Published Article Details

Businesses should create designs that mimic nature

Posted by: Uma Shashikant on Dec 11, 2017, 06.30 AM IST

The trade off between natural resources and economic development has been oversimplified for the longest time. When someone says a forest has to be brought down, or a mountain has to be leveled, or a farmland has to be given up, so that industries, townships, roads and other concrete structures can be built, they are not making an economic decision that benefits many. They are making a serious error in design that will hurt generations. We have not even begun to speak about the consequences. It is time, or perhaps already too late.

When a business is set up, it evokes a positive response for the positive value addition that it brings about. Entrepreneurship is seen as a value adding activity, where factors of production like land, labour, material and money are procured at say Rs 100 to produce something that can be sold for Rs 120.

Businesses gather these resources, add value, and redistribute the proceeds to society in terms of rent, wages, costs, interest, taxes and dividends. The benefits of this redistribution is available as income, jobs, governance and protection. We now live in capitalistic societies where businesses that grow big, become profitable and exert influence are seen as role models of excellence.

When the benevolent outcomes from economic activity are celebrated, businesses acquire tremendous power. They do more of what they do well, acquire size and scale, influence society, politics and governance significantly. They shape habits, preferences, choices; they build images, aspirations and social acceptance. The ability of large businesses to lobby their way into policy that favours them is a scourge democracies deal with routinely. In corrupt societies, crony capitalism takes over, where businesses use public resources for private profits.

We assume that this human endeavour we celebrate in the form of large business enterprises will bring long term benefits to the human race. We now have evidence that this assumption might be terribly wrong. Decisions that one business makes in the interest of its growth and profitability, might not always result in net favourable outcomes. There is sustained and harmful value depletion that can come from these activities, unless there is conscious design that considers the macro good, in holistic terms, that several business leaders are not used to thinking about.

We now know that in its interest for growth and volume, food businesses have added sugar to make their produce addictive. We know that faulty consumption habits that ingest pure and refined sugars into our routine meals and snacks has led to a host of lifestyle diseases across nations. We know that the consistent use of chemicals and pesticides on our farms has left our soil depleted, destroyed several beneficial microorganisms, contaminated our ground water, enhanced our use of external resources in farming, and resulted in nutritionally depleted produce.

We know our insatiable demand for fossil fuels to fire our automobiles and our need for power-guzzling gadgets, among other things, have led to polluted cities and the threat of global warming. Our concretised cities offer little scope for cleansing the air, or bringing the rains back. The few remaining trees are choked without breath, their root covered in concrete. Businesses encourage use and throw as a means to grow volume, thus converting the earth into a junkyard.

Our definitions of value add for a business would have to return to the basic question of design: is there a cycle of value creation that runs from the point the product is made, running through its consumption, and eventually its destruction? Are we able to think of the product and the service that is being provided as sustainable, as is the case in the order of nature? There is enough focus on self-benefit in nature too, but the superiority of the design is such that it comes together with value at every point of the cycle.

A tiny seed that germinates with the help of the soil, sun, water and air is not focussed on providing food for the world. Its objectives are limited to sustaining itself, its own life, and in propagating its kind. It sends out signals to pollinators through the colours and scents of its flowers, strives to root itself firmly to access the food it needs, produces enough fruit to ensure that it has distributed its seeds widely, and intelligently manages its tasks in its pure self interest.

But consider the outcomes: there is habitat for millions of micro-organisms, insects and worms that live in the environment enriched by the plant, while supporting the plant in their own ways. The earthworm makes organic matter available to plants by digesting and excreting nutritious soil. Its focus is its own food, but it builds soil as a by-product. The abundant fruits provided by the plant is food for several animals, whose excreta is nourishment to the plant and the soil. In the food chain designed by nature, each one does their thing, but everyone else benefits. The awesome intelligence in these systems controls populations, ensures that beneficial organisms thrive while harmful ones are eliminated, and deliversvalue to each organism in the chain.

There is no wastage in nature's design. There are no junkyards of used automobiles, discarded computers and cell phones, or suffocating plastic that lies as testimony to poorly designed products that focus on creation with no design for destruction.

It is ironical we call these poorly designed initiatives development. When those who are concerned about the environment raise the question about cost of development, we brush them aside as hinderances to development. The questions being asked are about sustainability. If we clear forests to build roads and towns, how would we ensure water? If we deplete ground water with electrified bore wells, how will we recharge it? If we concentrate on urban locations, how will we ensure quality of life for migrating populations? If we devote all public spaces to cars, how will the walking pedestrian breathe?

These are not trivial questions of mis-informed activism. These are questions that need thinking so we are able to push ourselves towards better designs for our own world. It is fine to have a consumerist society that is too focused on buying stuff, as long as the stuff that is bought does not end up in the landfill but is reused and recycled endlessly. In nature's design there is no use-and-throw. Every handful of soil is capable of regenerating itself timelessly and remain useful forever. That is the design to emulate.

The capital markets do not yet reward businesses that are built for value addition at all stages, for everyone, and for the earth. These conversations are still seen as idealistic. The resolve to reduce, to reuse and to recycle should be central to all production and consumption activities, so we can begin to make amends for the harmful productionconsumption societies we have become. A good business solves a problem and solves it intelligently. We need all our businesses to evolve into such intelligent businesses.

(The author is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com. This article appeared in Economic Times dated Dec 11, 2017, 06.30 AM IST

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