I went hiking on segment of the Pacific Coast Trial with a friend, junior architect Lyndon Manuel, a few months back, and while taking in the beautiful scenery we began exploring commonalities between our fields of engagement. In the midst of discussing design thinking and workplace culture he shared with me an intriguing practice and philosophy he had been exploring for nearly a year. It’s called biomimicry and if its name alone doesn’t entice you, perhaps its definition will.
“Biomimicry” Lyndon shared, “is a way of emulation and learning from nature's tried and true methods of design. It can be seen as a constantly evolving learning process as innovations in design, sustainability, and thinking shift from a top-down approach to a more collaborative, bottom-up system”. Have you ever noticed how cyclists in the Tour de France ride in a V-pattern? The formation, which greatly reduces wind resistance, mimics the flight patterns of migratory geese. How about our freeway systems world-wide? Several lanes traveling in the same direction and at a constant rate, give heavy traffic permission to develop a collective and efficient flow. This system mimics the natural patterns of streams and rivers; in fact, if the two were viewed from an aerial vantage point, they would imitate one another.
Another modern example of biomimicry can be witnessed in Japan in the iterations of their bullet train. In the first years after its development, residents who lived near rail tunnels complained because of the sonic boom created when emerging from the tunnels. The designer assigned to the task of eliminating the sonic boom turned to nature for answers, and while observing how a bird, the Kingfisher, passes through air to water he found one. The newly designed nose of the train mimics the beak of the Kingfisher and the sonic boom was reduced to a muffled roar, while gaining greater energy efficiency. These examples of problem solving with Biomimicry appear as ingenious as they do simple. We turn to nature, and natural systems, so rarely for answers, and yet its applications and influence on human systems and organizational culture continues to surface.
As I learned more, I began to wonder how biomimicry might play a role in our workplaces as we organize ourselves around our work, around others, and in our relation to society. Immediately, the path of least resistance came to mind, which in physics is described as the path always taken by an object moving from one system to another. Water trickling down a mountain side; climbers hiking up the mountain side; each will take the same path only in opposite directions—the path of least resistance.
Perhaps, in applying what we know about ant colonies to workplace culture we can develop enhanced ideas about teamwork. And, maybe there is something we can borrow from the awe-inspiring murmuration flight patterns of birds that we can apply to our communication patterns. We live in a vastly dynamic world filled with beautifully designed natural systems and behaviors, and for us to learn from them—to influence our way of being by their way of being—all we would need to do is turn our heads, take notice, and begin asking different questions.
Joseph Alonzo holds a Master’s in Organizational Development from Saybrook University, and is an education and innovation consultant in the San Francisco, Bay Area. Joseph is a guest blogger for Great Place to Work®.