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Firms of the future - business inspired by nature

Those bold enough to embark on a journey of dynamic transformation are most likely to succeed in volatile conditions

The economic, social and environmental volatility now facing business means organisations having to operate in a dynamically transforming landscape.

The nature of change itself is transforming. Organisations are now increasingly exposed to dynamic change: change upon change upon change – while dealing with one change, another affects us, then another, and so on. This dynamic change upsets the traditional business paradigm we have been working to over the last few decades. It is no longer appropriate to simply manage change through traditional change management methodologies or manage risk through tried and tested risk management techniques. We need to look deeper in dealing with these increasingly challenging times as we transform our organisations from firms of the past to firms of the future.

Paradoxically, inspiration for the current pressing challenges is all around us in nature. Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8bn years, and the more we explore nature's ways the more we find inspiration for operating in a dynamically changing business environment.

Our understanding of nature has evolved over the last few decades, from viewing it as a battleground of competition to one of dynamic non-equilibrium, where an order within chaos prevails due to unwritten natural patterns, feedback loops, behavioural qualities, interdependencies and collaboration within and throughout ecosystems. The more we grapple with the challenges our businesses now face, the more we realise that nature's patterns and qualities inspire approaches and qualities for our own evolutionary success in business and beyond.

Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI), a collaborative of business transformation specialists which I helped co-found, has developed a set of business principles for the firm of the future originating from the life principles developed by the Biomimicry Institute in the US. The principles are aimed at creating conditions in business conducive to collaboration, adaptability, creativity, local attunement, multifunctionality and responsiveness; hence, enhancing the evolution of organisations from rigid, tightly managed hierarchies to dynamic living organisations which thrive and flourish within ever-changing business, socio-economic and environmental conditions.

Organisations that understand how to embed these principles from nature into their products, processes, policies, and practices create greater abundance for themselves and their business ecosystems in times of rapid change; flourishing rather than perishing in volatile conditions.

Organisations inspired by nature are resilient, optimising, adaptive, systems-based, values-based, and life-supporting. Let us explore these principles.


The more resilient an organisation is, the more able it is to successfully deal with disturbances and volatility. Hence, business resilience is fast becoming the holy grail for businesses in these volatile times. The more diverse, decentralised and distributed a business ecosystem, the more able it is to seek out opportunities and capitalise upon a changing business landscape.

By way of example, UK brewery Adnams recently shifted their focus from a few product lines and customers to increasing the diversity of products and their customer base. The shift towards a greater variety of products and customers led to investment in adjacent markets. During this business transformation, Adnams also invested in its employees, ensuring they became more empowered to make decisions locally, reducing the need for overly burdensome centralised management. These changes have significantly increased Adnams resilience, leaving them far better equipped to deal with market volatility and seek out new opportunities.

In nature, we find resilience in almost all flourishing ecosystems. Take a forest which maintains different development stages within its ecosystem. Some parts of the forest are in a state of rapid growth or re-growth, while other parts are maturing, and yet others are fully mature and ageing. There is continual cycling through these stages, with disturbances (such as fire, flood or storm damage) driving release of resources which, in turn, lead to reorganisation and regrowth, akin to new products being launched and new ways of working being introduced. By maintaining constant cycling at different time and space scales, the forest is able to flourish during short-term disturbances as well as long-term change. Diversity is key to nature's success.


Whilst maximisation brings benefit of economies of scale through lower unit cost of production, in nature we find optimisation through economies of scope brings different benefits through improved cross-fertilisation and species interaction (akin to improved interactivity across traditional department and organisational boundaries). Maximisation is driven through homogenising, scaling up, atomising, industrialising and reducing complexities within a specific business function, system or process; optimisation is driven through enhanced connections, interactivity and interdependencies across different business functions, systems or processes.

Economies of scale rely on mass production which can reduce the potential for synergies in an organisation; reducing the variety of products curtails creativity and innovation, can lower staff engagement levels and ultimately weaken the company's overall resilience. Economies of scope realise benefits by unlocking synergistic win-win relationships and positive virtuous cycles, increasing co-creation through increased interconnections across the wider business ecosystem. This increases the system's overall resilience and improves the ability to optimise. It is not that maximising or economies of scale are not good, it is more that a harmony of the two approaches needs to be found, thus ensuring the best delivery of services or products in any given market at any given time.

In nature, we see that the ability for organisms to co-operate, optimise and synergise within their environment is fundamental to their successful evolution. In fact, the more we explore nature the more we realise that life is not a competitive struggle but an interwoven interplay of co-operative partnerships. In nature, economies of scope are fundamental for adaptation and survival as it is species that have multiple synergistic interconnections within their ecosystem that co-create resilient ecosystems more able to survive dynamic change.


In the words of Charles Darwin "it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most able to adapt to change".

Unilever is undertaking significant adaptation across its business not just in the way it sources, produces and distributes products but also in the way it engages stakeholders across its entire business ecosystem. It is adapting its approach to business to become fit for purpose for the environment that it operates in.

General Electric is another good example of a company that is adapting and transforming its business strategy towards products and services that enhance the sustainability and long-term value of its customers and wider stakeholder community.

Adaptation is enhanced when the organisation (individuals and communities of stakeholders) finds it easier to let go of the old and embrace the new. For example, geese when they fly in a V-formation rotate leadership to ensure that at any given point in the journey, it is always fit for purpose. Leadership that empowers and encourages adaptation will help ensure success in firms of the future.


Whilst reducing complex problems, projects or production lines into small, manageable chunks has the advantage of simplifying management and control, it can reduce the interconnections and interdependencies between activities that give rise to synergistic value enhancement.

Business, like nature, is lit up by interconnections and relationships that find success by being both system-focused and self-focused. Whatever the organisation (or organism) does to benefit itself should also benefit the system; in benefiting the system it also benefits itself.

Fungi provide an interconnected web of life in the soil beneath our feet, breaking down plant waste and stones into food for plants, in so doing, feeding the plants while also gaining food from them, completing the circle of life. Scientists have often been baffled by how certain species grow in certain conditions within their natural habitat, say a forest, but when put in the same conditions in a laboratory fail to survive. Recently, through radioactive tracing of nutrient flows, scientists have worked out that in the soil, through fungi, nutrients from one part of the forest, – where perhaps there is more sunlight, for example – are fed to plants in another part. The fungi distribute and share nutrients between different parts of the ecosystem as the health of the overall ecosystem benefits the whole, the parts and in turn the fungi. It is in the fungi's interest to be part of a healthy, resilient ecosystem, just as it is in the organisation's interest to be in a healthy, vibrant business ecosystem and social community.


As the need increases to continuously change, let go of old ways, seek out opportunities and embrace the new, values become the core from which consistent good business behaviour is rooted. Hierarchies of management and control slow down the ability for organisations to adapt. Rather than controlling the workforce, a firm of the future empowers the stakeholder community to take decisions locally, based on the core business behaviours set down by the values and culture of the organisation. Hence values-based leadership becomes a differentiator for those organisations best able to transform towards a firm of the future.

Life Supporting

Sustainability is fast becoming embedded into business best practice. Life supporting goes beyond traditional sustainability and corporate responsibility – measuring, monitoring and reducing the negative effects of the business. It is about creating the conditions conductive for life; encouraging behaviours, products and services that seek to enhance the wellbeing of those within the business ecosystem. Some organisations are already transforming towards zero emissions (for example, Puma and InterfaceFLOR), yet there is neither rhyme nor reason why business should be limited to that zero goal. Reaching for net positive value creation where business relationships, products and services are mutually beneficial for the stakeholders, society and environment within which they operate is the true ambition for the firm of the future.

Of course that transformation is a journey not a destination. These business principles help shape the direction of the journey, yet there is no ideal business model or perfect way of operating; it is about finding the right way at the right time for the market conditions. The future is bright for those organisations and individuals bold enough to embark on a journey of dynamic transformation in the face of increasingly perilous market conditions.

Posted by Giles Hutchins, global director for sustainability solutions at Atos, and co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation

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