What a Ponderosa Pine Could Teach a Business

Lindsay James

If you’re familiar with InterfaceFLOR, you may also be familiar with Biomimicry, the practice of emulating nature’s genius to improve human design of products, processes, and systems — a favorite source of inspiration for our sustainability journey.

I have a deep passion for biomimicry as it is one of the most hopeful approaches to achieving sustainability that I have encountered. Nature has thrived on this planet for 3.8 billion years, and we too can learn to sustain ourselves if we quiet our cleverness and learn from nature (and remember that we, too, are nature). Biomimicry puts sustainability within reach for our species, and that is why I enrolled in the intensive two-year, master’s equivalent biomimicry certification program offered by Biomimicry 3.8.

In our in-person sessions, which are held in seven different ecosystems around the world, we seek to learn about the “genius of place” within each system. One key tenet in nature is that life adapts and evolves in context – meaning that life develops strategies for survival that are specific and dependent on the environmental conditions of the local ecosystem. By studying the natural history of each location, we develop a deep understanding of this principle and an appreciation for the genius found in nature.

While in Montana’s montane forest ecosystem, I took a particular interest in the ponderosa pine’s adaptations to fire disturbances and researched this species for my Genius of Place exercise. Ponderosa pines are well-adapted to resist the potentially damaging impacts of fire through a variety of mechanisms. There are four mechanisms that confer fire resistance to this conifer:

1) the ponderosa sheds its lower, more vulnerable branches as it matures, so there are no branches in the “fire zone”; 2) a thick, corky, fire-resistant bark insulates the tree’s inner cambium from killing temperatures; 3) a deep taproot provides access to water during and after a fire and therefore provides protection against fire desiccation; and 4) in the event of a more intense fire that reaches the ponderosa’s branches, the lengthy needles (up to 7 inches long) provide protection for the pine’s growth buds – the critical resource for future growth.

So what can we learn from the ponderosa’s spectacular suite of adaptations? In biomimicry we practice abstracting design principles to translate biological wisdom into tangible guidance for human problems. In this case, I abstracted the following design principles: Utilize a diversity of strategies to gain resistance to disturbance, including: 1) maintain separation between vulnerable resources and the likely disturbance zone; 2) for elements that will be exposed to the disturbance zone, invest in ample protection of the most critical aspects of the system; 3) provide reliable access to critical resources during and immediately following the disturbance; and 4) have a less costly (multi functional) backup mechanism in place for resources that typically are not exposed to the disturbance zone but could be during an atypical event.

The next step in biomimicry is to apply the abstracted design principle to a human challenge in order to create design application ideas. I believe there is room to explore specific applications of these disturbance strategies in supply chain management. How many businesses are affected by unanticipated disturbances in their upstream flow of raw materials? How could we apply the strategies found in nature to improve the resilience of our business systems? These are the questions that I will continue to explore in my biomimicry studies, and I look forward to sharing more of this journey with you through the InterfaceFLOR blog.

What other critical lessons can business learn from nature? Share with us in the comments.

Posted in Category Biomimicry | 2 Comments

2 Responses to: What a Ponderosa Pine Could Teach a Business

  1. Kathy says:

    I’m excited to read about how you are using Biomimicry to improve business practices. Work like this gives me hope that businesses can use creativity to solve sustainability issues while becoming more profitable. Are you coming to the tribal Gathering in July in California? Susan Liberati and I will be there as educators. I hope we can meet and brainstorm ways to connect what Interface is doing with education. We have some possible ideas already. With your input, the ideas could expand and some of them could become practical.

    • InterfaceFLOR says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Yes, I will be at the Tribal Gathering in July and I am very eager to meet you and Susan. I am certain we will have an intriguing discussion regarding biomimicry, education, and the future!


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