A future based on NI is
Building the future on millions of years of field tests
Compared to the natural world, our world is poorly designed. Whenever we come up with a solution to a problem, we create additional problems elsewhere, thereby perpetuating unsustainable ways of innovating. Yet, we are governed by the same laws that govern all of life on our unique planet. And life has managed to sustain itself on Earth over the past 3.8 billion years, despite ice ages, volcano eruptions and asteroid collisions. Like Einstein pointed out one hundred years ago, we cannot solve our problems of unsustainability by using the same thinking that created them. So, we need another kind of thinking. One that starts not from artificial but from natural intelligence. Since all of life on earth is subject to the same operating conditions and natural selection turned failures into fossils, those that have persisted hold the keys to design that can stand the test of time and disruption. Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, the great minds behind the discipline of Biomimicry call these survival strategies ‘Life’s Principles’ because they reflect what all life does on Earth. Building the future on millions of years of field tests, seems to me to be the best chance we get for staying in this game called evolution.
Nature’s chemistry is water-based, bio-compatible and biodegradable
When it comes to chemistry, we have got our logic backwards. Most of the 80.000 man-made chemicals in use today are toxic and require massive amounts of energy to be produced. Yet it does not have to be that way. The living world is chockfull with chemicals. Adhesion, antifreeze, antioxidation, lubrication, flexibility, fire-retardance, self-cleaning, UV protection, water- and fire-resistance are just a few examples of the chemical ingeniousness concocted in nature’s R&D lab. The seeds of fire-prone North American Jack pines can withstand temperatures up to 370 degrees. Artic wood frogs freeze solid and defrost without damage. Hippos produce their own sunscreen which moisturizes and prevents infections. Spider silk is stronger than Kevlar, yet made at ambient temperature from dead flies and water. Nature’s chemistry achieves astounding performance and is non-toxic, biodegradable and water-based. And even though nature does create toxic chemicals occasionally, these poisons break down rather quickly into life-friendly components. They do not last like man-made chemicals. Instead, toxicity in nature is the intended function for protection and predation, it can affect an organism but never an ecosystem. Now that we are finally understanding the chemistry of life, we can shift gears and use nature’s chemistry handbook to create life-friendly chemicals and processes. In fact, it is a fundamental requirement for a circular economy because a circular economy without life-friendly chemistry perpetuates toxicity. If it is not life-friendly, it is not circular after all.
It is only an investment if it leaves the world better off
Trial and error is how nature innovates. Doing well by doing good is how she succeeds. The core principle of Natural Intelligence therefore is leave the world better than you found it. This is a completely different take on innovation than current corporate practice. Because at best, organizations are managing unsustainability, doing less bad. What nature does as a general rule, is the opposite. Nature regenerates. She creates more health, wealth, viability and vitality to ensure the success of not just the next generation but countless generations after that. Whales cool the climate, mushrooms make rain, wolves heal rivers, termites green the desert, foxes plant gardens and plankton make clouds. Nature’s investment strategies for long term success are simple. First, enrich your environment. Second, invest in the health of others to ensure your own. And third, cooperate with others to create more life. That is how NI works.
Nature not only makes us healthier, she makes us smarter and happier too
It may sound surprising, but nature is better for your health than the health care sector. Yet collectively, we keep devouring nature as if it is a resource we can do without. Luckily, evidence of the impact of nature on our health, happiness and wits is mounting. Studies show that wandering through forests reduces blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels while increasing levels of serotonin, the ‘happy’ chemical that operates in our nervous system. It also increases the number of killer T-cells, the cells in your body that eliminate cancer cells and the effect lasts for days. So trees do not only produce the oxygen we breathe, they promote our health as well. And that is not all. The ability to focus and concentrate is higher when people spend time in nature. Research showed that creativity and problem-solving capacity of students was raised by 50% after spending four days in the wild. Students that spent the same amount of time in a city, did not show any increase. The positive effect of nature is so significant that employees who have a view of nature from their desk perform better than those without. Their job satisfaction is higher and absenteeism is lower. What is more, cities with a lot of nature have much lower health care costs than those with little nature. Renaturing office spaces and rewilding cities not only boosts health and creativity, it boosts bliss and wits too. The nature of the future and the future of nature are interdependent.
Infrastructure is grown, not manufactured
Nature does not manufacture like us. She grows her infrastructure. From housing to water cleaning facilities, from flood protection to the Wood Wide Web, nature builds from the bottom up and in a circular fashion. Everything is food and nothing is wasted. Absorb, assemble, multiply, disassemble. Absorb, assemble, multiply, disassemble. Nature cycles and spirals and adds value at every turn. Towards ever better designs and capabilities. Towards higher resilience and viability. Towards higher orders of wealth and complexity. And just like every winter is followed by a new spring, breakdown always comes before breakthrough. There are so many lessons in the way that nature makes. Features are built-in into materials that work with the elements. Winds grow roots and make strong wood. Waves create superglue. Light and structure make color and shape builds strength. Nature uses minimum materials for maximum effect. Nature’s portfolio is comprised of millions of unique designs, all devised for disassembly and always multifunctional. Feathers insulate, communicate and improve lift. Noses breathe, read and smell. Trees make oxygen, shade and soil. They purify air, clean water and prevent erosion. In nature, nothing fits just one purpose. Optimization beats maximalization. Strength and skills come from shape and structure. Nature thus optimizes functions while maximizing value. Imagine what is possible if we learn to mirror the ingenious technologies of nature.
Biodiversity contributes to resilience and inoculates against extinction
That diversity matters, is not only known to ecologists. As any investment specialist will tell you, diversifying within and across asset classes, is crucial if you do not want to have your entire fortune evaporate in one wallop. Scientific evidence now shows us that the natural world is no different. Communities with rich biodiversity, meaning high genetic and species diversity, are better able to avert extinction cascades than simple communities with low species richness. Because in poor communities, the disappearance of one species can trigger a chain of events where one loss leads to another and another and another. When an ecosystem loses an organism in a complex, varied and diverse community, chances are that something else will take over its role. Yet monocultures of thought and technology are often the rule rather than the exception, even though they are just as brittle in the face of disturbance as a monoculture of corn. In contrast to most man-made systems which are designed for stability & control and therefore depend on predictability, natural systems thrive on disruption and disturbance because they have been designed for uncertainty & unpredictability. And (bio)diversity is the key to ensure that ability. In short, NI innovates from a completely different paradigm than we do. Instead of monocultures of efficiency, NI banks on biodiverse polycultures of resiliency and adaptability. Because without biodiversity, there is no life.