The result is that nature is often seen as something separate from us – something to be enjoyed, or experienced as a distinct entity in itself.
It never used to be this way.
In the past we were intimately connected with the natural world. For thousands of years before the industrial revolution, we lived on the land. Our sleeping cycles followed the sun, our diets followed the seasons, and we hunted and gathered in a symbiotic relationship with nature. Now, 80% of us live in towns and cities, and we couldn't be further removed.
Here's the problem: we are nature. And being disconnected from nature means we're disconnected from who we are - this disconnect has an impact on our lives and work: as a society, we've never been more anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted and unhealthy.
The good news is the answer to resolving these challenges means finding ways to reconnect with who we really are. Being outdoors not only has a positive effect, simply having access to the outdoors can bring many of its benefits. Here's how:
- In hospitals, it has been shown that views of the natural environment help patients recover faster. Derriford hospital in Plymouth has used the outdoors in its fight against the coronavirus by moving patients into its “secret garden” to aid their recovery.
- Students who have a view of the outside do better on tests and exams. A study of high school students in Michigan found a positive link between views of nature and test scores, graduation rates and percentages going on to college.
- In an office environment, a view of the outdoors helps staff feel less stressed, more productive and less likely to take time off. One Japanese study looked at the effects of “forest bathing” on workers who spent 15 minutes walking in the woods or viewing a forest landscape. The results found forest environments promoted lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and a lower pulse than in the city.
When it comes to getting outdoors, we often only think about this in terms of our personal lives. We use time outside as our way to combat the stresses and strains of everyday modern life, for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.
But what about organisations? Most people spend the majority of their time either in an office - before COVID struck - or working from home in front of a screen for most of the day.
That's why I believe it's time to start "rewilding" our organisations. Just like the concept of rewilding is being applied to aspects of countryside management, it can be applied to companies and how they work.
Rewilding is about developing a mindset around how to use lessons from the natural world to create the benefits of being in nature. By doing so, you create the conditions for embedding into your organisation traits, such as:
- Creativity and collaboration
When people slow down and take the time to talk and discuss ideas, great things happen. Time spent in nature increases staff productivity by 50%.
When people are happier, feel good, and enjoy each other's company, they work together better and do better work.
Nature shows us how a life-affirming, responsive, interconnected ecosystem works (and it's been around for more than 3 billion years!). By looking at and taking inspiration from the natural world we get ideas for how to make products and services more innovative, efficient and resilient.
Nature is designed for us to thrive, and by reconnecting with nature, you build longevity and resilience into your organisation.
If that wasn't enough of a reason to start considering rewilding, in a time of crisis - from pandemic to climate - this approach offers another way to work together to come up with creative solutions to big problems.
Although there are no universally-defined principles of rewilding, clear themes have emerged since this discussion started.
Here are some fundamental principles of rewilding:
• Emergent properties
This is about the outcome of all parts coming together, the outcome may not necessarily be predicted, it emerges. This means not being attached to outcomes, but instead creating the right conditions and seeing what happens. Nature doesn't use guides, maps or plans to create anything, and instead works by trial and error. Following the same principles, produces working outcomes that no-one could have planned.
• Diversity and the edge effect
Where two ecosystems meet is the source of the greatest diversity and the most abundance of life. For example, where land meets water at a riverbank or perimeter of a lake, or where grassland meets forest. The species of each ecosystem overlaps and this results in an increase in diversity and significantly greater productivity.
By both working to increase the edge and working with the edge, a project can maximise the amount and variety of resources and creativity available to it.
Examples of ways to work with this include co-locating projects and teams (for example, Apple’s HQ in Palo Alto was specifically designed to increase chance encounters between members of different teams, forming inter-organisational networks with membership from more than one department (eg a project group drawn from marketing, finance, customer service, HR and sales), or creating multiple points of contact between staff and customers
• Keystone species
The importance to ecosystems of keystone species which have a dramatic effect on all the systems they inhabit. For example, predator-prey relationships which keep populations stable and the impact this has on all the life around them. As I explain in another blog post, beavers are a keystone species who have an impact on their environment second only to humans. By damming rivers, they slow down the flow of a river and create space for other species to thrive. In organisations, leaders can follow this example by creating similar space for ideas and collaboration to thrive. Read more here.
• Remove straight lines
There are no straight lines in nature. For nature, there are no advantages to straight lines, and so this is a principle to follow in your environment. A preference for no straight lines also leads to preferring flexibility over strength, an essential element when considering adaptation.
• Remove blocks and barriers
There are also no artificial barriers like fences in nature. The natural preference should be to take down and remove anything within the organisation that seeks to divide and separate. Practical actions include preferring open plan design and not erecting artificial divides between those working in the office space.
• Pay attention to the seasons
The seasons are a cycle of rebirth, renewal and retreat that are necessary for growth and survival. Discover more about the power of paying attention to the season in our blog here.
• Disconnect to reconnect
We've become so connected to technology as part of our work and lives, there has been a price to pay. And that's our connection to ourselves - and to each other. It's no surprise that when we step away from our tech and go outdoors, we start to reconnect with who we are and find it easier to connect and have conversations with others.
So, how as a leader can you take steps to start the process of rewilding in your organisation?
The best place to start is making a few simple steps towards rewilding that can be implemented immediately, as well as initiating changes which are more long-term.
Encourage a change of scenery
You've probably experienced it yourself - moving away from your working environment to another space, shifts your mood and boosts your creativity. One of the most powerful tools you can use is a "walk-and-talk" rather than a meeting. Walking helps you generate and discuss ideas; interestingly sitting down is better when you want to make a decision. Use walk-and-talks to improve conversations, increase creativity and productivity (remember, not every call has to be a Zoom video call!).
Consider biophilic design
Biophilic design is about bringing the outside, inside. It's more than adding a few plants on desks; it's about building nature into the design and feel of the whole office space. This includes images of nature on walls, flowing spaces, natural light and furniture and fittings made of natural materials. This is true whether you're in an office or working from home.
In Japan, some companies have gone so far to integrate small gardens and allotments into their work spaces and set up gardening clubs, which also increases collaboration and teamwork.
While office life will never be the same once COVID is over, there is a window of opportunity right now to implement biophilic design ready for the return to the office.
For more on biophilic design, read our blog about how nature can make your workplace better.
As any team knows, stress, pressure and a stale environment combine to dampen creativity. There's a reason why our best ideas often come to us in the shower, on the bus, or sat reading in a coffee shop.
You can create the conditions for increasing creativity in the workplace by slowing down, removing silos and allowing teams to cross-pollinate ideas.
A perfect example of how to do this is from Brighton-based interior design business, Oliver Heath. The company installed a soup machine in their office. Every day, they all bring in a few vegetables and put them into the soup machine. At lunchtime, everyone gathers around a big table to eat together. Instead of taking lunch separately at their desks, they gather around a table, stop, talk, share ideas and get to know each other better.
The conversations they have are triggers for the kind of serendipitous collisions of thought that lead to bigger ideas.
Find ways to slow down your team to create situations like these, whether they're in an office or working remotely.
Discover how slowing down can help increase collaboration and creativity by being more like a beaver here.
Ask how nature would do it
Struggling with a challenge at work? If you want ideas on how to solve a problem or are designing a new product or system, try looking to nature - it’s the greatest innovation machine with more than three billion years of evolution.
When 80% of new ideas come from “analogy thinking” – ie looking at what already exists and finding the best in it – nature is an amazing model for sustainability and productivity.
Ours is not the only species that can innovate or has solved design challenges. Animals, insects, plants and birds are innovators and problem solvers. Their systems work – they need to work to survive. To understand the power of this, watch an animal at work and see what happens.
And by this, I mean sit and watch them and see how they do what they do. By watching kingfishers, Japanese engineers solved a design challenge on bullet trains. By investigating how peacock feathers and butterfly wings show colour led to a new type of display screen that uses less energy.
So next time you need to create something, instead of using a ‘How might we do it? question, think in terms of ‘How would nature do it?’
There are many examples of organisations learning from animals, insects and birds.
One good example was during Michael Gove's time at the Department of Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) when the organisation was struggling to get decisions implemented. So, the department turned to worms. Worms work to remove constraints in their environment and so the department set up their own "worms", people tasked with working through the decision-making process to identify the blockers.
Another example is carpet manufacturer, Interface. When the company first embraced sustainability in 1994, one of the questions they asked themselves was “If nature designed a company, how would it function?” This early thinking led them to redesign their business to become one that provides the same benefits as high-performing ecosystems. They call this “Factory as a Forest.”
As with all these suggestions, there is one other element that is needed: courageous leadership. The leader who chooses to look to nature and start the process of rewilding your organisation enjoys benefits beyond a more collaborative and creative environment.
This success is counted in better staff wellbeing, improved mental health, less stress and anxiety, more productivity and a happier environment.