In its simplest form, biomimicry is a straightforward practice. It’s pausing before every creation, every decision, every design, and asking ourselves, “what would nature do here?” WWND? This phrase asks us to draw on the wisdom of nature before jumping to our preprogrammed, engineered default mechanisms. It opens us up to creativity and connection. The “here” adds an important nuance, reminding us that context is vital. We don’t want to cut and paste convenient, random pieces of nature’s guidance; we want to explore deep layers of wisdom within their appropriate context.
What nature would do is tangible; it is observable all around us. Perhaps that’s why a long walk can be the best remedy for writer’s block, or the best way to calm down after an anxious or angry encounter. Nature is sustainable; it is geared to optimize; it is inherently connected and regenerative. And because of all those things, it is aligned with the deepest human wisdom, whether from philosophers or spiritual leaders or indigenous communities. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that they are aligned with nature.
In its more complete application, biomimicry asks us to look to nature as model, mentor, and measure. As model, nature offers lessons from 3.8 billion years of sustainability. We can use these lessons to innovate our own products and processes to be more in alignment with life’s principles. As mentor, nature provides us with wisdom, not just raw materials. And as measure, nature offers clear tests for whether any endeavor meets standards of truly long-term, full-cycle, integrated sustainability. To these three, I would also add “muse,” as I have seen firsthand how much creativity can be unleashed by simply observing the wonders living all around us.
Biomimicry is also inherently a multilayered approach: the same framework can be applied to forms, processes, and entire systems. This makes it perfect for applying to a multidimensional area like investing, where one of our biggest challenges has been the development of tools and languages that are ultra-specific to small pieces of the field, without linking back to the whole.
Similarly, biomimicry is scale agnostic: it can be applied at micro, meso, macro, and meta levels. In my work I use biomimicry to look at individual companies, my own investment processes, investment products and tools, and the entire financial system. The contexts are specific and varied, but the principles are universal.
Here’s What Biomimicry Is Not
Biomimicry is not an overly romanticized view of the world and its functions. Nature is not just sunshine and puppies; it is also hurricanes and vipers, droughts and rats. We can learn from the darkness of nature as well as its light. Nature demonstrates systemic principles that are often different from the ones used in human-created systems, and natural systems also adjust to change and disruption differently (and usually better) than human-created systems. There are frequent, large disruptions and imbalances in nature, but throughout all of that, life strives to create conditions conducive to life. We can learn from these disruptions and adaptations as much as (and maybe even more than) from an ongoing healthy system.
Perhaps most important, biomimicry is not just copying nature, like the mechanical hummingbirds recently developed by DARPA. It is not pasting nature into nonnatural environments, like adding bamboo flooring to a high-rise in the desert. And it is not simply employing nature as if it were a subcontractor, taking bits and pieces that are useful to us, without regard for context, process, or system. Biomimicry focuses on embracing nature’s wisdom, not extracting nature’s stuff. This starting point is one of open inquiry and curiosity—asking “how” instead of “how much.”
Since biomimicry is scientifically rooted, it is tempting to jump right in with our linear minds, to begin analyzing its principles, implementing its practices, following its checklists straightaway. And yet to be most effective, there are three essential, qualitative points of orientation needed before we begin.
First, rearrange: nature is not separate from us—we are nature. This idea is obvious and yet sadly unfamiliar, because we are often conditioned to think of nature “over there.” Even some of our most ardent environmental movements are premised on the need to save the whales, or the rainforest, or the spotted owl, as if these elements are distant from ourselves, when in fact they are all part of our own larger, connected ecosystem. Sometimes the notion of human agency leads us to stay stuck in a disconnected state, thinking we are acting “for” or “against” instead of “with” our fellow creatures.
The second orientation point is the recognition of how investing and finance fit into our broader world. Especially for those of us engaged in investing professionally, the financial markets can sometimes take on a life of their own. They seem like primary drivers of our own lives, of the economy, and of our societies, when in reality, of course, finance is just one smallish subset of our total activity. Reframing investing as just a fragment of human endeavor, and reframing human endeavor as a fragment of our natural environment, is a necessary task—and a humbling one.
The third adjustment has been trickiest of all for me: refrain. For many years, like lots of us, I’ve been trained to be as quick and clever as possible, especially in professional settings. And when I am exposed to an exciting new idea, these tendencies are all the more heightened. I want to solve the puzzle, fast. I want to win. But for effective biomimicry practice, we need to quiet our cleverness. In order to learn from nature, we need to observe with an open mind-set, without actively seeking an answer right away.
This quiet-mindedness has similarities to “beginner’s mind” in meditation practices, where even experienced practitioners are encouraged to approach their practice with openness and equanimity. This same concept is present in some of our best investment practices, since any investor who hunts with too narrow a focus for opportunities is sure to miss out in two ways. First, she’ll miss anything that is outside of her narrowed-down scope of vision. And second, she will be tempted to force false conclusions from that small data set. Without some sense of the broader context, some sense of how the micro fits with the macro, a sound decision is impossible. This is not to imply that there is no need for focus, but to emphasize that that focus must be undertaken after gaining an understanding of the surrounding environment.
Perhaps this kind of indirect beginning sounds a little too patient—after all, our challenges are urgent! But it’s not so difficult or time consuming to get started. Here are the simple instructions:
Try to look—without searching.
Try to listen—without hunting.
Wait—just a little while.