Nature: The Ultimate Innovator

“He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration.” – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

As our world becomes increasingly complex with rates of change continuing to intensify, we business thinkers and doers turn to the tools of other disciplines – combining and utilizing them in order to bring about adaptation and innovation. Even business leaders living under the proverbial rock can no longer ignore the adoption of design methods and mindsets into the business mainstream. Specifically, the rationale behind using design practices, such as rapid prototyping, divergence followed by convergence, and strategic foresight are being touted as essential for adaption to an increasingly chaotic and evolving environment if one is to gain business success.

This continuing embracement of design into business did not arise purely out of goodwill. Archaic business thinking has been proven flawed time and again. Organizations with huge amounts of power, human capacity, and capability have stalled and stuttered as a result of their lack of ability to adapt, to innovate. The missed opportunity to embrace change, adaptation, and innovation is
 often cited as a primary factor in a concoction of error that has resulted in large systemic corporate failure. Think General Motors, Blockbuster, or Kodak. This point is made most notably in Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and its sequel, The Innovator’s Solution. Other notable authors, such as Roger Martin (The Design of Business), and Eric Ries (The Lean Startup), have acted as proponents to design principles within business practice to foster innovation as a path back to success.

For example, in The Lean Startup, which explores the power of iteration and rapid prototyping, the case in point is that Intuit – a software company that uses hundreds of tests to determine if a new product, design, platform, or experience will be successful with its users prior to a full launch – perfectly illustrates the use of design principles bettering business outcomes. Using rapid prototyping methods permits Intuit to avoid going all-in and risk losing a much larger bet. Instead, the company constantly tests and experiments, receiving feedback for continuous improvement and adaptation. It then incorporates this feedback in many generations of small improvements, rather than a total overhaul.

Intuit is far from being the only example
of a relatively common design principle – rapid prototyping, in this case – being applied within the business context. The appetite to apply design principles has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years, with a major shift in acceptance and interest coming in the past 10 years thanks to, among other factors, the aforementioned authors.

To say that contemporary business practice is rightfully being influenced by the design discipline is on the mark. However, if business is being influenced by design, then what is influencing design itself?

Without a doubt, design’s influences are widespread and incredibly diverse – an integral factor for design practice. However, throughout history, arguably one of the greatest influencers of design in function and form has been
the natural world. This is not by happenstance. Despite humanity’s attempt to control, manipulate, and engineer the natural world, we are very much a part of it, and it is very much a part of us.

Denis Dutton makes the point in his TED Talk, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,” that we are intrinsically attracted to the natural world as part of our evolutionarily programmed genetic constitution. We may perceive that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, when in fact, we all share common aspects of what we find beautiful, as evolution has passed on a bias towards beauty that will permit an increased probability of forwarding on our genetic code to the next generation.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that design – and for that matter engineering, science, and art – are all profoundly, and
often obviously, influenced by the natural world. Biomimicry, the use of biological systems
as models for the design and engineering of products and materials, is a well-known example. Game changing products such as Velcro (mimicking the hooked seed-spreading mechanism of burrs), Speedo’s Fastskin swimsuit (spawned by a shark skin’s micro-triangular scale shape, which reduces drag), or wind turbine design (inspired by the humpback whale’s fin bumps for efficiency in fluids), have been influenced by the natural world to promote value creation that we find aesthetic, ergonometric, functional, and
more efficient. Moreover, innumerable examples of widely varying characteristics have been influenced by nature. From the world renowned architecture of Antoni Gaudí or Frank Gehry, to painted masterpieces by Claude Monet or Vincent van Gogh, the influence of nature
is abound.

If many other disciplines are influenced by nature, perhaps it’s time for business practitioners to also actively seek inspiration from the natural world – and with the adoption of design into business practice, this would be the natural next step.

As design is deeply influenced by nature, and business is influenced by design, the espousal of design principles into business is leading to the inevitable coalescence of business having influence from natural systems. Despite often being established as two opposing poles on a spectrum, business and nature have more in common than we tend to think. Like the natural world, business in and of itself is made up of systems. Many acts of business include creating or repairing systems that deliver products or services in dynamic and changing circumstances.

There are endless examples of perfectly adapting, evolving systems just outside
the window. As with most prominent influences, this is already occurring in some forward thinking organizations. A notable example is the use of ant colony optimization algorithms. Specifically, Ruud Schoonderwoerd and
 his colleagues described how load balancing in telecommunication networks – a costly business problem for telecommunications providers – can be modeled after the trail-laying abilities of ants to create a more effective telecommunications network
with reduced lost calls.

More than just ants, the study of social animals – from bats and bees, to birds,
 and even humans – has led to the exploration of swarm intelligence. Their abilities to self- organize and display flexibility, adaptability, and robustness in large numbers has contributed to providing solutions to many real world business problems, similar to those faced by the telecommunications industry, including the famous traveling salesman problem.

Looking to the natural world more frequently for inspiration and solutions can offer great opportunities for the challenges that face us in both design and business. And why wouldn’t we? The natural world has had 3.5 billion years of rapid prototyping to adapt to almost every environment discovered.

If we look back to the Intuit example, one can closely analogize its many experiments and adaptations to that of the fundamental building blocks and process of life, as we know it:

DNA and evolution. Modifications in the genetic code of generations of offspring allow for adaptations that favor increased fitness and survivability in various environments. In turn, this increases the probability that the surviving organism’s DNA will be passed down to future generations, amplifying the number of offspring with favorable characteristics. Metaphorically, this is continuous trial and error, constant experimentation on a large, long-term scale that permits increasing adaption to an environment – and systems of adaptation are systems of innovation.

It seems that the natural world has already solved almost every problem imaginable –
or at least is constantly working on a solution. It would do us good to take more inspiration from the world around us as we may find a revelation to our most pressing challenges, and catalyze innovative new thinking. Because, more often than not, nature has a way – or
as Jeff Goldblum’s character notes in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

the author

Dustin Johnston-Jewell

Dustin Johnston-Jewell is an associate, design strategy at Coactuate.