August 30, 2014

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Evolutionary Biology As a Model For Sustainable Business: A Review of Giles Hutchins' The Nature of Business

A new book applies the lessons of evolutionary biology to making businesses sustainable.

Submitted by: Guest Contributors

Posted: Feb 07, 2013 – 10:12 AM EST

Series: Book Reviews

Tags: biomimicry, sustainability, nature, environment, business, climate change, energy, waste, economy, forests

 
Tamsin_woolley-barker

By Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker 

I recently had the pleasure of coming across Giles Hutchins’ excellent book, The Nature of Business. Since I've been working on a book about organization transformation inspired by nature myself, the title grabbed my attention right away. I am primarily an evolutionary biologist rather than a business person, so my own work, through BioInspired Ink, comes at the topic from a deeply biological perspective.

Hutchins' book is the perfect complement, coming from a broadly informed perspective rooted in extensive personal experience with sustainability and new business strategies. He nudges the corporate reader to consider how complex, highly coordinated, and supremely adaptable biological systems like fungal mycelium, social insects, bird flocks, and fish schools achieve resilience in the face of disturbance, and what businesses can learn from them.

The Nature of Business accomplishes three important tasks. It is, first and foremost, a well-thought out synthesis of a broad swath of thinking on sustainable business practices. It goes beyond this, however, by presenting a diverse array of case studies and examples of cutting-edge businesses that are successfully implementing “nature’s business principles” to become more robust, resilient, and responsive in the face of increasing volatility.

Evolutionary Principles Guide Sustainable Business

Hutchins focuses on eight of the twelve evolutionary principles that I identify operating in nature’s The Nature of Business: Giles Hutchinsmost resilient systems, and that we can use to transform human systems into the kinds of sustainable structures we see in nature. Last, the book is grouped into a series of nine action-oriented modules, each intended to facilitate practical application of these concepts in the business environment.

Hutchins’ synthesis lays out the idea that the purpose of business today is “to maximize [short-term] shareholder return,” through bottom-line cost reduction and top-line value enhancement. Growth is all-important, and primarily achieved by meeting perceived customer needs and desires.

Consumption of goods and services by customers equals growth, and growth equals profit, which equals more employment, higher incomes, and more consumption, which requires the production of ever more goods and services.

Linear Production Model Fails To Factor In External Costs

Hutchins notes that we produce goods primarily by taking raw materials from the Earth (oil, metal, water, and living natural resources), making these substances into products through “heat, beat, and treat” technologies (at significant energy costs, with toxic byproducts), and discarding the final product when it is broken or no longer needed.

The problem with this linear production model is that our planet's resources are finite (“except for solar energy and the odd meteor”), as is its capacity to absorb waste, including carbon emissions.

We treat these “natural services” as if they were largely free.

But in reality, consuming the planet's raw materials, decimating biodiversity, compromising our watersheds, acidifying the oceans, destroying topsoils, and changing the global climate by transferring huge quantities of subterranean carbon into the atmosphere are like taking a zero-interest loan from nature.

Debt To Nature Creates Risk of Bankruptcy

Borrowing looks cheap now, and we don't bother factoring these “external” costs into today's prices. Our lifestyle, however, is saddling us with an increasingly large debt to nature. Sooner or later, this debt to naturedebt will need to be repaid, and there's no government bailout coming on this one. As Hutchins says, “living off your assets instead of income is short-sighted.”

Increasingly, notes Hutchins, these external costs create global volatility and disturbance. Scarcity of natural resources drives up prices and risk in our global supply chains, climate change increases the frequency of extreme natural events, and unexpected (and costly) disruptions occur to natural services we take for granted.

Biodiversity declines, and ecologists know that fewer species means decreased ecosystem complexity and resilience, which further weakens the system. All of this threatens social stability, economies, and the businesses we depend on. In short, business as usual is not sustainable.

“If we do not conduct our business within the constraints of the system,” says Hutchins, “we will inevitably go out of business.”

Values-Led Culture Drives Value-Creation Potential

The solution to this crisis for any business is to shift away from maximizing short-term profit and the efficiency of each component, and do things the way the rest of nature does them. A “subunit efficiency mentality” yields a suboptimal system, because the whole is actually more than the sum of its parts.

Hutchins believes that “good business is about seeking opportunities for value-creation,” defined holistically by the “triple bottom line” of People, Planet, and Profit. When companies realize this, their “values and value reinforce each other, and a values-led culture drives the value-creation potential of ecological economicsthe organization.

A long-term, holistic view gives an organization clarity of purpose, which it shares organically with customers and employees, suppliers and distributors. “Only then does the need to manage, monitor, and control stakeholders fall away,” this cumbersome mechanism of hierarchic management to be “replaced by good governance through values and ‘walking the talk’ behaviors.”

Just as in any natural ecosystem, organizational resilience is a function of complexity, diversity, and unity of purpose. And just as in nature, when the values and goals of all stakeholders are aligned, “the chaotic nature of diversity naturally emerges toward delivering shared value-creation, while maintaining flexibility, adaptability, and sense of purpose.”

A unified vision promotes buy-in, encourages the intelligent, self-directed response of talented, motivated individuals to changing local conditions, and promotes synergy between partners.

Presto!

You've created a resilient organization, ready to survive and thrive in the face of change, like slime mold absorbing nutrients from a newly fallen tree.

About the Author

An evolutionary biologist, writer, Biomimicry 3.8-trained biomimic, and sustainability expert, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and develops content for the California Association of Museums' Green Museums Initiative. She is currently at work on BioInspired Inc: 12 Natural Steps for Your Organization to Survive and Thrive, a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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