Why every business needs an Innovation Biologist
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By now, the term VUCA is well established within businesses that engage in foresight. But Covid-19 demonstrates that it is time for an update. The minuscule virus achieved something that tens of thousands of environmental and climate scientists couldn’t: to show the world how everything is connected to everything, that the health and well-being of the individual is directly connected to the health and wellbeing of the whole. In other words, the world is not only volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). It is also highly interdependent and nested. Just like every part in your body needs to be functioning in the right relationship with the other parts of your body for you to be healthy (=interdependency), so too needs the world all of its elements in the right relationships to stay healthy. Just like the health of the smaller systems in your body depend on the health of the whole (=nestedness), so too does human health depend on a healthy planet. Yet, we humans haven’t been very concerned about our relationship to the rest of the world, have we? So, welcome to the VUCAIN world, where your health and wellbeing is interdependent with the health and wellbeing of others and nested in the health of the planet.
The best way to understand what is happening, why this is happening and how we should respond appropriately to the global pandemic is through biology because the simplest virus is still many times more intelligent than our most intelligent virologist. That is because viruses have had millions of years of field tests to finetune their operations. If there ever was a case to abandon our hardwired yet outdated reductionistic and mechanistic model of reality –based on Industrial Intelligence– and replace it by the logic of life –based on Natural Intelligence– now is the time. Because mother Nature is the undisputed master of continuous innovation, adaptation and, ultimately, regeneration. Breakdown is always followed by breakthrough. So, what the world needs right now, is a crash course in Biology for Business and Policy. This requires a deep dive into living systems and complexity thinking to learn new capabilities so that we can better deal with change and disruption in a VUCAIN world. Here are a few key insights from biology that are very relevant for the world today:
#NI-1. IN NATURE, INTERDEPENDENCY RULES. NOTHING OCCURS IN ISOLATION
Everything is connected to everything. That is why biologist refer to our planet as the ‘Web of Life’. Nothing occurs in isolation. And while we like to set humans apart from nature, Covid-19 shows us that we must abide to the same laws as every other living entity on planet Earth. Interdependency rules and has done so for the whole 3.8 billion years that life exists. Despite the tsunami of scientific studies and warnings to humanity by ecologists, climate specialists, virologists and other people trained in living systems and complexity thinking about the precariousness of current socio-economic practice, business-as-usual has prevailed and created the ideal conditions for an economic and environmental meltdown because our value logic is out of sync with the way life works.
The networked way of life by James Forbes on Unsplash
For one, Life wants to Live. To achieve that, the life that prevails after millions of years of natural selection, is the life that creates conditions pro-life. Leave it better than you found it, because that is the only guarantee to ensure the success of future generations. And to do that, life counts on balancing feedback loops. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer beautifully illustrates in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: “The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants”. Our industrial intelligence, which is based on a mechanistic machine logic instead of on a living systems perspective, has been blind to the consequences of interdependency and the importance of balancing feedback loops. So, we have pumped more carbon into the atmosphere than nature can absorb. We have cut down and replaced most of our forests, in which, science shows, the air is inherently antiviral and antimicrobial, with environments that enhance the epidemic spread of diseases. We have used our air as the dumping ground for the toxic byproducts of industrial manufacturing, totally ignorant of the fact that our lungs are directly interconnected with the atmosphere through the air we breathe. A study by Harvard researchers on air pollution shows that a small increase in long term exposure to air pollution leads to a large increase in Covid-19 mortality. Unhealthy air leads to unhealthy lungs.
Next to our indirect impact by creating the conditions that favor the epidemic spread of diseases, we are also directly ‘shaking’ the viruses out of their preferred natural hosts with whom they have been living and co-evolving for millions of years. By destroying and shrinking the natural ecosystems, we are diminishing the number of hosts and the natural environment for the viruses to live in. So, they start to look for new homes that are abundant and promote contagious transmission. Our bodies, transportation hubs and multi-million cities are the ideal breeding ground. The simple fact that life wants to live, also means that any (eco)system will work to maintain itself and feedback loops are vital in this regard. Just like the virus will trigger your immune system to defend your body, so too will planet Earth activate her defense system. So, what we are experiencing now is a direct feedback loop from the Earth to halt that which makes her (and us) sick. That means that the villain who is to blame is not the bat, nor the virus, but our outdated ‘for-profit’ industrial logic as it creates conditions that are ‘anti-life’. With her Covid-19 feedback loop, nature illustrates the brittleness of a ‘for-profit’ value logic in a ‘for life’ selection environment (just think of the millions of fake masks that are now circulating). In essence, what this global economic pause is asking from us is to rethink our logic of value creation.
#NI-2. IN NATURE, THE HEALTH OF ANY SYSTEM IS DEPENDENT ON THE HEALTH OF THE LARGER SYSTEM WITHIN WHICH IT IS NESTED
Another blind spot that Covid-19 painfully exposes is that our industrial logic does not take into account the spill-over effects of our actions onto the larger systems within which societies are nested. We innovate blindly because we have no clue how our innovations create effects that move outward into larger and larger systems (e.g. on a landscape, bioregion and planetary scale) or inward to smaller and smaller systems (e.g. from the environment to the body, organs, cells). Nestedness is a difficult concept to wrap our head around but it is essential in many respects for the way we arrange our business. That is because, in nature, adding value is a nested phenomenon. Let’s look at an example on how nestedness affects every living entity from planet to environment, from environment to body and from body to cell:
A lung cell is nested in the lungs. The cell is an essential building block of the lung tissue in which it is embedded and to which it adds value. The lung tissue, nested inside the lungs, adds value to the functioning of the lungs. The lungs in turn are nested in the respiratory system. They add value to this system because they regulate a process of gas exchange by extracting oxygen from the atmosphere and transferring it into the bloodstream, while at the same time releasing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream back into the atmosphere. Therefore, the respiratory system, nested inside the body, adds value to the body, because it allows the body to breathe. The respiratory system also interconnects the body with the atmosphere.
Russian nesting dolls by Iza Gawrych on Unsplash
Now, the lung cell on its own needs the higher order systems it is nested in to be healthy for it to function properly. If there is a problem with the respiratory system and not enough fresh air is transported to the lungs, the lung cell cannot transport enough oxygen to organs and tissues. The lung cell also needs to add value to those higher systems for them to remain healthy and both are dependent on the health of the direct environment they are embedded in. For instance, lung cells in the lungs of a human living in an environment with very little to no air pollution will be healthier than those of a human living in an environment with high air pollution (which is most of our cities). The health of any body or system is therefore dependent on the health of its subsystems and on the health of the larger system (or environment) it is nested in. Nestedness is thus a pattern that is ingrained in nature’s designs through interdependency: macro level patterns are mirrored on the micro level and vice versa. While this is the essence of biology, it is intrinsically also the essence of economy. That is because the interdependence of nested systems depends on processes of value adding and isn’t this what doing business is about?
What now? Shifting from ‘for-profit’ to ‘for-life’ business logic
Which brings me to the last point: the centrality of our value logic for how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it. Because of the nature of interdependence and nestedness in the web of life, the health of the whole is only as strong as its weakest link.
That is why a central rule in nature is the following: Invest in the health of others to ensure your own.
This insight has important repercussions for how we respond now to the stress on the current socio-economic system. We know that this is only the tip of the iceberg, the next pandemic is just around the corner. Preserving the socio-economic status quo therefore, is not preventing but at best postponing the worst case scenario. To prevent complete melt down of our societal models of care and value generation, we have to let go of the practices and businesses that do not add value and which are no longer appropriate in today’s world (the weakest links) to allow a genuine regeneration of our socio-economic model.
So, we need to shift from preventing the collapse of the economy to managing the collapse in the best possible way to spare the people and the planet.
It will not be easy but it is not impossible if we unify our narratives on the future we want and our efforts to achieve it. Because we are on a fork in the road. One path leads to chaos, suffering, and tragedy. The other leads to a brand new world where quality of life, not quantity of consumption, drives the economy.
#NI-3. NATURE’S BLUEPRINT FOR INNOVATION IS REGENERATION.
Managing the collapse means reinventing what it means to be human and how we go about arranging our business. And Covid-19 provides us with the right enabling conditions to shift from reboot to redesign of our economic system. Breakdown provides the ideal conditions for breakthrough, if we have the vision, the stamina and guts, and enough self-knowledge and self-management to become the leaders that we have been waiting for.
New shoots sprout from a cut willow tree, picture by Leen Gorissen
Together we can create the conditions for regeneration -a biological process of renewal that leads to a higher order of health, wealth, vitality and viability of a system. More health means increased healthiness and quality of life. More wealth refers to increased richness in terms of resources and life forms. More vitality means increased vigor and aliveness, and more viability refers to increased “ableness” to stay alive. Regeneration can be looked at as a process of becoming more and doing more. It is both evolutionary (the system evolves towards higher levels of complexity) and developmental (the elements of the system express their inherent potential in the form of new roles and relationships). Leaving the wider system healthier, wealthier, more viable, and more vital than before is both life-affirming and life-enhancing. It ensures that life can stay alive despite change, disruption and major upheaval.
Imagine what we could achieve if we replaced our current machine-based model of innovation by nature-inspired innovation, if we switched from a ‘for-profit’ to a ‘for-life’ logic. Businesses could become the engine of planetary regeneration and a beacon of creativity and meaningful work spreading hope and ingenuity, not despair and burn-out. In a VUCAIN world, the nature of the future and the future of nature are interdependent. And Nature is the best mentor and master to guide the way because she has been dealing with turbulence, disruption and uncertainty for millions of years.
Adapted from the forthcoming book: NI. Building the Future of Innovation on millions of years of Natural Intelligence.