In June this year I finally managed to join the Biomimicry 3.8 led immersion study week on biomimicry for social innovation. I had been wanting to do that specific course with Dayna Baumeister and Toby Herzlich for many years but had never been able to fit it in or afford it. It was an amazingly rich week of learning which left my head bursting with many different questions. The one I want to share here came towards the end of the week when we were looking at how we could apply what we had learned to our own work.
I am just in the middle of re-regionalising my work. After 5 years of studying all different kinds of global systems, I am convinced we need to find a new way to operate which is rooted in place — so local — but within the globalised context within which we find ourselves after many decades on the globalisation train.
I am considering the need to convene a wide ranging group of stakeholders in my home area in south east England around a bioregional approach to future resilience in the area.
Since I’ve mostly worked with global and national brands, I have been thinking about the right strategies to convene a group of people in an area in which I have not previously demonstrated convening or curation skills, and am wanting to engage with a wide group of stakeholders who don’t know me well.
But the question that obsessed me was the title of this chapter. Would nature do this? Would nature decide to ‘corral’ a group of people within the ecosystem and facilitate them working together for a resilient future? Was I working in a way that was true to what nature would do? And what kind of inspiration could I take from nature that would mean I was working in a way that would be most likely to guarantee success — especially given that I work in the part of the nature world that is with the human species.
So I sat with my pen and paper on a beautiful mountainside in north Slovenia with a view that couldn’t have been more inspirational (see pic ) and a whole host of animal helpers came out to support me. Suddenly I was surrounded by two beautiful golden horses, a vietnamese pot bellied pig, two curious goats and a supportive cat. The thinking team had arrived.
What curates in nature? What brings different species together for the benefit of all and how do they do it?
Through their metabolism and behaviour, organisms modify their environments, frequently changing the selection pressures to which they and other organisms are exposed. This process is known as “niche construction” (Odling-Smee FJ 1988), a term that refers to all of the impacts, positive and negative, that organisms have on their selective environments. For our purposes we can consider niche construction as almost the same a ecosystem engineering, although in pure biology terms the first is used by evolutionary biologists and the second by ecologists. I had to put that in there to stop the wrath and thunder from the biology community if I didn’t!
Ecosystem engineers are organisms that create, significantly modify, maintain or destroy (!) habitats. They can have a large impact on the species richness and landscape-level heterogeneity of an area. They are considered important for the health and stability of the environment they are living in. In some cases, physical modification of the environment by ecosystem engineers is relatively large compared to other physical processes operating in the ecosystem (e.g. dam building by beavers). However in most instances, ecosystem engineers are working at a more refined local scale. Humans are of course, one of the most notable examples of ecosystem engineers, although in our case, our impacts are often more negative than positive!
Those first rapid insights augured well for my thinking and my project. In biomimicry, you can look just for inspiration by considering nature, but if you really want to be working with life’s principles, you’re looking for multiple examples that show you a pattern. I wanted not just to identify a pattern but to extract if possible, a set of principles by which I could do this work which would supplement my natural human instincts and behaviour and modify some of my worst!
What do ecosystem engineers do?
Top predators like the arctic fox can provide fundamental ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, and their impact can be even greater in environments with low nutrients and productivity, such as the Arctic tundra on which they live. By concentrating nutrients on dens Arctic foxes enhance nutrient cycling as an ecosystem service and thus engineer Arctic ecosystems on local scales.
Coral reefs are a spectacular architectural example of an ecosystem engineer in action, and coral reefs hold some of the highest abundances of species in the world. The corals which form them are what we call ‘autogenic’ engineers — things which modify the environment by modifying themselves — creating the framework for the habitat most coral-reef organisms depend on. There are often also positive feedback loops between different ecosystem engineers. For example, parrotfish help to maintain healthy coral reefs by feeding on macro-algae that might otherwise compete with coral.
Beavers are prototypical ecosystem engineers because of the effects their dams have on channel flow, geomorphology and ecology. When a beaver builds a damp, the ecosystem around is changed because they cut down tracks of trees and shrubs, and dam up parts of a river altering the flow and sometimes direction of water and the nutrients water carries.
Kelp are also autogenic ecosystem engineers, by building the necessary structure for kelp forests.
Earthworms are also fantastic. They are one of our most useful ecosystem engineers because of how they influence soil formation, and its health and structure. They help to mineralise plant litter by breaking down organic matter and producing large amounts of faeces. They mix dead plant litter with mineral soil which is used by plants and other organisms as ‘food’, as well as aerating soil and helping to increase its water retention capacity.
Caterpillars create little hidey-holes from leaves that they snip and build into shelters. Often these shelters house other organisms either concurrently or afterwards. There are many birds who creates holes in trees which they use for the own purposes and are subsequently used by other birds, insects or mammals. Woodpeckers are a good example.
Trees are ecosystem engineers in that they provide shelter for many other living creates in their branches and through the shade they create for there ground-growing species. In the rainforest, llianas connect trees like a spaghetti junction highway which help many different species travel through the canopy.
Estuarine ecosystems rely on diatoms because they act as ecosystem engineers by binding sand to stabilize the environment.
Fungi were once the unsung heroes of nature but with our grater understanding of mycorrhizal fungi (the ‘roots’ of the fungi that we don’t tend to see), and their proven ability to help clean up oil-infested waste pools in places like the Ecuadorean rainforest, they’ve gone up in the estimation of more people than mushroom lovers and hobbits. Mycorrhizal networks can connect landscapes which are a long way from each other, and can redistribute nutrients and carbon across huge distances. They create nutrition for insects and other organisms, supply trees with nutrients translocated from dying plant and animal matter, and even form an underground communication network between trees.
Filter feeders like mussels, and plankton clean the water and alter the amount of light penetrating into the water. The light controls the depth at which photosynthesis can occur, which in turn influences how much food and warmth there is available for all the other sea creatures in the food chain. Mussels are also important because they aggregate into beds, which modify the sea floor.
Translating learning into human behaviour
So in summary, ecosystem engineers do these things:-
- enhance nutrient cycling
- add to the stable health and structure of the ecosystem
- modify the environment by modifying themselves
- modify the environment by changing flows and nutrient distribution
I’ve tried to distill those down into a set of simple principles for working on my bioregional projects:-
- Apply or introduce the principles of the circular economy wherever possible
- Support the development of a sustainable and stable economy which is adequately prepared to evolve when externalities bring change
- Be adaptable to the different needs of stakeholders and design adaptable programmes to suit the needs of all; meet them where they are whilst showcasing the art of the possible
- Help to channel resources where they need to go
If I assess any projects and ideas against those criteria, I feel I will be working alongside nature’s intent.
So here’s the simple question. Could I have come to that set of guidelines for myself without a deep dive into nature? The answer is yes, of course I could. They are after all, common sense aren’t they? And yet if you have been in the business world or ever tried to convene multiple stakeholder groups you’ll know how difficult that is, and how often common sense goes out of the window when competition creeps in. So I’m going to hold to those principles and see how I go.
In my next exploration I’m going to dig a little deeper and see if I can find any helpful hints from nature on how nature can help shape collaborative mindsets.
Further reading & research: