Why We Need to Reinvent the Nature of Innovation

12 November 2020 - // Opinions
Leen Gorissen
Innovation Biologist

As humans, we created and achieved incredible things. We colonized every piece of land and mobilized every bit of resource for human expansion. We overcame the harshest conditions, from mining the deep sea to flying into space, but our progress came with serious side effects such as resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation to name a few. That is because most of our innovations start from a degenerative value logic.

To make stuff, we extract resources from nature, use massive amounts of energy to heat, beat and treat those resources into materials, which we use to make products that, pretty soon, end up as waste. Innovation-as-usual therefore extracts value from nature and generates waste. It is a degenerative value system. Not only are our manufacturing processes highly inefficient, Cambridge University estimates that our entire industrial system operates at only 10% efficiency, they also severely degrade our life-support-system. So much that we are now facing collapse of entire ecosystems and complete meltdown of the climate conditions that allowed humans to evolve and flourish in the first place.

When did innovation become the synonym for degradation?

And while 20.000 scientists are sounding the alarm bell – again – (World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: a second notice, see Ripple et al, 2017), business-as-usual prevails. When did innovation become the synonym for degradation? And why do we even invest in science if we decide to ignore our most brilliant brains? As a biologist, I have difficulty catching sleep at night because more than others, biologists are aware how interdependent our life is with the rest of life. More and more, we are learning that the fundamental unit of nature is not the self, but the network. Individuality is nothing more than the temporary manifestation of relationship. The self, in itself, is in fact a society (after Haskell, 2017). Everything is connected to everything. And “the smaller parts of the system gain meaning through their beneficial contribution to the proximate whole they inhabit” (Mang & Haggard, 2016). Think of it like this: a heart cell contributes to the functioning of the heart, which contributes to the functioning of the body which contributes to the functioning of a family, etc. The heart cell on his own needs the higher order systems it is nested in to be healthy for it to function properly and it needs to add value to those higher systems for them to remain healthy. Just like the heart cells, we humans need to add value to the larger systems we are embedded in, our communities, our environment, our planet.

In nature, those that resist evolution go extinct

The scientists’ warning to society should shake you awake too, because it is not only your livelihood that is at stake. It is the future. Yours, your children’s and your children’s children. Quality of life will be the first to go when our ecosystems stop generating conditions conducive to life. And no money in the world will be able to reinstall the networked communities that keep us alive. Because your body is a community of human and non-human cells too (Sender et al, 2016). And your health is directly linked to the health of the environment you are embedded in (Prescott & Logan, 2017). In other words, your inner and outer nature are connected. As a biologist, there is one thing I know for certain, if we cannot evolve ourselves, our businesses and institutions, we will become fossils, just like the dinosaurs.

Just like the heart cells, we humans need to add value to the larger systems we are embedded in, our communities, our environment, our planet.

Shifting from degenerative to regenerative value creation, inspired by nature

Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for 3.8 billion years and is constantly perfecting approaches for survival & resilience. But nature’s selection environment is extremely tough. It is estimated that over the history of the Earth, 99.9% of all nature’s innovations went extinct (Medina, 2008). Biologists are now uncovering the keys to success of the 0.1% that withstood generations of change and disruption. And the clue is regenerative value creation: creating conditions beneficial to life. The opposite of what we do now. It is about adding more value than we extract. Many organisms, tiny to massive, have figured out how to continuously upgrade their environment and thrive as a result. There is no reason, we cannot do this too (Woolley-Barker, 2017). But it will require us to reinvent the way we innovate and look to nature as a mentor, model and measure (Biomimicry3.8).

Conservatory Ecosystem by Bhargava Marripati from Pixabay

Innovation that leads to degradation is fast forwarding humans to the extinction pool because it tips the balance towards the 99.9%. But if we can put our big brains and disruptive technologies to good use, we might flip the odds. Like Peter Hinssen’s reference to Dickens “It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times”, living today is both exciting and terrifying. Even though there is no way of knowing how it will all play out, I prefer to work on the solutions. And I know, nature has the answers to our biggest challenges. Organisms that have been around for millions of years, withstanding aeons of change and disruption, hold the keys to thrive in a VUCA world. They have learnt to deal with change, uncertainty, emergence, disruption and complexity. Because they leverage the power of the network while harnessing their capacity for evolution. And because they add value to their environment, creating more life with life.

Mushrooms make it rain, termites turn deserts into oases, whales regulate the climate. In nature, regenerative value creation is the key to evolutionary success. Like Jay Harman, CEO of Pax Scientific says: “If you are not sustainable, you are terminal”. Once you understand how life works, you will see that sustainability is the by-product of regenerative value creation (see Mang & Haggard, 2016). So, let’s reinvent the way we innovate. Let’s use nature’s giant library of solutions to upgrade the way we make things and the way we organize ourselves and our value systems. Let’s do well by doing good.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not (necessarily) reflect REVOLVE's editorial stance.
Leen Gorissen
Innovation Biologist

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