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Surrounded with Solutions From Nature

The problems of today can be turned into opportunities. The key is to draw inspiration from nature

Published: Jun 15, 2012 06:53:31 AM IST
Updated: Jun 14, 2012 03:44:48 PM IST
Surrounded with Solutions From Nature
Image: Borja Zausen

Gunter Pauli
Position: Founder director of the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives
Contribution: Author of the Blue Economy: 10 years – 100 innovations – 100 million jobs, which advocates a way of doing business drawing inspiration from nature and natural systems

After World War II, humanity looked for solutions based on resources available anywhere in the world. We would ship anything anywhere, facilitated by the low cost of energy. Now, we propose to build the capacity to respond to our basic needs with what we have. This reduces costs while at the same time offers opportunities for the generation of additional revenues. Any concentration of people will generate by-products, the value of which we do not automatically recognise. This discovery is part of the learning process.

The traditional MBA will urge the entrepreneur to focus on one niche market with one core competence. This permits the translation of all benefits into one unique and easy-to-understand cash flow. The starting point of the Blue Economy is the opportunity to generate multiple benefits, with multi-disciplinary teams who are able to generate multiple revenue streams. The design process will identify which hidden assets and flows could generate multiple benefits for the investors, the clients, employees, the community and the ecosystem.

The key is to insist that a whole new form of competitiveness needs to be devised. The focus should not be necessarily on cutting costs but on abandoning the principle of core competency. Businesses today are not responding adequately to their fundamental obligation of creating shareholder value. Having multiple revenue streams is demonstrably more beneficial and sustainable for all stakeholders. There is no room, however, for such thinking in the existing frameworks.

I have had long conversations with chief executives of companies on sustainable solutions that can create shareholder value if only they saw the opportunity. But the standard answer I come up against is that their engineers do not have the core competence. They are stuck in the core business model. Even those CEOs who have grasped the importance and the possibility of thinking differently feel helpless in explaining it to the analysts. Only companies that are not listed on stock exchanges can possibly make the thought transition.

Once I had a detailed discussion with the head of a mining company on converting their mining pits into hydropower generation plants. The company had 32 open pits and it needed to make a provision of $5 billion for them. Instead, if the company invested just $500 million connecting the pits, which had become water reservoirs, with existing tunnels and shafts, it could generate about 300 MW of electricity at just 3 cents per kilowatt hour. We went through the risk, energy and cost analysis and it was plain as daylight that it was a winning proposition. The CEO finally said, “I have no clue how to explain to the analysts on Wall Street that I as a mining executive propose to invest in power generation, converting provisions into investments.’’

Another argument is that such recycling does not offer scale. Of course we prefer to start and stay small. That does not mean we cannot grow big. Size is not the result of economies of scale; rather it is the result of economies of scope or doing so much more with what we have that we can grow the economy. Coffee waste is a substrate for mushrooms; the spent substrate enriched in essential amino acids is great feed for chickens. My son of three is capable of harvesting mushrooms every day from his bags of coffee and tea waste. He picked up a wild mushroom in the forest, wrapped it in a wet newspaper, saw the mycelium grow, then put some of it in the plastic bags and two or three weeks later harvested edible mushrooms.

The mega industries are stuck in the straitjacket of ‘core business’ and large coffee processing companies will claim that they are not in the mushroom business and, therefore, forego this opportunity to produce food cheaply. If all 25 million coffee farmers in the world were to convert their waste to food then we could generate an additional 50 million jobs (two per farm) and generate as much cholesterol-free food for human consumption as the whole fish farming industry today. And that is only coffee!

The key is to inspire ourselves by nature. There is so much knowledge and wisdom, it is embarrassing how the industrialised modern ‘homo sapiens’ behave. It looks more like we belong to the ‘homo non sapiens’ class.

Once people are exposed to the opportunities, they will quickly convert these into the industries of tomorrow. Of course, do not expect this to happen in the industrialised world, in the centres of power, but do expect the shifts to occur in the periphery.

Take the example of slaughterhouse waste, converted by maggots into protein and high-quality wound treatment products. Just in Africa, this would represent 5,00,000 jobs while eliminating the health hazards related to the inappropriate management of animal waste. The project was first started in Porto Novo, Benin by the Songhai Center; now the first extension is being implemented in Cape Town and hundreds will pop up in the next few years just like it happened with the coffee/mushroom farms.

I am often asked whether humanity can survive climate change. Of course, we can. We will need to change our mental framework, evolving from seeing excessive carbon dioxide or CO2 as a problem and turning it into an opportunity.

We need to shift from looking at substituting one product with another less polluting one. It is only when we make a fundamental shift in our production and consumption behaviour that there is a chance to reverse the trends.

It means we have to change the business models. If we substitute 1,00,000 tonnes of metals and titanium with silk as has been demonstrated scientifically and commercially, then we need to plant two million hectares of mulberry trees. These trees replenish topsoil and permit barren land to start farming after about 10 years. Then we substitute a massive net emission of CO2 by a massive net sequestration of CO2, while increasing performance and turning non-renewable products into renewable ones.

If we embrace the standard of coal, oil and gas, and rely on mining for our economic development then the developing world will also tire out alongside the industrialised nations. We embrace a simple principle: Use what you have. Now at first that seems to imply that there is no future and no opportunity, but that is because we do not see, we are myopic and do not realise that there are multiple energy sources.

In order to break through this blindness I always start by sharing with children how the whale succeeds in pumping 1,000 litres of blood with every heart beat using just six volts of power and keeps up the performance for 80 years without maintenance. If the whale can outperform all pumps that our engineers designed, who will inspire children—the whale or the engineer?

We need to shift our thinking from what is reality today to what is the vision for tomorrow. And in order to shape that vision we need to source ourselves in the world of nature. While adults will classify this as fantasy, reality is different indeed.

(As told to Dinesh Narayanan)

(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Oscar Ayala

    Gunter ideas are simple and basic, yet very powerful. Greed and the lust for power have deviated goverments, companies and people from the essence of life. We must learn to live and be happy with what we have, not competing and struggling for having more and more. Lets look where we and our planet are now and lets go back to basics and find new, cooperative ways to work together, in peace, sharing, adding up, not competing. This is the message that THE BLUE ECONOMY conveys to the world.

    on Jun 16, 2012