Interview with Saskia van den Muijsenberg, BiomimicryNL

Saskia van den Muijsenberg, director at BiomimicryNL, discusses the lessons we can learn from nature as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

‘People have appreciated nature more’

Many of the challenges we face today are because people see nature as something that is outside. We feel disconnected – not part of nature.

But there’s much evidence that being outdoors makes you feel better, and boosts your immune system. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have lived outdoors for most of their existence. We’ve had an innate connection with the rest of nature.

That’s something people experienced during lockdown. Walking in nature became really popular and many people have appreciated nature more. How it makes them feel to be outside. It’s given them a sense of freedom.

People are realising things are interconnected. This changing awareness is a huge lever for people wanting to do things differently.

‘Building a relationship goes before a task’

We are making more conscious decisions about what we do online or offline.

We know from nature that building a relationship goes before a task. But on Zoom it’s almost all about task.

We’ve given people observation assignments – to go outdoors, observe something, take pictures, share it with each other online and discuss how their insight translate to their work. It’s worked really well.

Walking and talking have also had immediate psychological benefits for the discussions and thoughts that it stimulates. And longer term it connects us with the environment around us.

People need to get to know their surroundings better and understand them better. If you learn to love your environment, you’re more willing to do something to regenerate it.

‘We all have crises’

I’m looking at how natural ecosystems have to adapt and evolve all the time. As we need to build more personal and organizational resilience.

We all have crises. They should be seen as part of an adaptive cycle.

Sometimes a crisis can be brought about by external events like a pandemic. And sometimes you need to start one internally. Because you know that the things you’re doing are not benefiting society or the environment.

Most organizations keep on doing the same things, even though they know they should stop. Simply because they’re still making money.

So creating a crisis can be a way to stop doing these things and finding new ways.

Existing relationships may break. But this also provides ground for new initiatives and relationships. Letting go of something opens the door for new opportunities. Resilience is therefore all about navigating through these different phases.

‘We have a much deeper philosophical crisis’

People see the pandemic as a health crisis, but we are all part of nature and interconnected with everything. The pandemic is really a result of a biodiversity crisis.

It’s opened up conversations about what it is to be in control. Should we try to save everybody? It’s a big taboo to talk about it.

It’s as if nobody can die. Look at New Zealand and how they are managing the pandemic. If there’s a couple of new COVID cases then the whole country goes into lockdown again.

I’m not making a judgment, I’m just trying to observe.

Think of the adaptive cycle in nature. If nothing can die then it manoeuvres us into some sort of spasm.

We have to consider a much deeper philosophical crisis about human nature.

Maybe we have to reinvent ourselves, as a culture and a species, in order to address these kinds of questions.

‘Some species make use crises’

Nature is great at constantly adapting to changing conditions.

People have change management programmes to do this. The rest of nature doesn’t. And yet it has some really good responses and strategies.

You can see a crisis as a release – a creative destruction.

Some species make use of crises. Some pines and plants use forest fires to open their cones or fruits and spread their seeds. They are the first one to spread and colonize the ground. They have specialized in taking advantage of a disturbance.

This kind of renewal leads to a reorganization. It’s a window of opportunity where you can try out new things.

‘It’s better to have many parallel experiments’

If you have a very stable environment is not the same as being resilient. Sometimes we mix these things up.

If an environment is really stable and you are totally specialized then you have an advantage over others. Diversity helps us avoid competition. If you have different niches, you don’t have to compete for the same things.

But if you diversify or specialize into a narrow niche, then you are more at risk when your environment is changing.

For example, pandas have a very specialized diet. But if their environment changes they may become extinct.

In more dynamic situations it’s better to be an all-rounder. From a biological standpoint there’s always a trade-off. It’s a balance.

But people don’t really take enough notice of their context. They’re not sufficiently attuned to what’s happening locally.

It’s a lesson for organizations. If you are in very dynamic times, it’s better to have many parallel experiments, instead of focusing on just one project. Then if one fails, that’s fine.

‘It helps to focus on the good stuff that is emerging now’

If you look at transition science, at some point we will all agree where we need to get to. For example, from fossil fuel to renewables.

But we also know that we will need to say goodbye to some things. Then the lobby starts, as people want to stay within their niche. Then we have a problem.

In the transition, we should be open to possibilities to re-educate ourselves and broaden our skills and our niche.

One of the principles in nature is that life integrates development and growth. In times when you cannot grow it helps to start developing new things. So as soon as conditions pick up, you can grow.

Some people focus on the good things in the past and the bad things of what’s about to happen. While others will look at the bad things from the past and the good things that are about to happen.

If you want to create a breakthrough, then it helps to focus on the good stuff that is emerging now.

‘Neutral is just a starting point’

Most companies’ sustainability journeys look at how they can do less harm to people or planet.

That’s why we have climate neutral goals. But neutral is just a starting point. Some companies want to create a positive impact.

Especially for place-based operations like a factory or an industrial area.

I’m currently looking at how these organizations can also start providing ecosystem services, like the forest that was once there.

We are just at the beginning and it’s really inspiring.

They don’t only want to do something that doesn’t harm the environment, they want to do something that actually has a positive impact.

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