Thinking Outside the Box: Innovation

“Innovation” is a buzzword used in many circles from business to politics to the media. Defined on dictionary.com as “something new or introduced,” it is an important concept as we increasingly rely on technology and embrace a high-tech future. Fast Company calls young innovators in business “Generation Flux.”

I recently attended a guest lecture on social entrepreneurship and innovation from Tim Zak, an opportunity made available to me through the Voinovich School. Zak is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of the school’s Institute for Social Innovation. He defined three qualities necessary for any innovation: it must be new, substantially better, and able to sustain itself. Zak said an innovation must also have some combination of economic and social value.

To innovate, you have to find some way of “thinking outside the box” and differentiating your ideas from the status quo. This is something you likely will not learn from a standard degree program. But how do you learn to think differently or teach yourself to do so? I have wrestled with these questions recently.

I believe one of the best ways to learn how to think differently is by immersing yourself in the language of people who put innovation into practice. My favorite group of innovators is called “BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation.” BCI is “a network of creative innovators, professional change agents, biologists and design professionals who work in creative collaboration with each other and our clients to apply ecological thinking for radical transformation.” They describe biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius” with applications for “applying ideas and strategies from nature to human products, processes, and systems to bring both inspiration and proven solutions that can help resolve the complex and dynamic problems facing business and society.” Sustainability, resilience, and values-led business are at the core of what they call a “business inspired by nature.”

Biomimicry and “business inspired by nature” are relatively new concepts. The term “biomimicry” appeared as early as 1982 and was popularized in Janine Benyus’ 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. However, I don’t see the term in mainstream discourse, and certainly not so in business. But the professionals at BCI are applying these principles to business, which is crucial if we are to meet the demands of a growing global population yet stay within the constraints of a planet with finite resources and limits to its assimilation of waste for human health and greenhouse gases for a stable climate.

Biomimicry has 9 basic principles:

  1. Nature runs on sunlight
  2. Nature uses only the energy it needs
  3. Nature fits form to function
  4. Nature recycles everything
  5. Nature rewards cooperation
  6. Nature banks on diversity
  7. Nature demands local expertise
  8. Nature curbs excesses from within
  9. Nature taps the power of limits

The principles of biomimicry bring me back to my original question: how do you learn to think differently? How do you make the connection between nature and innovation, and then between nature’s innovation and business? How do you know what the best ideas are to solve problems?

I’m not sure I have answers to any of these questions. Some of it is probably genetic ability, and perhaps part of it is simply taking the time to slow down in our hectic lives and think more. After reading about these cutting-edge ideas I now have a new career goal: to become a thought leader, change agent, and innovator. Before, I simply hoped to be a sustainability strategy consultant. Now I see I can do both.

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One thought on “Thinking Outside the Box: Innovation

  1. Thanks Austin for your excellent write up of what was a very stimulating conversation with Tim Zak! He brought terrific experience and insight to the table and very productive to have Voinvoich School Director Mark Weinberg jumping into the discussion with MPA, MSES, and HTC students. Exactly how the Voinovich School is supposed to work!

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