Build resilience like a forest

What if your organisation could function the way a forest does?

A forest shares information and nutrients so perhaps an organization could learn from the forest and function more like it. The data management company, America Learns, decided to skip its year-end sales push and just like some animals in the forest they went into hibernation. They slowed down, took time to reflect and turned inward. The following year the sales increased by 20 per cent. Reconfiguring its operation and slowing down had a positive effect rather than constantly pushing forward to seal the next deal.

The practice of using nature for innovation and sustainable solutions, biomimicry, has been on the rise in the last decades. There are hundreds of examples using nature as inspiration in the fields of design, architecture and engineering. For example, the design of a bullet train that uses the form of a kingfisher’s beak to reduce the level of noise. Yet, nature can also teach us about cooperation, adaptation, and resilience.

The core idea of biomimicry is that the natural world has refined solutions for how to survive. By studying these solutions we may get insights into how to solve our own problems. Using nature as inspiration is not a new idea, snowshoes were inspired by arctic hare feet, but now nature is used in a more systematic way to provide us with not only innovative ideas but with ways to live more sustainable and in harmony with nature.

Trees live on different time scale than us, making it difficult to understand them. In Sweden, there is a spruce that is around 9 500 years old. A creature that old can afford to relax and take it easy. And the electrical impulses move slowly through the roots of the tree. Trees need to communicate and sending impulses via their roots is one way they communicate.  Moreover, trees support each other and they may even nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries. Isolated trees have a shorter lifespan so trees need the support of each other to live a long and healthy life. Trees do not only communicate via their roots, but they also use scents and smells. And sounds.

nature-forest-trees-fog

Research suggests that a tree is crying when it is thirsty. You cannot hear a tree screaming if you are out walking in a forest but if we use recording equipment their ultrasounds can be heard. The vibrations that a tree send out could be cries for more water. A bit like in a big organisation where the murmur of the employee is not heard because no one really listens. The roots are hidden under the soil and it is easy to focus on the branches and the leaves but if you want a healthy company you need to listen to the roots.

It may come as a surprise that a forest relies on information rather than materials to create and build. Every species in a forest works towards building its own niche and through that diversity develops greater resilience.

A tree adapts its roots, bark, branches, leaves and connections with other trees, this means that their system can quickly respond and adapt to changes in the environment. In a forest, trees of the same species, share the resource. But resources might even be shared with other species of trees. The collaboration among species may be an invisible yet vital support so that trees can live and grow in hostile places with little rainfall. A redwood tree may catch fog and draw it down as moisture which can be used not only by the tree itself but also by thirsty plants that live close to the tree.

How does a company or organisation deal with disturbances and change?

We need to be smarter about how to survive. Today, some companies are flattening their organisation but that is not enough. Lessons from the forest teach us that we also need to create a good flow of information and use feedback loops for learning, as well as decision-making. An organisation that uses the knowledge of an old forest may be the most cutting-edge way of running it.

 

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