What can nature teach us about networking? Life’s Principles can help us collaborate better
by Evan Welkin, Collective Mind Associate
The discipline of biomimicry is a fast-emerging sustainable design approach with important implications for the network ecosystem. Janine Benyus popularized the term “biomimicry” in her 1997 book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”, in which she defined the discipline as a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Since then, similar to the tremendous growth we’ve seen in network models, biomimicry is flourishing. Especially with business as usual losing its fit for purpose, turning to nature's designs can offer us inspiration for what’s good for people and the planet. Common biomimetic design examples include mimicking a kingfisher’s beak to design aerodynamic trains and reconfiguring highrise ventilation systems based on aeration systems in termite mounds, taking advantage of millions of years of nature’s R&D. Biomimicry also goes beyond material or architectural design, however, and includes using “life’s principles” in aspects of social and cultural design. Inspired by the collaboration of bees or the emergent organization of flocks of birds, we as network managers can learn a lot from how the natural world around us organizes itself.
Inspired by nature and Benyus’ work, biomimetic practitioners have established a set of Life’s Principles, which could be directly applied to working with networks. Under the overall principle that “life creates conditions conducive to life,” let’s explore how networks can apply biomimicry to their work:
Principle: Adapt to changing conditions
This biomimicry principle includes recommendations to “incorporate diversity, maintain integrity through self-renewal, and embody resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization.” Much of this seems exactly like the work of networks’ emphasis on inclusive membership, staying focused on our evolving shared purpose, and decentralizing and varying our network infrastructure to support horizontal decision-making and accountability. What about redundancy though? Unlike in traditional organizations, networks are typically faced with challenges that do not have a single solution. The pandemic, for example, has been the ultimate test of adaptation to changing conditions and many networks were well-positioned to evolve in this new space because many of their members shared technical and logistical skills, covered for each other, or emphasized parallel paths that helped the network respond on short notice.
Principle: Be locally attuned and responsive
This principle urges us to “leverage cyclic processes, use readily available materials and energy, use feedback loops, and cultivate cooperative relationships.” Networks know their work is not performed in a vacuum, so collaborative leadership, a culture of reflection and cooperation, and drawing on available resources is key to network success. Networks must especially take this principle into account as they measure the impact of a financial windfall or loss, evaluate their successes, or review of its long-range strategic plan.
Principle: Use life-friendly chemistry
This principle, which urges us to “break down products into benign constituents, build selectively with a small subset of elements, and do chemistry in water” might seem hard to apply to social systems thinking. But in reality, biomimicry’s emphasis on good chemistry is critical to networking. Strong networks value every single member and are clear about how they are integrated into the larger whole. Successful networks create a flourishing culture that raises all ships and promote a leadership style that is organic and flowing rather than rigid and artificially imposed. Network managers know very well that you can lead your members to water but you can’t make them drink unless crucial collaborative elements are in place.
Principle: Be resource efficient (material and energy)
This principle urges us to “use low energy processes, multi-functional design, recycle all materials, and fit form to function.” Most members in a network are volunteers, so fitting the network form to its function or shared purpose is absolutely crucial. Network infrastructure must be designed to support its members and make careful use of resources, especially encouraging any given convening or process to serve multiple purposes.
Principle: Integrate development with growth
This principle to “self-organize, build from the bottom-up, and combine modular and nested components” speaks directly to network membership and shared purpose. Network members are the ones that must do the work and build accountable leadership that encourages grassroots organization and production. Working groups and advisory teams are just some examples of nested network infrastructure that support a culture of self-organization.
Principle: Evolve to survive
Encouraged by this principle to “replicate strategies that work, integrate the unexpected, and reshuffle information,” networks must measure their impact and constantly assess their resources to track the achievement of their shared purpose. Networks must be responsive and prepared for changing circumstances, be it a pandemic or just a staff change, to evolve and thrive in a complex civil ecosystem.