How can metadesign become more ecomimetic?

Transcript from his talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 28th June 2007

By Ken Fairclough

Hi, my name is Ken Fairclough, thank you for introducing me. What am I? I don’t know, I get called all type of things, as John knows… some of them are not nice, but I don’t mind.
Essentially, if you want to look at me and put me the box, I don’t like boxes … I am an epistemologist, someone who looks at theories of knowledge. Particularly, I am an evolutionary epistemologist, evolution as a theory of knowledge, if you like. My particular bent is Eco-mimetics, which essentially is eco-mimicking systems, it is in relation of biometrics or biomimicry which is usually about science and materials, and stuff like, that but not quite the same, I will explain it later.

Let’s start with a question, and I want answers: owl, sheep, snake. Which is the odd one out? Any volunteers?
Snake? Why? Sheep? Owl? ( talking to audience for some moments…). There’s never only one answer, however… If you look at them from a purely technology point of view, as you would do from Ecomimetics: the sheep is low tech, its knowledge to us is warm fur covering. A snake and an owl are high-tech or hyper-tech, as we call them, why? Well, most things have a very expensive infra-red system embedded in their head. Very powerful, capable of distinguishing temperature variations at 0.000005 degrees. As humans, we cannot do that, to do the same thing, in the field, we would need two trucks - one to power the first truck, which has very sensitive material feeding these temperatures diffences into, so, huge amounts of technology, huge amounts of power, not very practical. Snake is high-tech, the snake is high-tech because it also has an environmental sampling system, it sticks its tonge and looks for things and it can sample the air much more efficiently than anything that we have. So it out does us in terms of infra-red, it out does us in terms of environmental sampling.
The owl? The owl, and now we are using this in aircraft design, has the leading edge of the wings so quiet, and it has to be because when it swoops on its pray, the pray doesn’t want it to hear it, so they have very high-tech leading air through the wings. This is now being developed for use on passenger airlines, because they not only cause pollution, but also noise pollution. So, that makes them quiter, so high-tech inspiration. The owl, again, because it has superb night vision. Night vision we still cannot come up with, despite, if you want, the same level of technology.

Point: Nature has a lot more technology than we do and it's hell of a lot better, hell of a lot better. It's out there, waiting to be plugged, and we just ignore it. I gave a talk to fight racers, Top Gun type pilots, and the scenario I gave them was (I called them aircraft because I wanted to mislead them slightly): You have these aircrafts wondering around in a very tight, very close to each other, diving all over the place and so on. Not one of them colliding with each other. Having on board sophisticated collision avoiding systems, sophisticated radar which can change frequencies all the time. And then I asked them a question: When or where is this? The answer was Sci-Fi, the future and a whole range of other quite interesting answers. The real answer is now, planet earth. This is what bats do. Their sophistication and radar system is nothing we can replicate at the moment. We are just thinking with the tiny edges of radar.

I have touched on a number of technological areas, there are a vast number of more. But these are straight technologies. What´s more interesting to me, although those are very interesting anyway, is that in nature there is a whole series of social models that we can use and follow. Does anybody know who the best city planners are? Ants (coming from the audience). Thank you very much. Ants. They have this superb model of putting the dump in the right place and all the other bits in the right place. And mathematicians have sat there and worked it out, you cannot get any more effective model than the ants have in terms of city planning system. How do they do it in terms of: Who keeps the plan? Do they have a master planner? No, it's embedded in the system, which is quite interesting, because we don't work like that, of course. We should, do but we don't. So, what I am trying to get to is: we need a fundamental mind shift. We need to move away from looking at us for the solution. We need to move to looking at nature for the solution.
It's NDS, Nature's Design Studio, has been around for billions of years. It has some very sophisticated designs, including you of course. Because we are all a product of NDS. Our brain is probably one of the top-ranking products, but not necessarily the top, there are some others. So we are products of NDS ourselfs. We have evolved using the NDS type mechanism. So why don´t we use it? Why don´t we use it to solve our problems? Our problems in terms of energy, pollution and so on. We can do it quite easily, because we only have to look at it. It is in plain sight, its hidden in plain sight, we are just ignoring it.

I think one of the things I have to get round to very quickly, and I often have these special sciences: biomimetrics and ecomimetrics. Biomimicry is not the same as ecomimicry. Biomimicry: Solar panels. Solar panels were inspired by what nature does with light in terms of turning it into energy. But solar panels are not eco-mimetic, because they don't do it the same way as nature does it. They use actually quite expensive bits of material and computing power and so on, to do the same thing. Very recently, we wanted to look at this as: Why don´t we go back to the drawing board and see how nature does it and why don´t we copy how nature actually processes the light and turns it into energy? Why are we looking at very expensive, very sophisticated solar panels? There must be a different way of looking at this. And as of yet in my whole career, I have never come across an area where eco-mimetics cannot find a solution. Either inspired by nature or developed using NDS, Nature´s Design Studio. There is a solution somewhere, it is just about getting your brain around it a little bit.
I want to tell you a little story. I use this at business conferences, and it doesn´t go down very well, you will see why in a minute. Imagine a scenario: You are walking along, mind your own business, some guy pulls up, winds down the window. He looks lost, so being helpful you say: Can I help? And he says: 28. Are you looking for number 28? Last week it was 27. 27 what? House? Miles per gallon! Alright, so 27 last week, now 28… And you know what, he says, next week it will be 29. Hm, ok, are you lost? No, I know what I am doing. And he drives off. You see, he was concentrating on being efficient… effective? No, he had no idea where he was nor where he was going, without a clue. So, in terms of effectiveness - zero. In terms of efficiency - probably very good, I don´t know. I cristalyse that by using the notion of a car factory. I did this for Ford. Making cars, that´s what they do. And they were very pleased with their factory, it was superb. Because they were able to produce more cars per production line, given the costs and given the manpower, and so on, than any other production line. Brilliant, absolute efficiency. But they couldn´t sell any cars because nobody wanted them. So it wasn´t effective at all. It was efficient because they looked at it in isolation. We actually banned the word efficient in our organisation because it is very misleading. And yet this is what we do when we look at design. Because we look at how to make things more efficient. It is a key word, you can find the word all over the place, efficient, efficient, efficient, throw it away, it is not worth the paper it is written on.

I will show you why. At the moment, when we design things we design because we are, I suppose a culture based on efficiency. So, E1 “Efficiency”, we are in that column, also because of the way we force design, in terms of costs and so on, we made them survivable, something we can get out of the door, we can have quick returns and so on… survivable and efficient, they are in this area, actually they reffer most around here (drawing on the board). But if you want Metadesign it has to be here, it has to be effective, it has to be both survivable and sustainable, so it really has to be at this end of the scale. We do a lot of work on measuring the effectiveness of an organisation, and the effectiveness of a project or policy. It can be applied to anything that really needs some type of performance indicator. And horrifyingly the categories fall into four categories broadly:

Non viable: In nature you have to have 7% of the energy in nutriton just to maintain the status quo. Think of a factory, if you are in a factory and you turn off all the power and so on, all the lights, no one is looking after things or maintaining or so on. Eventually that factory will deteriorate. So 7% is required in any system just to maintain it, not to reduce anything, just to maintain it. Its bare minimum. So up to 7% is non viable. Up to 14% is something which is survivable in the short term but not sustainable. Above that, up to 85% is something which is survivable and sustainable. Would you like to guess where the vast majority, nearly all of the products, projects, the organisations, the policies that we look at fall into which of those four categories. Any guesses? Most products, solutions, organizations fall straight in this non-viable category. But that doesn't make much sense, really, because they are still around. Well, that's because a lot of government policy, for instance, helps subsidise these, say, the large organisations, and keep them going. So, they have got a life support system. They feel like they are on a drip, they have got a life support system to keep them going. But if they were disconnected from the system, the life-support, they would fail. Which is horrifying when you see that these guys, which are supposed to be the guys that help us out, with technology, to go to the future, to help us combat global warming etc., they have enough problems surviving, nevermind contributing anything to the picture if you like.
Oddly, in the UK there are a number of so called small giants. Well, a small giant is a small entity that is not too big to have lost contact with its product base, its customers etc. But is a giant in terms of the return it gets. The interesting thing is that when the research was done, looking at small giants, they found that the people running them, the majority, had no idea if they were making a profit or not. They had no idea what cash-flow was. Nevertheless, in their sector they were by far the best. That’s because they were using a primary performance indicator: survivability and sustainability. They knew that they had to meet a certain point, have a certain quality relationship with their value ecology, to ensure they stay there. If they didn’t have that quality relationship, they would have just died.
Now, that was a bit of a surprise for the guys doing the research, because they assumed that they would be interested in making profit, and so on. But, profit is secondary performance indicator, its an indication of process outcome. It doesn’t tell you anything about your survivability, or the potential you are creating within your value-ecology or your sustainability. It doesn’t tell you anything about that at all. But their focus on primary performance indicators, survivability, sustainability, potential etc. which don’t really need numbers, its more feeling in terms of how well are you doing, how is the value-ecology relationship. You can’t value that with numbers, it doesn’t work, you can’t put it on a balance sheet. You can say its good or bad, but you can’t actually put numbers to it, in that sense. So, those who focus on the primary performance indicators do very nicely. Those who concentrate on the secondary ones, tend to stagger around and just stay there, surely because of their boulk, normally. Like a lost super tanker that doesn’t really know what to do.

I had a call once from Arthur Anderson, big consulting group, they were buffled: We get called often were people got stuck. They had spent enourmous amounts of money on a research on a business area called Business Process Re-engineering. And that’s exactly what’s in the tin, about how you re-engineer your processes within the business, and process activities and so on. However, the report made no sense to them whatsoever. Because contrary to what they expected, particularly as they were a major explorer of this idea of BPR, they found that the companies that performed better, were those that haven’t carried out BPR exercises. And they didn’t know why, this was illogical. You know, this great new business tool which was going to make everybody much better and it hadn’t done. The research could not back up that thought. So they didn’t understand what was going on. Well, that was easy, they were focusing inwards using secondary performance indicators. The others not doing BPR were not worried about that because they were focusing outwards using primary performance indicators. So they were in touch with their world outside and that’s what they focused on. And the accountants can’t measure that. Whereas those focusing inwards had a problem already because they needed to sort out some of the processes, obviously they were doing something wrong anyway. So BPR didn’t work because it didn’t deliver anything.

I remember we took a project, really, we delivered, we knew the way they wanted us to do it, we wouldn’t deliver. They actually specificly said, we want you to use BPR and we said ok. We had no intention to use BPR, but that is what they wanted us to use. It was Xerox, the big copy group. We went in and what we did was: We looked at what they did and the problem. The problem they had was they had order to delivery in 60 days. That means that if you order something on the phone now, 60 days later it gets delivered. All the competitors were doing much better than that. Some down to 15 or 10 days. They were quite sophisticated kits, they need building and so on. Most competitors could deliver in say 10-15 days, they were taking 60. That’s not a sustainable position, they were loosing, because when people say I need this now and they say I can’t deliver, it takes 60 days, the salesmen were wrapped in arms because they couldn’t deliver. We went in, they said BPR, and we said ok, but we didn’t do anything in that kind. All we did is we looked not at the activities or any of the processes at all. We looked at the relationship between them. Now, in some cases, what has happened when someone picked up a paper and sent it to another office, somewhere in the country in the post, two day or three day delay, and then he moves it back, maybe to the same office. So, there were these delays all over the system, in the hand-offs between the system i.e. the systemic relationships in the system. Nothing to do with the processes or activities. We finished the project, went back and said: all deliveries from now on should be about 3 days. Oh, they expected us to reduce it to say 30. So, 3 days it was, and they said: Thank you for this nice BPR project, but it wasn’t BPR at all. We had ignored that because it doesn’t work. We simple looked at the realtionships, again those internal. The outward relationship between each process and the next one. Rather than the process itself, the inward facing idea. Although that’s a micro level, that’s what we did.

So, we have this real problem in terms of how we think about things. We have to have a quantum leap, we have to move from where we are now. From the way we measure, what we call MOS, Measurement of Success. Most MOSes are based on secondary performance indicators. They measure the success based on secondary performance indicators, efficiency etc., process outcomes. We need a fundamental shift, because we need to look on systemic, in terms of the effectiveness of a particular system and its relationship to the outside world. So we need primary performance indicators. And what we have been articulating to our clients recently is: sorry, forget all your efficiencies, throw your accountants away. Let's look at primary performance indicators, because they will concentrate on your survivability, your sustainablity, how much potential you help clients to realize and so on. That’s what you need, these things have been misleading you for years. And when they say to me: Oh, no, no business wisdom says profit, cash flow brilliance. And I say: Well, let’s tell you another story then. I used to work for Gannar Stallarden, which is a Scandinavian bank and I used to do autopsies on projects, companies, investments, that they had carried out that failed. They wanted to know why, they wanted to learn why. The Swedish have always been very switched on about learning about things like that. So I did an autopsy and the interesting thing was that in nearly all of the cases both the cash flow and the profits were quite nice, thank you very much. But they still collapsed. One example was an insurance group that collapsed because they operated in a number of countries, smaller countries in Europe, and what they didn’t understand was that in smaller countries the governments are a lot more agile, so they bring in a new piece of legislation rather quickly. And because they have become dominant, the legislation in this counry has decided that they would outlaw them essentially, because all the money they were soaking up was going out of their country and into the UK. So, they outlawed this type of companies and then literally one day after the other, and another country did the same. So their specialist market vanished. Not because they were not profitable, not because they were not having good cash flow, simply because their market vanished, because they have become too aggressive. Aggressive is maybe not the right word, but too dominant. So its always these other reasons. If they had primary performance indicators, survivability and sustainablity, they would have realized that they are upsetting the status quo in those countries and wouldn’t have done it like that or in a different manner.

Another example is when one of the first American budget airlines collapsed. When it came to court and so on, Federal Aviation Association investigation and so on as to why this happened. Using conventional auditing tools they found that probably they only had maybe 3 or 2 months of notice before they collapsed. But when we had an eye on using what we call SSI tools, survivability, sustainablity tools, we could have given them nearly two years notice which is quite a significant difference. And when we fed this back into the FAA and said: Look, actually they could have had two years notice to this. They had arguments with, again it was Arthur Andersen starting arguing the point, but when Arthur Andersen saw that it was us and they checked with the UK branch, they decided that they would not argue the points because they have already used us for their tools themselves. So you can see very quickly that if we use the right tools we can be much more survivable and sustainable. So that’s in the business world, but it works for us as human beings and the planet. It's the same idea. That if you look at things in terms of: when we take the decision to build a road, make a tunnel, whatever it is. We want to know how it is going to affect our survivability and sustainability, and also of course, above that, what type of potential it is going to realize and for whom. I used to run projects, eye over some projects the Ministry of Defense used to to and I used to say: But there is nothing out of this. There is no one who is going to get any emergent value out of this, there is just nothing to be delivered. It looks nice on paper but where is the contribution to society? there is nothing there. So, they binned it. And in fact, now they use our tool on every project they do. They want to see a value. They want to see how humanity is going to realize potential from that particular project. If it can’t get a score they bin it. Not only do they do that, but if they have a decision to make - where to invest on three or four projects, the one with the highest score gets the money. Its simple. The one with the highest capability of realizing potential for humanity, is the one that gets the money, the other two forget it. It’s quite a useful system for them. Very easy to make decisions, as well, because every time they make a decision about something, they simply look at the SSI score. How does this affect the survivability of the project? How will this affect the sustainability of the project? That’s all they look at, that’s all they need to do. Anything else frankly is irrelevant. I know that sound a bit simplistic but its not because it’s the fundamentals, it’s the primary performance indicators, it’s the ones you need to look at. So we need to look at that in humanity across the world, everywhere, in everything we do. Because that way, we can quickly start to see what impact things like global warming will soon have, and how any decision we make on them in terms of major project, infrastruture projects, etc. would actually have an impact. Not in terms of straight-forward economics, but in terms of how the impact, the survivability and sustainability of the planet, and you can measure it at that level.

Why? Because nature does that, that’s exactly how nature works. Each creature on the planet survives, because of the way of its own value ecology scores in here (points at the board) actually just scores in here. Its quite tight about how well it does. Its just above the margin up here. We can go a lot further, because we can abstract further now, but most of nature’s creatures just make it over 16 or 17%. Those that are threatened, of course, are lower than this, maybe because they haven’t adapted to their environment. That’s our fault, because we have caused the problem, but they haven’t done. But some do, of course, and they remain up here.

So this type of performance indicator based on SSI will allow us to make decisions about things very quickly. It will allow us to see where we sould be investing money. It should allow us to choose between projects, saying that one has got a better score, we will do that one. So it makes life a lot simpler. We don’t have to worry about profitability and so on, because, frankly, they are irrelevant. Companies that look at these types of things actually do a lot better in profitability anyway. Profitability is a by-product of survivability. If you don’t survive, how can you make a profit? You have got to be there in the first place, its fundamental. So focus on survivability and sustainability, forget the profits. They will come if you are good enough, if you are not, they won’t and you collapse. And you don´t deserve to be there, frankly, if you can’t deliver.