It is all about the right balance. There is no right or wrong, as long as you keep an open eye for your neighbours. We can learn from fish how to balance following the crowd and breaking free — to the right extend.
A recent article in Nature Communications has gotten much attention recently because of its widespread potential implications of how we might balance conformity with disrution. But let’s not jump to conclusions too readily. Science needs a step-wise critical review to give meaningful advise. A notion that has been largely neglected by presidents and influencers lately.Stickleback Crew in the Salish Sea provided by Oceanus on Vimeo.
The stickleback is a cute little fish omnipresent in healthy local sweet water. It also is a pet animal of scientists from behavioural science to genetics. In the present study, Hannah MacGregor and coworkers have researched the difference between disorganised swarms and highly polarised groups — and the continuous fluctuation between these two states.
Individuals have different motivations and goals. They need to be balanced with those of all other individuals to create the benefits a swarm offers. It is the classic divergence between personal wishes for egocentric profit and survival instincts of the individual as representatives of a species. Given that we look at a study in fundamental biology not human sociology, we have to be careful in translating the findings one to one; or on the other hand cherry pick our interpretations.
Corporates vs freelancing in stickleback
Comments in Süddeutsche Zeitung and on Social Media pointed out that individuals should break free from the swarm in order to include new perspectives. These individuals thus disrupt the previous conformity and consequently open up space for innovation. Translated into the human economic realm, we find ourselves reminded of situations often seen in corporate organizations: We can say that a swarm that continuously swims in a previously determined direction, no matter how fast and efficient, will miss out on new food sources or even disappear into the jaws of a big predator. You can paint your own picture of corporate swarms, economic food sources and market predators.
On the other hand, a stickleback, or professional for that matter, leaving the swarm to experiment, call for change or even freelance is much more prone to end up the same way and disappear into oblivion in the vastness of the economic pond.
The study published in Nature Communications has shown, how the trade-off between going rouge and leveraging conformity can work. We can indeed learn a great deal from it about how we balance individual profit with benefits for the whole group, or even society. It just doesn’t come as natural to the homo economicus as it does to the stickleback.
Cooperation is the way to go, but it does not come easy
I will keep on talking about the fish of the study here. The truth is in the data; however, our interpretation always includes our biases, too. Mine, or this of any reader. Socioeconomic considerations, especially based on interpretation of nature, are always interpretations.
Swarm behaviour is governed by some simple principles as researchers from natural and computer science, like our colleague Prof. Tim Landgraf at Freie Universität Berlin, have shown. They basically depend on angle, distance, velocity. The Study by MacGregor et al suggests that individuals who are open to change these factors are more likely to act differently than the rest of the swarm. They thus overcome conformity cues and spot food or predators earlier than others. The swarm follows these trail blazers.
However, the individual who spotted the food source first was not necessarily the one who could eat it in the experiments. The group thus benefits from the disruption of conformity by an individual, possibly even more that the individual itself. In organisations or social groups, we will need the change makers, but we will need to support them in order to allow for continuous innovation, and not let them starve of resources or appreciation. The dissidents have to be included in the collective behaviour while giving them the space to breath freely. The answer is hence not freelancing or corporate, it is a combination, a balance.
Cooperation over competition
The stickleback example shows that even if there is situational competition driven by individual wishes, it emerges into an overall cooperation that is visible as swarm behaviour, alternating between polarisation and disorder. No individual stickleback will lead the swarm forever nor profit more than the others.
We are looking at a highly complex system of interactions. And we observe self-organisation in perfection. Organisations that work like this will be successful as a whole while incentivising both conformity and disruption.
Deeply rooted in neuroscience, cellular signalling, systems thinking and cognitive psychology, we use these kind of learnings in an approach we call Biomimicry, to design the system apt to shape the future: A global swarm of experts that balances disruption and co-creation in order to solve the burning challenges of society and businesses — all while being embedded in the natural environment and the guiding framework of the SDGs. The process of problem solving in our expert swarm is not so different from the search for food by the sticklebacks. Individual contributions are rewarded if they lead to the overall advancement of the solution. This way we drive cooperation over competition. And get the best results for all, client and contributors.
If you want to learn more about how we build the swarm of experts, how you can leverage it already for your business challenges, or how to join the swarm get in contact with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do things come to life? How do new species emerge from coincidences?
Those questions that evolution and genetic science makes us understand more and more on a biological level are most relevant also in the realm of social and business entrepreneurship: How do we find ways to keep adapting to the changes around us? And how do we create the setup to train people to become the catalysts for those changes? Let us take a look deep into our bodies to understand this.
In our cells, a fertile environment of components and nutrients exists. When they come together they form new combinations that give rise to new molecules, changes in genetics and ultimately new forms of life. These chemical encounters happen by chance; like in real life you meet people by chance, find common interests, shared values and matching goals. Chances to meet complementary molecules, or people for that matter, are increased by the right environment and catalysts. The global Biomimicry network is also such a fertile environment, a “cell” where like-minded people come together, driven by the vision to contribute to a world with greater cooperation, more responsible businesses, more positive societal impact and less damage to the environment. In the global Biomimicry network, they receive the tools and guidance to turn this vision into a reality. They are helped by the catalysts: the experts and coaches who teach Biomimicry, and connect people and ideas, leading to new products, services or initiatives. The latest species that emerged from this environment is the Biomimicry Academy.
Bioinspired Circular Innovation
At Biomimicry Academy, we combine innovative, sustainable and human-centred approaches with business modelling to bring change directly into companies or organisations. We call this approach Bioinspired Circular Innovation.
This professional training programme consists of an online phase, the Biomimicry Essentials with three modules, followed by a face-to-face period over four months, including an Applied Biomimicry project to earn the degree of a Biomimicry Practitioner. Participants will set out on a learning journey starting with an introduction into Circular Economy, Human-Centred and Nature-Inspired Design. After this introduction and an on-site session to experience the power of Biomimicry, the prospective Biomimics continue into application on real business cases and further on to business modelling. They work on business-sourced “Challenges to Biology” and learn on the job. Those challenges will go beyond product design and might spread to service design and even structural and social change. Their results will be used by company’s R’n’D, or be published open-source. This way, the training does not remain in the classroom, but enter the real world and can immediately be put to use.
For their graduation, participants will take on their own Biomimicry project. Those Biomimicry projects will integrate with the Global Biomimicry Challenge of the Biomimicry Institute. Participants or teams who wish to continue have the opportunity to submit an application for the Biomimicry Launchpad, the accelerator programme that helps early-stage entrepreneurs bring nature-inspired solutions to market.
Building the programme has been a rewarding experience. It is thrilling to get together with a group of experienced individuals who are driven by their values and curiosity and work on a joint project. But how did it start?
How it started — and where it will lead us
About 10 years ago Biomimicry started to leap across the Atlantic to Europe. It was the consequence of more and more Europeans being drawn to the Biomimicry training programmes initiated by Dayna Baumeister and Janine Benyus. Among those first pioneers who made the way across the ocean, virtually and literally, were Arndt Pechstein, Regina Rowland and Jacques Chirazi.
Graduating as Biomimicry Specialist from Biomimicry 3.8, Arndt came back to Germany in 2014 to co-found Biomimicry Germany. Ever since the NPO became a hub for bioinspiration that goes beyond mere technical invention to incorporate the sustainability aspect that is so crucial in the communication of Biomimicry.
A few years later, the European Biomimicry Alliance was christened. That is where we met Regina, who came back from the US after years as educator and consultant for Biomimicry 3.8 and others. Her declared goal was to bring Biomimicry to her home country Austria, and to establish a joint European movement. In 2016, at an event under the skeleton of the Brachiosaurus at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, the spark to create a European biomimicry programme was first lit. Over the years, we have noticed an increasing interest from companies and individuals wanting to use nature to inspire solutions in their work. As such, an alliance was formed by Biomimicry Germany and phi360, led by Arndt and me, Regina at Burgenland University, as well as the Biomimicry Institute in California, with Jacques at its helm, and the Natural History Museum in Berlin to create the Biomimicry Academy.
Regina brings social innovation and systems thinking to the table. She has developed an online course on these and other disciplines for the European Union, which will kick off the Bioinspired Circular Innovation programme in 2019. Arndt and me have developed and coached formats for responsible innovation in our agency phi360 for years. We include our backgrounds in Biomimicry, neuroscience as well as entrepreneurship and business modelling in the programme.
The Biomimicry Academy’s goal is to overcome the barrier of entrenched “business as usual” mindsets and make the Biomimicry process more even more useful to companies and individuals. This goal aligns with Jacques’ work at the Biomimicry Institute. Consequently, we aim to funnel the work done to earn the certificate at Biomimicry Academy into the Biomimicry Launchpad. The learning journey of becoming a Biomimicry Practitioner will therefore lead the participants right into their future fields of work.
We have founded the Biomimicry Academy in order to bring greater accessibility and applicability to Biomimicry in Europe, and to connect the next generation of bright minds. The Academy therefore will join the ranks of the excellent institutions which comprise the global ecosystem of Biomimicry, bioinspiration, responsible, circular and regenerative innovation. Who knows what species might emerge from this new education programme — we are excited to find out!