What can workplace design learn from nature?

Sensemaking / What can workplace design learn from nature?

Anna Simpson relays insights from two world-renowned authors, Paul Hawken and Janine Benyus, speaking at the National University of Singapore

By Anna Simpson / 10 Mar 2016

This article is part 2 of 3 in "Rewilding the workplace" - our Futures Centre discussion topic of the month. Read the crowdsourced insights gathered from part 1, and continue the discussion with part 3 with the full analysis. 

On 8 March, two authors whom business leaders thank for radically changing the way they think about the environment (and some have actually changed the purpose of their business in response), came to talk to forward-thinking architects and engineers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The Futures Centre team was there, listening closely for their insights into what ‘rewilding the workplace’ actually means, and I joined a panel discussion with them, sharing the questions and examples you’ve raised.

Paul Hawken wrote The Ecology of Commerce, arguing that business can and must play a restorative role in ecology — and crucially showing how. Reading this prompted the late CEO of the global carpet manufacturers Interface to change his whole business strategy to one heavily focused on recycling and renewable resources, aiming for zero environmental impact. Janine Benyus is a biologist who pioneered biomimicry as a source of sustainable design solutions, and founded the consultancy Biomimicry 3.8.

Combine their visions today, and you have a world in which greenhouse gas emissions have peaked and are in decline thanks to the rapid scaling of design solutions that provide ecological benefits, rather than drawing on resources.

Imagine a city which is not sucking life from the surrounding landscape, but rather replenishing it! It is “tasked”, in Benyus’ words, with “ecological jobs”, such as harvesting rainwater, restoring biodiversity, enriching and building soil, and capturing and purifying pollutants.

Hawken focuses on how we can capture carbon dioxide, which he calls ‘draw down’. It’s not about putting ‘silver bullets’ on power plants, he says — pointing out the beauty and power of stomata — the miniscule mouths on every leaf that breathe in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and breathe out pure oxygen as waste.

“Pick up a handful of leaves and you’re holding billions of miracles”, he enthused. Why look further for design solutions?

He founded Project Drawdown which has mapped 100 ways to implement this now — including technological solutions, like renewable energy and energy efficiency measures; social solutions that require behavior change, from dietary choices to limiting population growth; and ecological solutions, such as restoring carbon in soils and plants by bio-sequestering CO2. All of these can contribute to the resilience and health of communities and local economies, in addition to their climate value and ecological benefits.

The key to actually redesigning our cities and infrastructure in this way, Benyus argues, is measurement. “We need biology as our measure”, she said: “We need to ask what standard we want to move towards, what we actually want our designs to achieve.” Her own answer is to “design for generosity”: to create structures that contribute positively to their ecosystem, giving back more than they take, and therefore benefitting from lasting resilience. Biomimicry 3.8’s Ecological Performance Standard offers a framework for this.

So what does this mean for workplace design? The starting point has to be what the organisation’s actually working towards. Take the HQ of recruitment company Pasona in Tokyo (thanks to Matthew Thomas Farrell for sharing this example with us). The CEO recognised that Japan’s facing an agricultural production deficit and wanted to reconnect his workers with their food system and support them to develop horticultural skills. Instead of sending them out to the country on a retreat, he converted the whole office into a working urban farm: tomato vines in the ceiling, hydroponic pumpkins climbing stair wells, a rice paddy in reception… This ‘generous’ office space now provides farm-to-table healthy food for the canteen, better air quality, impetus for new conversations and sharing — enhancing productivity and innovation.

What other examples have you seen of working spaces breathing life into their surroundings? Can you reimagine your workplace as a stomata, taking in human waste and offering clean air in return?

Where else in nature will you look for inspiration? That was the final question put to the panel. Paul Hawken answered the humming bird: “It’s so ephemeral, with no colour of its own, but it appears radiant with colour to us because it refracts light!” For Janine, it was nitrogen-fixing bacteria dwelling in the soil — “They’re unseen little workers, but our life depends on them”.

I proposed the dolphin, because it plays: if we want to rethink our workplaces as wild places, we need a mindset of play to push beyond our learned working practices.

“We share a wound”, said Hawken, “and that wound is our education. We have learned that life is outside of us. You’re not just part of life, you are life.”

This event was produced by NUS and Interface, and supported by the Futures Centre.

What ways have you seen to bring workplaces alive, transforming them into generous ecosystem players? Please share your thoughts in the comments here.

Image credit: Dorothy Ng

More in the ‘Rewilding the workplace’ series:

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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