Biomimicry & System Design

Networks as a survival strategy

We live in a time of exponential change and socio-technical transformation. The rate of digitalization and connectivity is increasing at a rapid pace. This growing complexity and the global consequences of our actions are among the greatest current challenges. So now - more than ever - we urgently need new approaches and forms of organization as linear thinking patterns and hierarchies are increasingly ill-suited to address complex problems. 

From Organization to Organism

As a result of the Enlightenment and industrialization, the past two centuries have placed a strong emphasis on the scientific-analytical approach. This focus on analytics created deep specializations: the world was divided into scientific disciplines and mechanistic organization models with clearly defined lines, power structures and hierarchies dominated. Combined with the industrial revolution and mass production, a culture of fragmentary thinking and assembly-line mentality became the norm.

However, our brains are capable of far more. The evolutionary part of our brain, the limbic system, is responsible for unconscious, intuitive actions and for empathy, trust and decision-making. Thus, it is important to combine analytics with creativity and rationality with intuitive thinking, and leave behind the silo mentality. The challenges we face call for integrated and systemic thinking, which starts with linking two seemingly unrelated topics. Discovering, experiencing and learning are increasingly more valuable than knowing and measuring.

   A robotic hand shaking hands with a branch    A robotic hand shaking hands with a branch

Dr. Arndt Pechstein

"The times of silo-thinking are over. Organizations will change. We all will change. Only through collaborative and creative working methods, networks as well as systemic approaches will we be able to master the exponentially increasing complexity. A very exciting time of transformation has just started. A new era of human thinking and working."

Networks, self-organization and collaboration are starting to replace line hierarchy, control systems and competition. Yet how do we create self-organizing networks (teams of teams) in which there are efficient feedback mechanisms and information is exchanged transparently?

Nature as a role model

Biomimicry, a new approach to innovation, deals with exactly these types of questions and is revolutionizing the economy across different sectors. What is unique about this problem-solving method is that it analyzes and abstracts functional principles of nature and applies them to economic and socio-cultural questions. The underlying principle of biomimicry is that over a period of 3.8 billion years, evolution has created organisms and biological systems with brilliant adjustment mechanisms that are superior to our inventions and solutions. So whether a problem occurs in architecture, mobility, energy generation, packaging or organizational structures, nature can provide many of the answers. More specifically, biomimicry uses the full range of biological systems - from microscopic cells to complex behavior of whole ecosystems - as models and derives design criteria, which open up new and unexpected opportunities to find solutions. In essence, biomimicry consolidates millennia of evolution into one creative, open-ended innovation process.

   Portrait of Dr. Arndt Pechstein    Portrait of Dr. Arndt Pechstein

The term biomimicry originates from the Greek words bios (life) and mimesis (imitate). In fact, the term of biomimicry is not new. Its roots date back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci studied various organisms in order to develop new technologies, such as flying machines inspired by birds. Biomimicry, however, goes a step further because it does not only focus on individual bionic-technical solutions, but rather seeks to create comprehensive modern systems. When applied to leadership, for instance, new leadership approaches, such as shared leadership, self-organization and intrinsic incentive models can achieve unexpected organic growth.

Also, when applied to an institutional context, the collective intelligence of networks, as found in swarm-forming insects, has enormous transformative potential for organizations, businesses and societies. Whereas the past century focused on the individual, now there is a focus on heterogenic teams. As Aristotle famously wrote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What has held true for biological systems for billions of years holds true for us as well. 

Curiosity, critical questioning, creativity and transparency of information are triumphing as never before. Self-organization, feedback mechanisms, iteration and resilience are fundamental principles and success strategies of biological systems. The goal of such systems is to bring together individuals in order to strengthen their performances, abilities and knowledge, and prevent the formation of functional silos. Fixed structures become organic, adaptable organisms capable of mastering complex circumstances and meeting future challenges.

This type of biologization of organizations - and in fact our entire world - is a further systematic development of human evolution (which has reached a new level in the digitalization age). This development builds on the increasing linkages within the digital field and increasingly causes the democratization of processes and the dissolution of system boundaries – boundaries that were never really there to begin with and only existed in our minds.

About the author:
Dr. Arndt Pechstein is a consultant, design thinking coach and neuroscientist. As the founder of the innovation firm phi360 and director of the Biomimicry Germany Think Tank, he supports companies and organizations through transformation processes.

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