Natural Lessons: Sustainable Innovation Driven By Symbiosis

Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.

That terse statement by Albert Einstein seems to have come full circle today as our mimicry of nature’s design has become a central feature in our quest to tackle a range of professional and personal challenges — including the survival itself of nature and our planet.

Moving through any modern city, you might see tall buildings dressed in cascading branches and leaves, cooling the urban air; or you might cross a bridge over urban water basins that captures stormwater, or see sprawling urban forests bringing biodiversity to our cities. And you may see it all while driving a hybrid car or riding in an electric bus or zipping on an e-scooter.

And yet, while the (re)merging of man and nature is accelerating, we are only scratching the surface of the lessons nature has to offer, and — only decades into our learning curve — are far from replicating the balance the earth has already established in natural ecosystems.

There is progress in applying biomimicry as a solution to urban design issues, yet it’s still considered a fringe concept in the corporate world. This despite a modern economy defined by global supply chains, where the main economic virtues — diversity, agility, and adaptation — are together what has allowed nature’s ecosystem to thrive for billions of years.

While there are innumerable and infinitely complex ways of explaining nature’s resilience, a very condensed summary can be found in the concept of “symbiosis.”

Take, for example, the way plants ensure their survival. By photosynthesis, they convert light energy into the chemical energy needed to grow and multiply. But by doing so, they also release the oxygen without which the full ecosystem couldn’t function. It has in fact taken industrialized societies more than 200 years to figure out that a fully sustainable modern economy must also adhere to that natural rule: that every individual lifeform should have a positive impact on a planetary scale.

The good news is that we’ve already taken the first steps. Companies around the world are pivoting to a model where the impact on the environment and society at large are factored into the balance sheet. We’re seeing the beginnings of a more holistic corporate model where siloed approaches to management and learning are replaced by a more connected system of interdependence and collaboration.

That said, in order to truly translate the power of biological ecosystems into the economic sphere, we need to look beyond merely reducing climate harm or hedging against supply shocks.

For example, there are startups already running successfully on nature-inspired models, where each employee is actively participating in improving processes. Often, it takes the shape of a malleable system where teams are formed and re-formed according to need, where roles shift and change as people start new initiatives or take on new responsibilities.

Moreover, as Artificial Intelligence is integrated into more and more workflows, establishing symbiosis between man and machine will be fundamental to making sure the technological revolution is not only sustainable, but truly smart.

More broadly, the principle of chaotic order applies to every aspect of management, leadership and organization. Anyone who has ever tended to a garden knows that nature likes a mess — no matter how much you dig and cut and replant, weeds will grow. In other words, there will always be uncertainty and “failure,” but nature-minded organizations don’t view it as such, but merely as a part of the corporate evolutionary process.

And that’s the true essence of ecological thinking, as nature (and Einstein) intended.