Mar21

Food by local farmers. Distribution system by ants.

Local-Farmers

Driving down U.S. 20 toward Cleveland, Cullen Naumoff knew something had to change.

Naumoff, director of sustainable enterprise for the Oberlin Project in Oberlin, Ohio, had recently launched a food hub with colleague Heather Adelman. Food hubs bring together what small farmers produce into quantities needed by big buyers like schools, restaurants and supermarkets. The problem? The Oberlin Food Hub was so successful that demand was outstripping the ability of participating farmers to meet it. Naumoff turned to other regional food hubs — and soon found herself driving all around the region to pick up and deliver lone bushels of produce — encumbering the expenses of big food companies without benefiting from the economies of scale they enjoy.

“All we had done with the food hub was shrink their model,” she says, “so local produce would never be able to compete.”

Then Naumoff met Ohio State University entomologist Casey Hoy at a food conference. She told Hoy of her frustration trying to incorporate a higher level of complexity into her food hub enterprise.

“Insects are so diverse they have probably already solved it,” Hoy responded. He then shared what he had learned from ants about efficient transportation.

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Ant colony optimization is an approach to applying ant behavior to solving engineering and operations problems. Different ant species, Hoy said, use different kinds of networks of nests and paths in between them to optimize food transportation. In the process, they create a library of strategies humans can tap to solve our own food transportation challenges.

Mexican ants, for example, use a hub-and-spoke model like big food distributors, with a central nest and ants that make trips fanning to and from the center as they search for food. Argentinian ants, rather than using permanent nests, are constantly on the move, splitting and joining in new groups and nesting temporarily as they go. Malaysian leaf-cutter ants create central nests, but the ants are different sizes and carry different loads to match — with small ants, for example, carrying small leaf-cuttings and larger ants carrying bigger ones.

Hoy’s insights provided Naumoff with new ideas for meeting her food transportation challenge. She began moving her food transportation strategy from the Mexican ant model toward the Argentinian ant model Hoy described.

The resulting network, called Farm Fare, uses information technology to display food available from participating food hubs online. The various hubs can use this information to purchase needed foods in bulk and locally from the region. For example, if a buyer needs more red carrots than its own hub can provide, it can see — and purchase — red carrots available from other hubs in the network.

Naumoff is now exploring a new model inspired by the Malaysian ants’ approach. Her thought is to offer local truck fleet owners the opportunity to take on food hub orders when returning empty from other jobs. Essentially, the various truck drivers would be the equivalent of different-size ants transporting different-size loads among hubs.

“It is a win-win-win,” Naumoff says. “Good for the local fleet owners who make extra money on a run they have to do anyway, good for local food that does not have to make multiple trips to finish an order, and good for the environment because trucks are always full and traveling short distances so emission levels are lower than conventional agricultural systems.”

“I am using the economies of cooperation to compete with the economies of scale.” – Cullen Naumoff

Adopting the ant-inspired distribution strategy has helped Naumoff move closer to her goal of paying small farmers a reliable living wage and meeting the food needs of wholesale customers while competing with the large food distributers. “I am using the economies of cooperation to compete with the economies of scale,” she says.

Naumoff and others working to create more sustainable food systems face many other challenges, such as degraded soil, loss of food knowledge, poor nutrition, poverty, obesity, hunger and food access, just to name a few.

As Naumoff looks with satisfaction on the food system distribution solutions ants have inspired, one can’t help but wonder: What other problems does society have that nature has already solved? View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: Liv Scott produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Sarah Gilman.

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May22

Top 5 reasons why you should be at SXSW Eco this October!

EcoLightGarden-AaronRogosin-Bigtop

The Biomimicry Institute, Biomimicry 3.8, and members of the Biomimicry Global Network are joining forces with SXSW Eco to curate a brand-new conference track, focused on nature-inspired ideas, designs and technologies.

Nature, Innovation, and the Future of Design, will explore the intercepts of science, technology and design that are inspired, mentored, and measured by the standards of our natural world.

Playtime at SXSW Eco Light Garden, 2014

If you are in the social innovation and regenerative design space, then this track is where you will meet other social innovators, entrepreneurs and cutting edge leaders thinking about how we can re-align our companies, cities, products, policies and business practices with those of the natural world.

“Creating that marketplace for exchange of ideas and progressive thinking is what South by Southwest Eco is all about.”
Forbes

Here are the top 5 reasons why you should be at SXSW Eco this year:

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Mar13

Biomimicry in Your Pajamas! 7 Free Webinars for Social Innovators

Food Challenge webinars

The Biomimicry Institute is offering a series of 7 webinars, free and open to the public, focusing on how to apply biomimicry and nature’s regenerative patterns to solve global food system challenges.

The webinars are being offered as support for social innovators, entrepreneurs and those passionate about changing the world, who are participating in the annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, a competition sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation which will award $100,000 to the Challenge winners through their “Ray of Hope” prize.

March 17 and 18 webinar_Johnson

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Dec04

Is Nature the Coolest #Startup in the World?

Girl and Mountains

In Silicon Valley, where startups are born just as quickly as they perish, the predominant saying is, “Innovate or Die.” In the natural world, that saying holds true in an even more literal sense, and applies to not only entire species, but the ecosystems of which they are an integral part.

From a systems perspective, mother nature is a design expert and stellar model of ubiquitous innovation.

Unlike Silicon Valley, the “enterprises” that comprise nature’s business of “creating conditions conducive to life” are billions of years old, with standard operating procedures and innovation strategies connected to the very beginning of life on the planet. A quick Google search for “the world’s oldest companies” will tell you that ConEd was born in 1823, Lloyd’s insurance in 1688 and Kongo Gumi construction in 578. There is no decimal missing there, it was actually founded in 578.

Nature’s “valuation” is priceless and shareholder return, infinite.

Nature is an entrepreneurial system that has been conducting research and development not for tens, hundreds or even thousands, but billions of years. From a systems perspective, mother nature is a design expert and stellar model of ubiquitous innovation.

Photo Credit: Chris Moore

“Nature can’t put its factory on the outskirts of town. It has to work where it lives.” Janine Benyus

Our natural world is not only the guru of green design, but a startup whiz who’s had billions of years to perfect her craft. And not only does she make cool “apps” like spring and summer, but she does so in tandem with all other species so that her “valuation” is priceless and shareholder return, infinite.

Take a closer look at the way in which the natural world makes and does things, and you may find the equation for sustainable innovation. If business were to look at the natural world “as our mentor, rather than a warehouse of goods” as Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 has stated, they may be able to find the secrets to long term success.

“Life creates conditions conducive to life”.

Studying these principles of good, regenerative design is a science and movement called biomimicry. Some also consider it an art form, in which nature’s sustainability strategies and principles are applied to man-made challenges. This goes beyond “net zero” impact. Nature never strives for zero. Not only is it boring, but it makes no sense. In order to create conditions that are optimal for life on the planet, you must constantly innovate, because life is always changing. If it didn’t, well, then life would be dead.

Janine Benyus, the biologist and philosopher, with Dr. Dayna Baumeister distilled our natural world’s best practices into a set of standards called “Life’s Principles” urges us to remember that “life creates conditions conducive to life.” It is not a “goal”, but rather a universal charge. Every single product (flora and fauna) and service (carbon cycle, water cycle, biomes and ecosystems) creates value, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This underlying framework keeps everything working together, in balance, in sync and in harmony, at an optimal level. The application of “Life’s Principles” to global challenges is an emerging science, philosophy, discipline and art. Rather than ask, what can we take from the natural world, biomimicry encourages us to ask, “What can we learn?”

And not only is biomimicry on the rise, but the principles by which nature operates are popping up in man-made innovations in our universal quest to do “more good” and not just “less bad”. This focus beyond “sustain”ability has organically evolved into regenerative design – something our planet has been doing for billions of years.

Nature’s strategies are echoed in the relatively recent development of the sharing economy, the circular economy, social enterprise, big data applications, “smart” products, resilient cities, and so on. It’s all trending towards “regenerative”.

When you look outside today, you see what has survived. These innovations are built to last. And they do so by giving back to the (eco)systems of which they are an integral part.

Nature’s wisdom, as the world’s longest standing “startup social enterprise” is the most powerful natural resource we have yet to explore.