The natural world is a complex system based on mutualism - each species relies on another for its continued existence. In my work with human ecosystems, ie. workplaces, I find myself being curious about the importance of shifting from competitiveness to collectiveness. This article uses the example of pollinator networks as a lens through which we might see possibilities for adaptation, growth and systemic change in our own human world.
The lessons of mutualism found in nature can be incredibly poignant when applied to our places of work. I call this period of human evolution a ‘bridge time’. We are in between systems, deconstructing the old and reimagining what the future could hold for us. *Adrienne Maree Brown, in conversation with Aja Taylor, has a particularly interesting perspective on the time we are in being a kind of a necessary apocalypse.
In seeking to understand this process of deconstruction-to-reimagine, I have been using biomimicry as a framework for exploration. The Biomimicry Institute defines biomimicry as:
“Biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — and find hope along the way. Biomimicry offers an empathetic, interconnected understanding of how life works and ultimately where we fit in.”
A well known example of biomimicry is the shape of high speed trains, specifically the Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan. The fronts of these trains were developed mimicking the shape of a bird’s beak, adopting similar aerodynamic qualities.
Using this basic understanding of biomimicry, let’s take it a step further and explore pollinator networks.
Pollination is central to life on earth. It is largely agreed that the survival of the very smallest facets of the earth’s ecosystem is dependent on the act of pollination. In Pollination: The Enduring Relationship between Plant and Pollinator, plant scientist Timothy Walker weaves together an in-depth view of pollination.
“Pollination is a vital component in the process of life on Earth. Without it, nature will not be able to continue in the forward direction in which it is travelling. There can be no more doubting the need for pollinators if humans are to be fed adequately, and if natural ecosystems and their functions and services are to be maintained sustainably. ”
(Walker 2020, pg. 199)
I draw heavily from Walker’s work in pollination, and through the lens of biomimicry, am proposing a theory on the role of ‘pollination industries’, or sectors of our human working world, that are essential to systemic change. This is the beginning of a proposed series of Pollinator Principles, or guides to help our workplaces navigate this time of change. I have posed more questions here than solutions, but isn’t that part of being in a bridge time? Let’s come up with all the questions and collectively come to solutions in partnership.
So where do we start? We begin by exploring what pollination is, and create the linkages that a biomimicry approach offers to shed light on how we might, as humans, be better at...well...being human.
What is pollination?
Pollination is required for the successful reproduction of species. So maybe there’s not a direct link here with our working world, but stick with me.
Pollination is an intimate relationship. So let’s use coaching as an example, mainly because this is the perspective I’m coming in with and I also think that coaches have a particularly sensitive role to play in our experience of being human.
“Like many other close and intimate relationships, pollination can be good, fair and equally beneficial for both partners. However, selfishness can triumph, and deceit, lies and false promises can evolve and succeed.” (Walker 2020, pg. 9)
Pollination relies on the signals sent from the plant to the pollinator. In coaching, the coach offers pieces of communication for reflection or consideration, and the coachee, or the receiver of that communication, has control over what they do with that information. This relationship, both human and biological, requires a number of unique skills and characteristics, including trust, adapting in the moment, role clarity, intuition and boundaries.
*Side note - for anyone interested in deconstructing this particular relationship of power in coaching, let’s talk. There is more here to glean from pollination that can be applied to our role as coaches and the power dynamics at play.
“Communication occurs between a sender and a receiver. The sender stimulates the sensory systems of the receiver and there is a change in behaviour of the latter.”
(Walker 2020, pg. 98)
In order for pollination to be successful, the pollinator needs to visit the flower at specific times. Just like with coaching, there is the ‘readiness’ to be coached. If someone does not want to change or have the willingness to engage in dialogue, it is questionable whether they will experience any form of transformation.
Coaching is certainly not the only discipline that acts as the plant in this pollination scenario. Many industries and specialties are in the business of sending out signals or pieces of communication that directly or indirectly, intentionally or unknowingly, influence the direction of the ‘pollinator’, or, us human ‘worker bees’ going about our day to day tasks.
Who is involved in pollination?
“Scientists have calculated that at least 315,000 plant species are pollinated by animals and that nearly 350,000 animal species are involved in pollination.” (Walker 2020, pg. 67)
Essentially, many animals and plants are involved in the biological version of pollination. Similarly, in the human world, there are many industries, disciplines and specialties involved in supporting human growth and development. I call these ‘pollinator industries’, using the working definition of professions involved in or connected to the deconstruction of our systems as we know them in order to redefine our human direction.
This definition requires further development - consider this an open invitation to participate and co-create this working theory! I am reluctant to name the specific industries that would qualify as pollinator industries, and yet, perhaps this is an important step in being able to focus on what is needed for building a resilient future. So instead of naming the industries, here’s an initial list of characteristics, behaviours and/or perspectives these industries uphold and cultivate:
Failure as opportunity
Some questions for consideration emerge in going down this line of thinking:
Could most industries be involved in ‘pollination’ in some way?
Do we all have a part to play or to assume?
How can we create more intentionally the roles that are needed to bring about systemic change?
Another interesting aspect of pollination are the species tangentially involved. For example, the snow skink in Tasmania is one such species that in eating the honey bush flowers, opens them up to bees, wasps and other pollinators. In the human world, are there supporting industries that play a role in indirect pollination? Could coaching be considered a supporting profession?
Relationships and Pollination
What is important to understand at this point about pollination, is that it is built on relationship. At the very foundation of the survival of life on Earth as we know it, pollination has shown us that we need to be in right or balanced relationship.
“Superficially, pollination is a form of mutualism, or a relationship from which two organisms benefit - in this case the plant and the pollinator.” (Walker 2020, pg. 127)
I find the notion of relationship fascinating in a Western capitalist world that values independence and the individual over all else. And yet, what we know to be true is that humans operate in communities - we are not meant to be solitary beings.
In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown builds on the notion of mutualism and explores the importance of mutual reliance and shared leadership.
“Most of us are socialized towards independence - pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, working on our own to develop, to survive, to win at life...The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us.” (Brown 2017, pg. 87)
What I find interesting here is the relationship between our own individual complexity and the creation of ‘pollinator industries’. There is a powerful interaction between the intellect, emotion, body and spirit and we may not need to understand all of it. By way of a simple analogy, I find myself going down rabbit holes of possibility, and then note to myself how complex we truly are as humans. Similar to the process of pollination, we live and evolve in complex systems.
There is much more to be explored here concerning the valuable role of relationship and systemic change. I welcome conversations and input on this topic and recognize the limitations of this offering here to do justice to this proposed theory of Pollinator Principles. This is simply a start, with more in-depth exploration as this perspective unfolds.
“Given that pollinators are regarded as essential, it may come as a surprise that they still need to be protected - and yet there is clear evidence that they are declining."
(Walker 2020, pg. 99)
One question that is posed in discussions about pollination is what Earth would look like without this biological imperative. For our purposes here, the question that arises is in the difference been interdependence and independence.
What would our work and societies look like if we were fully and wholly independent? Perhaps as fruitless and barren as a world without pollination. We are at our very core interdependent, and operate as communities. We rely on other humans, and yet, we struggle to communicate and interact in productive ways that create just and equitable systems.
Using the framework of Pollinator Principles in our world today, a few questions emerge for consideration:
What are the challenges we are facing?
What characteristics essential to pollination require nurturing and regeneration?
What shifts are needed in our human ecosystems to create more interdependence?
Is there a human equivalent of an ‘invasive species’ that is threatening the way forward?
What would be the human equivalent of a pollination restoration or rehabilitation project?
And so, perhaps some of the lessons we can learn from pollination include the importance of collaboration and partnership, the relationship between us and I, and an understanding of this nurturing system that requires a shared purpose and shared investment in a way of doing things that has beneficial outcomes.
Where do we go from here?
“There is no doubt that pollination is an area of biology that can be used to shed light on many aspects of life on Earth and how living systems function, and on how species survive and evolve.” (Walker 2020, pg. 155)
While there are many possibilities for further exploration in Pollinator Principles, for the moment, I find myself landing in a particular area on the possible influence of pollinator industries. For pollinators such as bees and butterflies, there is much research in their role in evolution.
Applying all of this to the human world, the question becomes, can pollinator industries influence direction and facilitate the growth of new possibilities? I believe it is possible to use Pollinator Principles as a lens for change and as a tool for exploring how to build future systems and structures that intentionally move us away from the capitalist definitions of success and survival into a deeper understanding of our responsibilities to each other and the Earth.