Apr06

Want to build an organization that lasts? Create a superorganism.

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By Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD

For the past 25 years, I’ve studied everything from baboon cooperation in Ethiopia and orca whale innovation in the Bering Sea, to the Argentine ant invasion in my kitchen, and my colleagues at work (not nearly as interesting!), all through an evolutionary lens.

Today, I use that lens to help companies evolve.

I’m a Biomimicry Professional, and a Biologist at the Design Table, and the teams I work with develop biologically-inspired solutions for a Global 500 clientele. We search for the technologies that make life—and business—go.

As an evolutionary biologist, a businessperson, and a biomimic, I’m always looking for the deep patterns in life, trying to find out what lasts. And here’s one thing I know is true:
Organizations can’t keep growing the way we structure them today.

It’s simple math. Like dinosaurs, organizations keep getting bigger, but they need huge bones to support the weight of all that complexity. The more weight, the more bones; the more bones, the more weight. It’s a catch-22. Management is the ponderous skeleton that keeps organizations from collapse. But as they grow, the costs of management rise, and the ability to adapt declines. When sudden change comes, there’s not much a company can do—it’s a sitting duck (or dinosaur) for the next cosmic collision. Hierarchies can only scale so much—we can’t grow bigger bones forever.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies. In fact, nature uses them all the time—to stop change from happening. Scientists tell us that cells go rogue in our bodies every day, but a hierarchical system usually stops those cancers from growing. Hierarchies are important and useful. But they aren’t the right structures for adapting to change, and they inherently limit growth.

Change is coming—with shifting supply chains and customer needs, upstart competitors and technologies, resource scarcity and volatile prices, change is sudden, unexpected, and potentially calamitous. Multinationals span many divisions and fractured market segments, their teams cross cultures, languages, time zones, and governments. All of it held together by management. Between technological advances and social revolutions, climate change and peak everything, companies inhabit an unpredictable world of their own making. They are bound to topple and fall.

Meanwhile, they have a mandate to maximize shareholder return. Companies that are beholden to this short-sighted maxim require infinite growth. What happens when they hit the limit? Something has to give.

As an evolutionary biologist, I find myself asking—who inherited the Earth in the dinosaurs’ place?

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Oct10

Urban mobility reloaded: Planning our future cities

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By Dr. Arndt Pechstein

Our cities are constantly growing and an ever-rising number of people live on a very small fraction of the world’s surface area. By 2050, about 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. Half of the population of Asia alone is predicted to live in cities by 2020. Over 60% of the land projected to become urban by 2030 remains yet to be built. Mobility no longer remains an optional luxury for an elite but has transformed into a non-negotiable to participate in society. Consequently, smart mobility solutions are gaining importance. How do we tackle such a challenge of global dimension? How do we serve people’s needs for mobility while simultaneously sacrificing neither biodiversity and environmental values nor human health and well-being?

The light bulb was not invented by improving the candle.”

Urban mobility Dr. Arndt Pechstein

Reinventing the wheel

Despite our pride of having invented the wheel (which is, by the way, not entirely true given that the golden wheel spider has been using wheel motion for millions of years before us) humans are not the only species tackling mobility challenges. In fact, mobility is an inherent phenomenon shared by all living systems. Everything alive moves, from cells to organisms to entire ecosystems. Over billions of years, organisms and systems have evolved to be remarkably adaptive to their surroundings with regard to transport, mobility, and logistics.

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