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We humans strive for efficiency, but nature’s resilience could teach us so much

It seems that being more efficient is better for the environment because we are not wasting resources. In many cases, this has led to a decrease in resilience – the ability to cope with change and crises.

Nature is far more efficient than humans. It uses resources inefficiently. Many plant seeds are spread to get some to germinate.

Humans can make better decisions by bringing insight and foresight into the decision-making process. We can also be proactive. Nature is reactive but adapts to changing environments. How do natural systems develop resilience? And how can humans also harness this ability? The natural tendency to increase diversity is a key factor. From a human perspective, however, variety can increase complexity and redundancy.

Manufacturing resilience

Diversity is not bad for business. Peugeot, the vehicle manufacturer, was established over 200 years ago at a time when cars were not yet available. Its expertise in thin steel processing led it to produce products like hand tools, watch springs, and bicycles. The firm began with a core range of products and then added marginal activities in response to changing tastes and fashion.

Peugeot was able to use this broad portfolio to change its focus, downgrade core activities, and move to a marginal role. It has been able to survive by identifying opportunities related to its current activities and reducing the risk by creating new companies or divisions.

Peugeot began as a foundry inside an old grain mill. Kevin Pourtout/WikimediaCC BY-SA

Peugeot’s strategy resembles nature’s resilience. When the environment changes, there may be a shift in conditions, such as temperature or food availability, that could put previously marginal species in a perfect position. Then, they can become the core species of the new system. Once dominant, species will be pushed to a marginal role due to less favorable conditions. The system as a whole can, therefore, survive, even if it is in a slightly different configuration.

The system would have collapsed if those species that were marginal initially had not taken on key roles. In the automotive industry, manufacturers that are heavily dependent on diesel will be in a more vulnerable position as fuel supplies become scarce and new laws are enforced.

Those who experimented with EVs will be in a better position – despite the fact that such activities were viewed as inefficient in the past and hard to justify. General Motors’ experimentation with the EV-1 during the 1990s received negative media attention. However, the work helped it later develop its Bolt and Volt electric vehicles.

Nature intervenes

In recent years, natural disasters have caused disruptions to human processes. This type of resilience has become increasingly important. Toyota, which is often cited as a model of efficiency because it has a lean manufacturing system, was severely affected by Tohoku’s earthquake and tsunami. A supply chain audit revealed that Toyota’s supply chains were vulnerable because of its efficiency. Many single suppliers of critical components, for example, were located in earthquake-prone zones.

Toyota asked suppliers to store components away from production sites or to manufacture parts in multiple locations. Toyota is moving to greater standardization of components between models. This will allow suppliers to justify various production sites.

We can choose to ignore these stories, and we do this in our quest for efficiency. However, during times of transition, it is wiser to examine the resilience of the way we operate. Some of our systems, by nature, are better suited for stability than efficiency. One example is healthcare systems or other systems where rapid responses to unexpected extreme events can be expected.

Our existing systems are reaching their limits. We are approaching a time when our current systems are reaching their limits in many ways.

The best way to prepare for this is by learning the language of resilience and managing our systems more as if they were natural systems.

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Jane S. King

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