-connecting with nature?
Reconnecting with nature is mainly about letting go of a mistaken assumption that we are supposedly separate from her. We cannot loose that connection because we are nature. For too long our culturally dominant narrative has separated nature and culture, mind and body, self and world, and this story no longer serves us. We have come to believe that we are somehow separate from nature, but as biological beings and participants in life as a planetary process, we critically depend on healthy ecosystems functions and the life-support systems of the biosphere.
The major challenge is in our heads. As Einstein famously said we cannot solve the problems we face in the same mindset that created them in the first place. As Fritjof Capra has expressed so well, upstream from the ecological, social and economic crises in the world is a single crisis, a crisis of perception and consciousness. We need to change our culture’s guiding narrative form a story of separation to a story of interdependence and interconnection.
Technology that serves or serving technology?
We have come to believe that everything can be solved by innovating better and more advanced technologies. While technological innovation can certainly help us to improve many things, we need to make sure that we create technologies that truly serve humanity rather than the other way around. We are in danger of creating a technological dystopia if we do not have a deeper ethical dialogue about which technologies to develop further and which technologies to restrict or even ban all together.
Since we have never been separate form nature — — and the perceived separation is only in our mind — we do not need technology to ‘reconnect’. All we need to do is to come back to our bodies and spend some quiet time in a park or even better in a forest or wilderness. Solitude in nature is a way of coming home — coming back to life.
The German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said “who does not see nature everywhere sees her nowhere in the right light.” From this perspective, even our mega-cities are nature. We just need to ask the question whether they are viable evolutionary adaptations that create conditions conducive to life or mal-adaptive deadend in the evolutionary exploration of creativity and novelty. We need to start re-designing our cities to reflect the insight of our co-dependence on healthy ecosystems functions and the planetary life-support systems of the biosphere.
Business as an agent of transformative innovation?
We would do well to ask ourselves which kind of corporate structures and activities truly serve humanity and the wider community of life. Can we create corporations that follow the basic lesson of biomimicry? Can we create corporations that create conditions conducive to life?
Once we do that and aim to become nature’s humble apprentices, we will have to explore what may be appropriate scale and how we may adapt corporate activities to the biocultural uniqueness of place. Globalization has brought us many benefits, but it has also eroded regional economies.
As we begin to pay attention to how nature produces — in the region for the region, with locally regenerated resources and renewable energy — we can apply these insights to our industrial processes and increase distributed manufacturing and shorten supply chains.
The promises of shifting towards biomaterials and renewable energy based, regionally focussed circular economies and production systems are: increased employment and community resilience, more meaningful work, increased social cohesion in a culture of collaboration, and a shift from industrial processes that are environmentally destructive to industries that are regenerative by design.
Companies that apply biomimetic design and learning from nature as their innovation strategy often move from initially innovating new products, to starting to innovate healthier and more sustainable production processes and eventually begin to explore systemic biomimicry paying attention to how they can create collaborative advantage with other companies in their sector. Biomimicry at the systems level can inform regenerative development by creating ecosystems of collaboration engaged in social, ecological, and economics regeneration at the local and bioregional scale.
To clean up entire supply chains of an industry requires the co-creation of collaborative enterprise ecologies that begin to have a systems wide regenerative impact across scales: local, regional national and global.
Furthermore companies engaged in such transformative innovation in the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures everywhere will actively contribute to a framework of shared meaning and purpose for their employees as well as the wider communities in which they operate. These frameworks of meaning are the story of place as told by its people interwoven with shared meaning around the highest potential of the biocultural uniqueness of that place.
Companies aiming to work regeneratively become catalysts in the transformation of their entire sector. The engaging in healing their sectors from pathological fracturing and the externalized social, ecological and economic damage caused by striving for competitive advantage. Such companies will eventually contribute to transforming their entire industry and positively influencing the lives of many people in the places the company and its suppliers operate in.
Yes, admittedly the examples are still few and far between — and none a without room for improvement — yet LUSH, Patagonia, Interface and a few others are beginning to think and act systemically far beyond their immediate core business. These companies are explicitly aiming to have a regenerative impact beyond benefits to customers, investors and employees. People in these companies earn both in the economy of money and the economy of meaning.
True wealth lies in the economy of meaning
People want to work for companies that give their employees the confidence that a day’s work is not just about earning money and feeding the family at home. Most people would like to see their contribution to their employer and its work in their community and region also creates a healthier future for their children and noticeably improves the conditions for everyone in the region.
It is not enough to only earn in the ‘economy of money’ people crave to also earn in the ‘economy of meaning’. It is the latter that creates employee commitment and loyalty. Working only for money is soul destroying and a sure path to burnout, depression and ill-health. Working in the economy of meaning creates wealth in the form of nourishing human relationships, regenerated healthy ecosystems, vibrant local economies and thriving local communities.
Regenerative development is informed by the biological and ecological understanding of development rather than the dogma of economic (neoliberal) development. True wealth lies in meaningful caring relationships between people and their place — people and planet. By creating conditions conducive to life — striving for collaborative advantage — we can regenerate social, ecological and economic synergies at the local and regional scale that offer true wealth, health, and meaning.
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures