HOW TO “Do” Biomimicry in Business and Management

Taryn Mead

Abstract: This article describes the three major categories of “doing biomimicry” in a business context: Technological, organizational, and systems building. It is an introduction to Dr. Taryn Mead’s new book “Bioinspiration In Business and Management: Innovating For Sustainability”, published recently in the Principles for Responsible Management Education book collection.

Context: Doing Biomimicry

Through my years as a biomimicry consultant and as a management researcher, this one particular phrase kept coming up again and again that struck me. My clients and interviewees frequently said that they wanted to “do biomimicry”. When I first got into the discipline, this was very confusing. What, exactly, was the “doing” all about?  The foundation of biomimicry is that nature has been designing well-adapted, sustainable solutions for life on earth for 3.8 billion years and there’s a lot that humans can learn about design and innovation from the other species that we share our planet with.  This basic concept has been translated into thousands of contexts around the globe.  During my consulting years, I learned that for many designers, architects, engineers, and business people, the “doing” of biomimicry meant using the methodology created by the Biomimimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild). But then as I entered the research-based phase of my career, again, the statement became elusive. If users are setting out to “do biomimicry”, how do they know if they’ve done it?

As I compared and contrasted the existing literature with my interviewees’ perspectives and my own, it became clear that it wasn’t enough to strive to “do biomimicry”. This phrase was only loosely relevant in a corporate world of innovation management, stage-gated research processes, and cultures driven by design thinking. This language needed a more structured framework to be integrated into existing organizational cultures and innovation management processes. Most companies were trying to make things and build things and change their cultures.

Concept: Three Categories of Business Biomimicry

After hearing the perspectives of more than 70 interviewees and comparing with the existing literature on innovation management, I modified a model that resonated well with the embeddedness of systems thinking and more traditional innovation models. The three major categories of “doing biomimicry” in a corporate context can be described as technological, organizational, and systems building. Technological innovation is pretty straight forward – products, processes, materials, etc. – the stuff of the world. Organizational innovations refer to the way a company delivers value, manages operations, creates new business models, and develops their corporate cultures. Systems-building innovations are outward looking towards the larger socioecological and socioeconomic context of the organization and include a wide variety of stakeholders beyond the organization.

Figure 1. Three Categories of Business Biomimicry

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In my case study research, there were applications at each of these levels, with varying degrees of success and impact. Somewhat obviously, those organizations who were already more committed to sustainability found bio-inspired innovation a much easier sell internally.  However, even some of the greenest companies struggled with defining exactly what success meant in their biomimicry innovation process. Many of them were looking for low-hanging fruit to demonstrate that the method could be applied within their organizations. However, after going through a process, they struggled to define what success looks like. How close to the natural model is close enough to be biomimetic?

As a researcher, I didn’t feel it was my place to try to define what success means for each organization or innovation attempt.  The debate about what qualifies as biomimicry is on-going in a few different professional and academic circles.  However, the stories that I aim to tell are insights into how various organizations describe their experiences with biomimicry, what tools and approaches they use, and what supports and inhibits their success. This is the essence of my PhD research and my recent book: “Bioinspiration In Business And Management: Innovating For Sustainability”.  My primary objective is to make the practice of bio-inspired innovation practical, approachable, and accessible for the busy manager who wants to know how this approach might be relevant to them within their everyday working life.

Application: Biomimicry in Business and Management

This book is directed at the business professional who has an interest in bioinspiration, but limited technical knowledge and time to dedicate to learning.  While the concept of “learning from nature” is compelling and many find it personally fulfilling, this book is not a guide to observing nature or methodology for biomimetic design.  It is rather a high level overview of what a manager might need to know to begin implementing biomimicry in their organization. This research-guided glimpse into the world of bio-inspired innovation emphasizes the many ways that nature can influence how we view business, innovation, and management for more effective, sustainable solutions.  It also offers guidance for how to leverage our organizations as sources of positive impact on socioecological systems.

The first chapter is dedicated to “The Basics”, providing an introduction to the theory of bioinspiration and why we should look to nature for solutions to our daily challenges.  The rest of the book focuses on innovations for sustainability at multiple levels – within management, operations, product development, and the global context.    Another chapter is dedicated to the various tools available and troubleshooting implementation in various cultures.  After ten years as a bio-inspired innovation consultant, I’ve moved on from the initial allure of this practice and what remains in my message is a frank discussion of what works and where the existing tools, practices, and methodologies fall short.  My research has focused on innovation management and sustainability-oriented innovation to frame the biomimicry experience and these are central to the framing of the book.

More…

This book could serve as a core textbook for a course on nature-inspired innovation, to be supplemented with additional readings.  It’s currently being used as a text for a longer 10-week master’s level course entitled “Nature-Inspired Innovation and Design” offered through Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, CO.    If you are management professional, this book is accessible, practical, and easily digestible within a few hours. A preview is available on Google Books:  https://books.google.com/books/about/Bioinspiration_in_Business_and_Managemen.html?id=bjpDDwAAQBAJ

More complete and academic findings will also be publicly available in my PhD thesis/dissertation entitled: “Factors Influencing the Adoption of Nature Inspired Innovation in Multinational Corporations” completed at the University of Exeter, UK in 2017.

If you have interest in developing a course for your university or would like to discuss the subject of the book, Taryn Mead can be reached at tarynlmead@gmail.com.

Posted in Concepts, Publications, Responsible Management Toolbox, RMLeHOW