Implementing Bioinspiration — what matters in multinational corporations?
By Dr. Taryn Mead
This is the second of a two-part series to introduce Dr. Taryn Mead’s new book “Bioinspiration In Business and Management: Innovating For Sustainability”. More complete and academic findings will also be publicly available in her PhD thesis/dissertation entitled: “Factors Influencing the Adoption of Nature Inspired Innovation in Multinational Corporations recently completed at the University of Exeter, UK.
Innovation is difficult. And innovation for sustainability — which considers success to be much more than just financial — adds multiple levels of complexity. And biomimicry is no exception. Despite the strength of an organization’s sustainability agenda or the endless energy and good intentions of internal champions, most organizations find adopting biomimicry to be challenging. As discussed in my last post, companies vary significantly in their company-wide narratives related to sustainability-oriented innovation. In this post, I described the characteristics of three particular narratives — the Ambiguous, the Accountable, and the Aspirational organization. Each of these narratives creates a unique sustainability-oriented innovation culture that requires a slightly different approach. The goal of this post is to introduce general best practices and ways to approach biomimicry differently depending on the type of organization you find yourself in.
those organizations that were most effective embraced a culture of “nature as model”…
Recommendations for All Organizations
Across the cases that I studied, there were a few variables that consistently influenced the implementation of bioinspired innovation. Here are a few general pointers that can be applied to any bioinspired innovation effort, regardless of the culture and sustainability narratives, that can help to guide success.
- Culture is more important than training — The level of internal staff training may or may not matter. All of the cases that I looked at, except one, had at least one internal staff member who had gone through a minimum of one week of training when they tried to implement biomimicry. Some organizations had up to 50 associates trained in immersive workshops or several associates trained in longer term programs. This variable alone, however, was not a variable that defined effectiveness. The one case that had no internal biomimicry training was one of the most successful studied. On the other hand, those organizations that were most effective embraced a culture of “nature as model” and allowed the time, space, and resources to manifest this collective vision. Not that training does any harm, but its ultimately the stories that people tell themselves, which do more to advance or inhibit bioinspired innovation.
- Interdisciplinary teams are a prerequisite — None of the cases I studied tried to do this work with only designers, only engineers, or only business people. Some of the interdisciplinarity came from outside consultants and some had the capacity in-house. But again, it’s not enough to only be interdisciplinary — the culture of that team matters.
- Designers are a key element for a successful team — This last point is a bit difficult to admit. My first love is biology and, as a practicing biomimic, my role is frequently to bring biological knowledge to the design and innovation process. It’s for this reason that its difficult to admit that the inclusion of a biologist on a biomimicry team may not be as critical as I’d like to believe. In my six case studies of bioinspiration in multinational corporations, designers were more common on successful implementation teams than were biologists. (*Note, I did not look at small design firms, singular inventors, or research labs — though others have — or other contexts). My research focused on the inclusion of biologists, designers, and other disciplines, not the reasons why they may have a disproportionate influence on the process. However, my gut and experience tell me that designers are important because their training results in more systemic thinking and transdisciplinary considerations. They view the problem space from multiple perspectives simultaneously and are practiced in divergent and convergent thinking (or solving problems with multiple solutions or one overall solution). In comparison, biologists are typically trained to reduce complexity with the scientific method, isolating variables along the way. That’s not to suggest that biologists can’t or don’t use systemic approaches — many do — but they are also trained to exclude the noise in a data set and focus on the management of specific data points. In summary, when working in a corporate context, ensure there is a designer on the team who can help to bring the process together and guide it through the inner workings of the organization’s innovation infrastructure.
Recommendations for Specific Sustainability Narratives
As described in my previous post, there are at least three distinct narratives about sustainability and innovation that multinationals tell themselves, as they relate to biomimicry. I categorize these narratives and their organizations as Ambiguous, Accountable, or Aspirational with their sustainability-oriented innovation efforts. Some implementation strategies may be more effective than others, depending on the specific culture, so we’ll unpack that a bit now.
These organizations are not your typical sustainability-minded types — maybe even to the opposite extreme. Their current sustainability efforts are mostly focused on eco-efficiency efforts such as a reduction of water and energy use, without careful consideration about their larger impacts in socio-ecological systems. It does little good to try to woo them with the elegance and enchantment of natural systems. They are too results-oriented to have much patience with inspiration. They also have difficulty implementing sustainability and innovation efforts that don’t quickly demonstrate some return on investment. The best way to engage with them is to emphasize the metrics for success with which they are most comfortable — financial return on investment.
For these cultures, resist the temptation to try to seduce them with a love of nature, even if you wish they could only see what you see. Just get to the nitty-gritty details of the science, the innovation process, the marketplace, and the potential market value of a biomimetic innovation. If they are open to it, a completely outsourced innovation process may help them to get out of their own way to produce something that is market-ready. They may have the resources to engage directly with other innovators and designers to co-develop or acquire intellectual property to take their bioinspired innovation efforts forward. At the end of the day, their focus is more on the marketplace than it is on social and ecological impact, so as an inspired changemaker, internal champion, or consultant, you have to carefully craft your messaging and approach to accomplish your goals and theirs simultaneously.
These organizations live and breathe sustainability and innovation. It’s who they are and how they will always be. They have a sense of responsibility about the impacts of their business and aim to be responsible corporate citizens on several levels. They self-identify as market leaders in sustainability and have large departments and budgets dedicated to monitoring, measuring, and reporting on their impacts and progress. Innovation for sustainability is deeply embedded in their culture. They also have substantial resources dedicated to new product development, with specific, rather linear project management processes. Some even have complex project management software that tell them exactly how much they are spending on innovation and what the return on that investment is down the road. However, the downside with this super sustainability performance is that it can make it difficult to imagine how it could be any different or more advanced. From their perspective, they are already leading the way.
A few things may help Accountable organizations to make progress with bioinspired innovation and I recommend a multi-path approach with these organizations. Like Ambiguous organizations, they too are motivated by metrics. But the metrics they care about are triple bottom line — economic, social, and environmental — so help them to develop a biomimicry agenda that will advance all of their metrics. Find ways to incorporate biological principles into their sustainability metrics to be accountable with nature as the standard. Additionally, they may also have the interest and resources to outsource new product development altogether as well. It may be worthwhile to seek or assemble a team who can manage the entire R&D process and deliver a finished product or intellectual property back to the organization.
Also, because they are so accustomed to clearly described and monitored outcomes, it’s important to focus on tangible wins that tell a clear story from biology to innovation. While some personalities don’t need to clearly see the process spelled out from start to finish, others benefit a great deal from this level of clarity.
And finally, given that they have a tightly managed innovation process in place that is accepted and expected across the organization, don’t ask them to change their process to accommodate a biomimicry approach. Find ways to make biomimicry fit into their process so that it can influence their culture for slow, incremental shifts that will persist through time. They may be searching for a clear, tangible product win as one strategy, but finding ways to influence their culture and institutions will have longer lasting results.
There is a “freedom to fail” that encourages risk taking and individual ownership in the innovation culture.
These organizations are a biomimic’s dream to work with and they are few and far between. Part of their sustainability narrative is to “be like nature” and they openly embrace new and innovative bioinspired approaches. They dedicate few resources to managing an innovation pipeline, instead striving to create a culture where innovation for sustainability is welcome and accepted. There is a “freedom to fail” that encourages risk taking and individual ownership in the innovation culture. They also rely heavily on external consultants to guide their bioinspired innovation process and outsource projects altogether when necessary. Like Accountable organizations, they track their sustainability efforts. However, contrary to Accountable organizations, where metrics define success and frequently guide the innovation process, metrics in Aspirational organizations are supportive of their innovation culture, rather than being a signpost for how innovation success should be measured. One Accountable organization, for instance, required that their designers use a checklist of sustainability criteria to guide their rather linear innovation process. To the contrary, one aspirational organization described how they create a culture that embraces failure and creates space for new innovations for sustainability to emerge. Aspirational organizations are very porous to customer feedback and also have a deep sense of responsibility in their engagement with society and socio-ecological systems. There are probably still a few skeptics in their midst who need a few sips of the biomimicry Kool-Aid to keep them motivated, but for the most part, they are already sold on the value of it.
While these organizations seem like a breeze to work with, they have a different set of challenges. They have likely addressed all of the low-hanging fruit and come up with many of their own solutions already. The key to bioinspired intervention with them will be to expand their ability to think systemically and view their role within ecological systems differently. While they will be patient with the very fuzzy front-end of innovation, they will also not be patient in perpetuity and will need to start seeing results within contractual arrangements.
Having already addressed most of the internal leverage points that they could, much of their biomimicry progress will be made by engaging with partners outside of the organization itself. They are looking to create broad changes in their supply chains and influence in their industries by engaging policy discussions with a diversity of stakeholders. As a changemaker, a major part of your role will be to help them identify who those multi-sectoral partners are and assemble the right team with the right approach to do something that pushes the boundaries of corporate sustainability. They also tend to work with NGOs in new ways that are well-beyond the typical philanthropic relationships of corporate entities. This is no easy task and requires immense creativity, expansive thinking, and careful consideration of the necessary players to move things forward.
As you can tell, there are many layers to the question “what factors influence the adoption of nature-inspired innovation in multinational companies?” In these last two posts, I’ve attempted to give you a glimpse into what four years of research revealed. Again, my research was conducted in the context of large companies (more than 1000 employees) that work in several countries and my suggestions are best applied to similar contexts. They may work elsewhere as well, but I haven’t tested them in small and medium-sized companies. I welcome an ongoing dialogue about this topic and would love to hear your experiences, trials, tribulations, and successes.
Coming from a career as a field biologist and environmental activist, biomimicry was a breath of fresh air in a world of regulation and political campaigning. I think many of us feel this way — that biomimicry is a way to say “yes” to new possibilities, rather than saying no to the socio-political forces that leave us feeling vulnerable, frustrated, and uncertain about the future. Perhaps the best part of a career in biomimicry is the quality of people I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with over the years from around the globe. You, my biomimicry tribe, are the most thoughtful, creative, inspired people I’ve ever met and I’m grateful to know how you’re changing the world.
Taryn Mead is a sustainability, innovation, and management scholar whose research focuses on the interface between corporate strategies and conceptualizations of nature. This includes subjects such as sustainability-oriented innovation, biomimicry, circular economy, the integration of planetary boundaries into corporate strategy, and the role of corporations in sustainable development. She also has expertise in creativity for sustainability among design and engineering professionals in interdisciplinary settings. Before pursuing her PhD in Management at the University of Exeter, Taryn worked as biologist, sustainability strategist, and certified biomimicry professional consulting with over 30 corporate, municipal, and non-profit. As a practitioner of nature inspired innovation, she has consulted on domestic and international projects ranging from new product design to industrial ecosystems to new cities for two million inhabitants. She has also served as the lead facilitator for numerous workshops with corporate clients and blossoming biomimics, and lectured for large audiences.