Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
You’ve done so many things related to sustainability in your life. Could you talk about things like how you found biomimicry and your work on sustainability at the scale of a small country (Wales)?
To set the context, my activism started with my grandparents and my dad, who were activists in healthcare. I grew up with stories about people wanting to make change in the system. I did my first public demonstration of first aid when I was 6 years old.
My world has been adventure and nature and education. Through adventure I got into organizational change, running experiential programs in nature. We got really good at asking really simple questions, mostly about relationships. We worked to undo the damage caused by fear and lack of confidence, and the negative impact that has on creativity.
Working with organizations across the UK and Europe, we saw that a only tiny percentage of people in the workforce are actively engaged in what they do — something like 15%. Work is clearly not working for most people, yet it could do. We knew that if we wanted to address big issues like climate change, we would have to help people find their voice, their contribution, their purpose.
I knew from experience that if you found ways to break down the barriers between the layers of an organization, and get people to talk to each other as humans, then you suddenly start having these amazing conversations.
I started testing these ideas with people. I started at Schumacher College, where I took a program run by Amory Lovins and Janine Benyus. Though the biomimicry part of the program was about product design, the relevance for me was that it answered all the questions that I had been working on with people over the past 10 years around organizational change. Nearly all of the reasons why organizations didn’t work were because people weren’t mimicking nature. They were trying to make changes in silos, which is like putting fences up in nature. Loads and loads of lights came on.
What are you working on now?
The biggest project I’m working on now is called Wales Transition Lab. The questions that we’re trying to ask is: When you’ve known so much for so long, how come so little has happened? And when we have acted, why has it made so little difference? The story that we tell is: Imagine that all of the many organizations trying to make change are little glass balls inside a massive glass sphere. This sphere is rolling down a hill at increasing speed toward a cliff. Everyone inside the sphere can see the cliff coming and don’t want to go over it, but try as though they might, they just can’t get their act together to move to the left or the right at the same time to nudge the sphere off its course. The challenge, then, is how to get all of these smaller organizations in a system to choose a change of course at the same time.
Where does Biomimicry come into play for you?
Biomimicry, to me, has become such an intuitive way of thinking and applying solutions that it is never not there. The Wales Transition Lab is trying to say, at some stage pretty soon, entire countries need to be noticed by others as getting their direction clear so they can move the system. Wales is a tiny country with a population of 3 million people, and we probably have the world’s best sustainability legislation at this time. We’re #3 in the world in domestic recycling. There is the political will, and everyone knows each other. So we’re asking what would happen if you tried to move an entire system by lifting off the bell jars that are currently separating the different parts of the system. Have people interact.
For example, we know there is a connection between people’s diets and their health. But the farming community has never had a strategic conversation with the healthcare community. Never. They’ve never heard each other’s stories. Creating the conditions conducive to life is about creating conditions of trust, authenticity, and truth that allow people to start to see a different kind of reality.
Organizations make decisions by asking questions of a magic mirror. This mirror was put up long ago to replace a window to the world. When they ask this magic mirror how they’re doing on sustainability, it always tells them the answer that they want to hear. We’re trying to pry the magic mirror off the wall and help them see the real world outside — where systems are falling apart. We want to bring people together in trust so they can tell the truth, and in doing so create an entirely different kind of business ecosystem. We want to capture wasted resources and optimize systems to achieve better outcomes with less — including farming and healthcare systems. Healthier food, healthier land, less packaging, more connection to nature, better health. Biomimicry is amazing to help see how these sorts of systems can work.
I used biomimicry to create a concept I call “R10”, or the “Real 10”. Imagine a graph with business performance on the y-axis, and focus of effort on the x-axis. The low end of the x-axis is a focus on rules and regulations, and the high end is a focus on reality — what really needs to get done. On this graph, government sits in the lower left corner because they focus on setting rules for doing less bad, and have limited scope to be ambitious. Business is in the upper left corner because they focus on making money, and they can abide by rules and still do tremendous damage. They only measure success against business metrics — the y-axis — and do not care about the real impacts they are having on nature and people. Activists sit in the lower right corner, where they focus on what is really going on, but are not in a position to generate enterprising solutions. R10 is in the upper righthand corner. This is where you’d land if you knew you couldn’t fail by accepting what was real and acting on what was really needed. This is where nature operates. This is where we need to operate.
TYF is an adventure and education business in St David’s (Wales). The broad goal is to help people fall in love with nature so deeply that it changes the way they live everyday. That means bringing a different way of experiencing nature to people — beyond just a great sea kayaking trip. We teach safety by looking at how seaweed and barnacles survive in the harsh rocky tidal environment.
Are you familiar with mission-based innovation?
Companies we work with are familiar with “mission-based innovation”, but we try to get them to look out the window at reality rather than looking in their magic mirror. We help them set goals that are ambitious enough. We start by helping them understand where they sit in the fitness landscape before they set their mission. The mission that many talk about doesn’t include nature.
When you’re working with senior level stakeholders in the private sector, have you tried to change the vocabulary associated with biomimicry because it would be more palatable?
I use stories from nature to illustrate points about leadership and business theories lots. I often talk to people about the way that reason aikido works — as well as permaculture and applied improv and biomimicry — is because they are all applying the principles of nature to humans, which are, of course, part of nature.We help people rediscover a set of principles that they know because we are designed to use them. It’s about appreciating what’s there and working with it. I quite often use improv exercises to demonstrate biomimicry principles because it’s easier for people to get it by experiencing it, rather than listening to it.
When you sense that a large business is coming to this from a standpoint of self-interest, what do you find are the most persuasive discussion points that they buy into completely?
It’s about the story they find that is inspirational enough to shake them out of their stupor, which is why R10 is so powerful. To get them there, I ask questions whose answers they can’t unknow. For example, I asked the health board: How many kids in this country should be food literate? Once you ask that question, they cannot un-answer it. It doesn’t go away. The only reasonable answer is, of course, all of them. This, then, becomes their mission. But they can’t do this on their own. It takes working with the system, different communities. Now their goal is to optimize the system for human health.
We are working with the Sustainability VP of a large food company and were talking about all the dramatic changes that are coming in this industry. We asked him, given the level and uncertainty of these changes, how many of the 100,000 people in your company should know about these things. The answer was 95%. This is like nature. All organisms are aware of what’s going on and share information. Then we asked, how many people in your organization are currently aware? The answer was, about 5. So we help people gently look at things differently, from a new point of reference, and then make sense of that.
Again, referring to patterns in nature, and the window vs the mirror, we ask if they think it is more safe to respond to the patterns and the reality that is there, or the ones you wish were there. Most people that are responding to risks are not responding to the real ones – they are responding to the ones that are easier to deal with.
We ask people, from a personal standpoint, do you think it is smarter to deal with the real issues or what you wish were the issues? And we let them sit with that. You don’t need to know that answers right off, but with this perspective, you can start noticing the patterns and asking better questions.
I try not to sell the benefits of doing this work, because no one has really figured out what that is yet.
Do you ever get push-back with what you’re sharing? That the reality you’re referencing is not reality, in particular in degree of severity or timelines?
Ten years ago, there were a lot more people pushing back. Now it’s much easier. I just have to rub a bit of dirt off of the window and tell them what I see. Then I ask them to tell me what they see. There are such good data now that it is hard to avoid.
I do tell them that they don’t need to know all the answers right now. Just get a question clear. I make a point of telling them that I don’t know what the answers are or what to do about this. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong question to ask. Most people can get to the question quite easily if they aren’t put on the spot.
How do you gain legitimacy if the measurements are different for every industry?
The entire business model needs to change. For example, there are 5.6 million people in the UK who are taking medication for asthma, which is caused by pollution. Asthma is an expression — an externality — of a poorly designed economy. We use inhalers to treat asthma, but a single inhaler has the same climate impact as a 200-mile car trip. A single squirt is equivalent to a mile of car travel. With the numbers of asthma sufferers in the UK, there is the equivalent of about 10 billion miles of driving — which causes the kind of pollution that causes asthma. Solving the whole system is mission-based innovation.
The inhalers in Sweden emit 1/70th of that, but the companies and governments in the UK aren’t looking there. So we work to find the current boundaries of what is possible, with existing technologies, and make them available to people at the community level. Finding practical solutions that are working elsewhere legitimizes the quest for doing more.
Are you hopeful?
Knowing that the farmers and the healthcare providers aren’t talking to each other yet gives me hope. The possible benefits of that kind of strategic conversation give me hope.
How do you get the many disparate players in a system together to have conversations?
Risk management outdoors is about recognizing patterns and responding to change. Risk managers in corporations and governments are designated to keep people from asking questions and making change. They are designed to maintain operational stability and have no relationship at all with the external environment. Almost no CEOs in major corporations have significant climate experience, but the people that hired them clearly did not see that as a risk to the business. So they have no one at the top that sees what’s coming, or understands the risk of what’s coming.
One of the things that I find really useful is to realize that people go into fight-or-flight mode if you ask questions that are existential and scary. Being playful is such an important way to do this. I always tell people that I have no idea how to solve this, but wouldn’t it be cool to play with it? You take away the need for answers and just ask questions. You can start off with asking the wrong questions — like what would you do to make it worse? Without being playful, you get fear and system shutdown, which is the worst place for creativity. This is why fear is such an effective organizational control mechanism. You want to create a space where people can think, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if…”
One of my greatest assets in trying to nudge people down the change journey is having interesting stories to tell to respond anytime people say something can’t be done. I don’t say that it can be done, but that someone else has done it. [HISBY store example]
What advice would you like to leave us with?
Fearlessly and playfully go out in nature and ask questions. Imagine what you would do if you couldn’t fail. Go make great things happen.
Thank you Andy!