Saturday, April 23, 2011

Business as an Ecosystem

Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida

Using Sanibel Island as my test model, I've thought about this question.  
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Florida.  Th
e coastal salt marsh ecosystem is formed on the inland side of Sanibel Island and is a water-based ecosystem that has adapted to tidal fluctuations in water levels.  Mangrove trees and oysters form land masses and inter-tidal areas that are the nurseries for the sea and the rookeries for many birds and mammals.  

What can we learn from this ecosystem and how can it influence business practices?

An ecosystem is interdependent and the the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Successful businesses need to be able to see the big picture and to understand the connections between each aspect of their work.  This ability allows a company to plan for future contingencies as well as streamline operations and reduce waste and redundancies.  

One of the most abundant plants in this ecosystem is the mangrove tree, a freshwater plant that is able to desalinate the salty/brackish water in order to obtain the water it needs to survive.  If businesses were designed to cleanly harvest abundant resources without contributing harmful byproducts, they would restore the land and its resources they use instead of exploiting them.  Additionally, by learning a skill that other businesses cannot replicate, they have a competitive advantage.

Oysters create a natural concrete that allows them to adhere to sandbars, adapting to tidal fluctuations.  By manipulating their shell to close and keep the animal inside from drying out, the oysters survive where others cannot.  If businesses were flexible and able to adapt to not only expected changes, as the oysters do, but also unexpected changes, they are more likely to survive the "downs" and thrive during the "ups."

Over one half of the land mass of Sanibel Island has been set aside as a wildlife preserve and the areas that have been settled by humans fit fairly seamlessly into the natural environment and aesthetic.  Heights of buildings are limited to below the height of the trees; houses on the seashore are raised on stilts to reduce damage due to storm surge; beaches are left undisturbed and vegetation and seafood that washes up is a nutritious resource for shore birds; and so on.  In the example of Sanibel Island, humans have chosen to integrate with the natural ecosystem rather than fighting against it, which is a paradigm shift compared to the majority of human development.  If companies were to emulate this model and seamlessly integrate with the surrounding environment, costs associated with environmental cleanup, maintenance, and waste disposal (among others) could be reduced.

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