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 BLOG >> January 2014

Learning from Lichens [Nature
Posted on January 27, 2014 @ 06:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher

As I learn more about nature, I like to ponder whether nature has any lessons we might learn regarding business survival and growth. Previously I looked at lessons we might learn from nature by studying how natural ecosystems work and applying similiar principles to growing a business. See business guilds and metaphors of growth for more.

Today I want to look at a specific species, Lichens, to see if they have anything to teach us about business survival and growth.

Lets start with the basics and define what a Lichen is: it is an organism that consists of a fungus and an algae (and/or cyanobacteria) with the fungus supplying the organisms framework and the embedded algae converting sunlight to energy (i.e., sugars, nutrients) for the organism. The fungus and the algae are in a symbiotic relationship with each other, each supplies something the other needs. While both may exist without the other, they perform much better if they are symbiotically intertwined. They are smaller, weaker, and much less adaptable when they exist apart.

Lichens are a tremendously successful organism occupying 10% of the earth's land surface, especially in the far north. They can exists in some of the harshest conditions on the planet and play a major role in the process of creating soil by releasing acids that break down rock which eventually becomes soil.

One of the main lessons we might learn from lichens is that a symbiotic relationship can create a new level of adaptability that cannot happen without the symbiotic relationship. One reason to partner with another company is because that company supplies something that is missing from your own company and vice versa. We partner with companies so that we can each benefit monetarily or otherwise from the arrangement. A lichen, however, goes one level above a simple partnership insofar as the arrangement allows them to compete in new environments that they otherwise would not be in if the fungi and algae they did not partner. Likewise, companies can partner because the joint organism that results can compete in a new environment that the separate companies cannot compete in individually. So partnerships are not just about staying in the same environment and extracting more of the resources from that environment; it is also about joining together so that you can venture into new territory and compete against the incumbents in that territory.

Another lesson we might learn from lichens is how to survive in harsh environments. Lichens can survive in extreme cold and extreme drought. They are able to do this because they can approach a state close to death when times are tough but as soon as conditions warm or rain comes, they can spring back into life and thrive again. A lichen will shrink in size when there is no rain thereby reducing it's requirements for water. When water does come, it expands in size again. Likewise, for a company to survive in tough economic times it should have a strategy for entering into a low energy conservation state and exiting that state when conditions become favorable again. The life of any company is often marked by periods of growth and setback. When life is good and the company is growing you may think that life will stay that way and structure your company accordingly - buy new company assets, take on more loans, spend money as soon as it comes in. Any little setback, however, could quickly spell the end of the company. How easily can you shrink the company when economic times get tough and how long can you stay in the state? The lichen has learned how to live through the bad times and exploit the good times with equal ease.

In "The Forest Unseen: A year's Watch in Nature" (2012), David Haskell, describes lichen existence as follows:

Supple physiology allows lichens to shine with life when most other creatures are locked down for the winter. Lichens master the cold months through the paradox of surrender. They burn no fuel in quest of warmth, instead letting the pace of their lives rise and fall with the thermometer. Lichens don't cling to water as plants and animals do. A lichen body swells on damp days, then puckers as the air dries. Plants shrink back from the chill, packing up their cells until spring gradually coaxes them out. Lichen cells are light sleepers. When winter eases for a day, lichens float easily back to life. (p. 2).

These are just a couple of aspect of lichen existence and physiology that we can learn from if we study lichens more closely with an eye towards what they might tell us metaphorically about business survival and growth.

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Brown Tech Future? [Permaculture
Posted on January 20, 2014 @ 03:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher

If you've been following this blog you know my recent preoccupation has been with Permaculture owing to the fact that I'm working on getting my design certificate in the field. David Holmgren is one of the co-founders of Permaculture along with Bill Mollison. David was a student of Bill's and in 1978 they published the first permaculture book, "Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements", with Bill as the lead author. Bill is generally acknowledged as the leader of the Permaculture field/movement, but David is also very influential in defining its principles, philosophy, and concerns.

David has been influential in his work on defining future scenarios that humanity might be headed towards. These future scenarios are labelled as Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Stewards, and Lifeboats. You might be able to get a quick sense of these scenarios by examining the axis on this diagram:


Source: http://permaculturenews.org/2014/01/16/crash-demand-welcome-brown-tech-future.

In December, 2013, David updated his work on future scenarios by publishing a provocative article Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future in which he integrates his recent thinking on financial systems and current trends to warn us that the Brown Tech scenario is looking increasingly likely. This article is generating quite a bit of buzz in the Permaculture world and one of the responses worth examining is Nichole Foss's Crash on Demand? A Response to David Holmgren. There are other leaders in the Permaculture movement such as Rob Hopkins who disagree with the conclusions and suggested strategies so the article does not represent a Permaculture consensus about the future, but all agree it is a line of inquiry that needs to be explored and debated.

In this blog I want to highlight just a couple of aspects of David's article that I found interesting and useful.

One of the most useful aspects of his article was a diagram that represents each future scenario as nested scenarios that take place at different scales. So Brown Tech is how our federal governments appear to be trending, Green Tech is how our state and provincial governments are trending, Earth Stewarts is how our county and municipal governments are trending, and Life Boats is how we are trending in our households. This to me is a very insightful and integrative way to look at how the future is unfolding and is one major takeaway for me from reading the article.

Another takeaway is the main thesis of the article - that we may be headed towards a brown tech future. If this is true, we can ask ourselves what investments we might make to prepare for such a future where climate becomes more unstable while green house gas emissions stay relatively high. In general the concept of "investing" is quite difficult to pin down in the context of a future that might involve radical change so keep that in mind. In his article, David makes the suggestion that climate-controlled green houses located near major hubs might be required to maintain food supplies. On our Canadian Investment site, you can invest in such a project with Salad Greenhouse Inc. A brown tech future will also increase demand for disaster resistant buildings. On our Texas Investment site, you can invest in disaster resistant high and low end housing. These are the types of investments we need to make when the future appears to be a brown tech one requiring adaptation rather than a green tech one in which we are better able to control or reduce green house gas emissions.

In general Permaculturists are optimistic about the future and have a can-do attitude about strategies we can adopt to create more permanency and sustainability in the world. The reality in many parts of the world, however, is not that optimistic and if permaculture is to retain relevancy it has to figure out how to address the current and future fallout to be expected from a brown tech future. One person who is attempting to address that fallout is Permaculture pioneer Rosemary Morrow.

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Pop Goes the Business [Growth
Posted on January 13, 2014 @ 05:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In today's blog I will offer up some thoughts on how growth occurs in an ecological garden and compare that to how it might occur in a business.

An ecological garden is different than a traditional garden because in an ecological garden we are concerned with making sure that each plant offers an ecological service to the other plants in a planting guild. Plants can fix nitrogen, attract pollinators, repel pests, cycle nutrients via deep tap roots, offer shade, offer mulch, act as a fortress plant preventing the incursion of grass, offer ground cover, act as a nurse plant, etc.... When all of these needs and relationships are attended to and you have planted a guild accordingly, then you wait and see what works and fix what doesn't. There comes a point, however, when a properly planted ecological garden "pops", meaning that it becomes highly productive and highly resilient. Whereas you may have struggled to establish a plant before, now a rich array of plants and soil micro-organisms are all working together to promote growth within the guild. At this stage, it is easy to expand the guild by setting up a nearby guild and forming supportive connections between them.

There is no rule book on how to setup an ecological garden but two important aspects to attend to are your soil and building a nucleus.

The soil has to be prepped for growth. Adding a thick layer of mulch in the fall and adding more as you go is one very important strategy because it adds organic matter and multiplies your soil microorganisms. You can also do soil testing and add amendments. The point is that prior to growing anything you need to get your soil house in order so that whatever you plant has a good chance to get established. Likewise, a business needs to get it's house in order before it can grow. Most businesses can look at what they do or intend to do and figure out how they will be slowed down in their growth if specific processes, legalities, tax issues, company vision, or human resource issues are not in alignment. If these processes and issues are not in alignment prior to trying to grow your business, there is a good chance that your attempts to grow will not take root.

In addition to making sure your soil is ready for growth, you also need to consider how you will begin planting your guild. One option is to go big right from the beginning. Prepare alot of soil and plant alot of plants. Not only is this very costly, it is much less likely to succeed than a strategy that involves starting small by planting the nucleus and then extending that nucleus, or planting other nuclei in such a way that you can form supportive connections between each nuclei. Once you have a working nucleus of plants it involves less effort and cost to setup another nucleus of plants. Not only can you use cuttings, divisions, and seeds from your first nucleus of plants, you can also use the shade, nitrogen fixing, and pollinators supplied by your first planting to help establish plants in your extended garden of plants. Similarly, when we want to grow our business, it is generally better to start small and get something working and extend from there, than to try to take over all of the market in one big undertaking. Figure out where to position your business in the initial stages so that you can readily grow into other parts of your market once your nucleus is established.

To summarize, to make your business "pop" you need to get the soil of your business ready for growth, start small and strategically, and then be very careful in selecting the companion businesses that you want to include in your business guild (your business in association with other reinforcing businesses). If you proceed in this manner there is a better chance that, in time, your business will "pop" just like an ecological garden "pops" when all the connections you have built into it start to self-organize to become productive and resilient.

I want to leave you with Toby Hemenway's description of what it is like when an ecological garden "pops" so you have a better feel for the metaphor I'm applying to businesses. Much of today's blog drew inspiration from my reading of Toby's book, Gaia's Garden, this weekend.

In chapter 12, Pop Goes the Garden, Toby marvelously describes revisiting an ecological garden 5 years after his initial visit when the plants weren't doing so well:

The strategies worked. In about the fifth year, life began to take hold and gain momentum. The soil was rich enough, the shade amply dense, the leaf litter so abundant, the roots sufficiently deep, for the pieces to coalesce into a whole. The system "popped." Plants that had struggled in the harsh desert for several years suddenly were detonating, growing several feet in a season. The soil stayed moist through month-long droughts. Glistening fruit shouldered through the thick foliage. The most useful tools were no longer shovel and sprinkler, but bushel basket and pruning saw. Birds filled the new forest with song. And a nearby closed canopy of greenery now cast cool shade that offered refuge from the intense New Mexico sun and kept the soil from burning to a dry powder. A completely different energy now suffused the place. Someone with a mystical bent would say that a spirit had come to inhabit the land and give it life (p. 264).

While ecological gardens and businesses are very different beasts, they are complex interconnected systems that might be expected to exhibit similar discontinuities (i.e., they are both capable of "popping" into a new steady state) in how they grow over time. Why this occurs might be clearer if we use ecological gardens as a frame of reference for understanding the positive feedback loops that arise over time in properly constructed plant and business guilds.

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Increase Your Impact! [Permaculture
Posted on January 10, 2014 @ 08:16:00 AM by Paul Meagher

For those of your not familiar with Permaculture, here is a useful video from one of the emerging bright stars of the Permaculture movement, Ben Falk. In this short video, you get the gist of some of the essential reasons why people are getting into Permaculture - harvesting natural energies, working with and learning from nature, growing food, sharing food, becoming more self-sufficient, and promoting a more optimistic stance towards the future (in part because of the confidence that comes with having Permaculture ideas and techniques that can help you to better adapt to uncertainty in climate and economics). I like Ben's message that if you are operating sustainably and in a positive way, your environmental goal should become one of increasing your impact rather than the often negative goal of lessening it.

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Metaphors of Growth [Growth
Posted on January 6, 2014 @ 06:47:00 AM by Paul Meagher

A long time ago, I read Geoge Lakoff's book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) in which he argues for the centrality of metaphors in understanding human cognition. In Lakoff's Wikipedia Page, his position is summarized as follows:

For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge offers new perceptions and understandings.

In my last blog on Business Guilds I argued that the concept of "Growth" as applied to business is a metaphor based upon our presumptions about how growth in nature occurs. The richness of our thinking about business growth may be limited by our understanding of how growth in nature occurs. Many of us have simplistic notions of how growth in nature occurs which potentially leads to a simplistic notion of how growth in business occurs. The concept of a business guild was an attempt to reframe how business growth occurs based upon an understanding of the permaculture concept of plant guilds: associations of plants that mutually reinforce each other and lead to more biomass production (one measure of growth) than plants without such associations. As such, I argued that business growth occurs best in the context of business guilds. This would be in contrast to a view of growth as originating from individualistic company efforts to innovate or improve. I think these efforts are important, but if nature is any guide, the level of growth you will achieve outside of a business guild will be less than if you exist within a guild structure.

One approach to learning from nature is to observe and study how nature at it's best works and attempt to consciously apply that understanding to how business should work. Nature at it's best does not grow monocultural crops, denude soil, and import large quantities of energy to keep growth cycles happening so industrial agriculture is probably not the example of nature that you should focus on as your basis for extrapolating to how business growth should or might occur. A mature ecosystem or a permacultural garden that tries to imitate nature may be a better source for metaphorical understanding.

If you accept that our understanding of abstract concepts like growth is based on metaphors, then you can have alot of fun trying to apply an evolving understanding of natural growth to the concept of business growth. For example, does nitrogen in natural growth play a similar role to money in business growth? Does it matter where your nitrogen comes from - from a fertilizer bag, from a companion-planted legume, from a green manure, etc... How are relationships between business like relationships between plants? In plant guilds, some of the relationships include mulch makers, nutrient accumulators, nitrogen fixers, pest repellants, beneficial insect attractors, fortress plants, soil texturizers, shelterbelts, etc... The guild vocabulary is rich and concrete so gives us ample opportunities to think about business relationships in new ways that might turn out to be useful, yield insight, or simply be entertaining to think or talk about.

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