Natural Systems to Design your Business

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by Groundswell Social Ventures cohort member, Silvia Di Blasio


What does Mother Nature have to do with business?

Not only you can get inspired and re-energized after a walk in the woods…if you pay careful attention, you’ll see that all what we need is already there!

Let’s take a look: forest, meadows, ponds…nobody waters, feeds or weeds these ecosystems, yet they usually thrive. They don’t produce waste and every single element (alive or otherwise) has an important role to play. As John Muir’s quote says: “"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

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How does this apply to entrepreneurs, you may now be thinking…?

Let’s start with some permaculture principles. But first, let me introduce you to permaculture, or natural systems design: permaculture was created by two visionary Australians who studied how indigenous cultures and nature “behaved”. They discovered a few overarching principles that apply to any system: ecological or social. In the 40+ years since, permaculture has expanded and blended with other sciences and practices and has explored many areas, including spiritual (through spiritual ecology and ecopsychology), social and economic (through alternative ways to live in community and exchange goods and services) as well as the co-emerging concepts of individual and community resilience.

There are 12 - 50+ “permaculture principles” depending to who you ask. They share, however, an underlying commonality. I’ll explore here the ones that may serve you most when you are designing, planning, implementing or assessing your entrepreneurial idea.

Observe & Interact

The first of these principles is “Observe & Interact”: if you plan to create a food garden, you’ll probably fail if you just show up with a shovel and start digging your way around and imposing your “vision” to the landscape. Instead, you would want to know what’s already in the land, who uses it and how, what type of soil is present, how much sun it receives, water sources and so on. Similarly, you’ll want to know the history of that land and the expectations and needs not only of those who own it, but those who may be impacted by the use, including the non-human beings. Not only you would take the time to observe and test, you probably would chat with the owners and neighbours.

A business is no different: before you bring your idea, you want to know what’s already there and what are the needs and dreams of those you want to serve. As in a garden design, you’ll want to know what’s available and how the current “landscape” and its elements solves the problems or inspires the dreams you want to solve or inspire…

Start Slow and Small

Another principle is “start slow and small” (like seeds and embryos): better to start with a prototype and see what happens; this allows you to “test the waters” and adjust on the way. It also requires less investment and any potential loss would also be small.

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Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

One of my favorites is “apply self-regulation and accept feedback”: nowhere else is this more important than in business (granted, probably more important in relationships!), but if you don’t learn to self-regulate and accept feedback, you may continue doing what you were doing, obtaining the same results again and again… In nature, we can see that elements of any given system respond adjusting, changing or even creating what we may perceive as “disasters” but that are natural ways to re-distribute resources or recover the balance in a stressed system.

Feed What You Want to Grow

“Feed what you want to grow” is an excellent principle that not only allows us to focus energies and resources for a business idea, but makes us think about how we use our own time, energy and resources. How many times do we “feed” things we would like to see less of or even absent from our lives?

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Other principles include: “obtain a yield” (self-explanatory, however a “yield” may include much more than “profits” and may mean also connections, transformation, awareness, beauty, joy, justice, etc.); “use and value diversity”, “design from pattern to details”, “produce no waste”, “catch and store energy”, “creatively use and respond to change”, “each element serves many functions”, cooperation, no competition” and “each important function is supported by multiple elements”, among others.

The Problem is the Solution

But probably the winner is “In the problem is the solution”. Too many deer means a predator is missing to keep the population in check; floods mean vegetation has been cut or misused so now there’s nothing to retain the water…  You got it: when thinking on a new social business idea, or a new product or service, don’t think solutions: first check for the problem, as every problem has its own solution (or multiple solutions) at its core. It is through careful and humble observation of these “problems” that we discover the connection and the opportunity to serve a community.

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Permaculture (and its many variations) present us a natural and holistic way to dream, design, plan, implement and assess any system or process: from life, career or social business design to projects, groups and relationships. Flexible, adaptable and nature-based, it flows through its main ethics: Caring for the Earth, Caring for the People and Return of surplus to Earth and people (also called “Fair Share”): a perfect tool for social business design!

Silvia Di Blasio is a certified career and life coach and consultant, food sovereignty and community resilience activist. Silvia uses permaculture and ecopsychology approaches to life, livelihood, business and community resilience design, she also teaches food sovereignty/slow food workshops to groups and communities.