In urban planning, the notion of risk is a function of threats, exposure, and vulnerability. Threats depend on the surrounding environment and can either manifest or not, regardless of how an actor – public or private – operates. The very occurrence of a typhoon, a cyber-attack, or an IT outage are out of our control. Exposure relates to the nature of the operating context, taking into consideration whether this is prone to risk or not. For instance, certain countries might be more prone to market volatility or natural disasters. Finally, vulnerability is the main variable over which organizations have control. Vulnerability considers the ability to mitigate the adversities and challenges that a certain environment might present, regardless of the exposure to threats. This may sound like common sense, but it is still not common business practice.

Building resilience in complex environments means being able to sense challenges, mitigate their impacts, and pursue a mindset of continual improvement and learning that allows to embed lessons learned. These are the basic principles of resilience in international guidelines and standards, and they are also the main resilience features that studies have observed in natural ecosystems. For instance, a study looking at resilient critical infrastructures highlights how there are some resilience techniques developed in nature that can also support man-made structures, such as decentralization, redundancy, and self-renewal.

These are natural processes that made it possible for life to develop and human societies to prosper, and yet there is still reluctance towards their adoption in modern organizations. In this sense, building resilience is not a nice-to-have, it is a fundamental component of life that would be unnatural to refute. This does not only apply to existing market conditions organizations must adapt to, but it means including resilience among the strategic considerations when entering a new market or deciding on the construction of a new site. Decision makers might want to evaluate the operating context when dealing with change, including the challenges posed by environmental concerns, the social and political context, and financial conditions, among others. Starting from this premise, the organizations can build the right processes to survive and thrive.

Ecologists have been studying the adaptive capabilities of natural ecosystems for a long time and there is a branch – intertwined with engineering and biology – which looks at how man-made systems can enhance their resilience levels by replicating dynamics that are found in nature. This process is called biomimicry. Biomimicry is a term that derives from Greek, and it means “imitation of life”. While it is a relatively new concept, biomimicry has the potential to help solve many of the upcoming challenges for modern societies. Climate change is one such example, as some experts believe that nature can also offer the solution to build more adaptive and flexible urban ecosystems. In this regard, imitating nature can help find new ways to improve energy saving and efficiency dynamics.

This not just theory, as there are already well-known cases of functioning infrastructure that leverages nature’s behaviour, as in the case of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train. The project was initially experiencing design issues, since it would cause intense noise pollution in the form of sonic booms when passing through tunnels, due to the release of air pressure. This was until one of the engineers, inspired by the beak of the kingfisher bird, tweaked the design of the train, which then turned out not only to reduce noise pollution, but also to save electricity and gain more speed. On a similar note, the largest business complex in Zimbabwe, hosting both offices and a shopping centre, uses thermic mechanisms observed in termites to regulate temperature. The result is that the building is able to adjust to different climates through design-based ventilation, without common air-conditioning or heating systems, saving up to 90% of the energy compared to similar structures.

Biomimicry has enormous potential for optimizing efforts in society and making sure modern societies operate in harmony with the surrounding natural ecosystems. According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there are increasing opportunities for exploring this type of technology, which is based on leveraging existing dynamics rather than producing new high-consumption systems. Further real-life examples include the study of humpback whales’ motion to build wind turbine blades, beetles’ ability to harness water sources from fog, and the structure of spider webs replicated to manufacture stronger windshields. Different organizations – and societies – will experience different levels of interest and scope of applications for these technologies; however, during such difficult times in managing the relationship between humans and the environment, nature itself might be the solution.

Author: Gianluca Riglietti

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