[Illustrations: Carolina Ferreira]
If this tricky moment has taught us one thing, it is that we need new ways of working together to accelerate the shifting of paradigms when it comes to the big sustainability questions of our time. But big shifts must start with small steps. Those of us working in environmentalism know the challenges are overwhelming and getting started is hard. What we are doing at Biomimicry Granada is breaking down those big issues into small approachable steps and one thing we love to do is to get people to see the magic of the nature around them – in the city.
Our latest project is a city tour of Granada with the purpose of reconnecting people to nature and highlighting the insights of the natural world. We chose an urban tour for several reasons, not the least of which was accessibility and showing people that nature does not have to be an exotic rainforest or savannah, but that amazing things are happening all around. One of the core tenants of the tour is to have fun as we inspire wonder and curiosity. Our hope in the development of the tour is that we can create a model that others around the world might adopt in their own city.
An Unlikely International Collaboration
Our connection with ERBN, the Ethical and Responsible Business Network at UW Madison’s School of Business, came at an opportune time for both. Each semester, students in the Ethical and Responsible Business Network participate in consulting projects that assist local companies in improving their sustainability efforts. Through a rather random email, as these things happen, ERBN students were looking for a consulting project and many businesses – for all too obvious reasons now – did not have extra energy or resources to support the students. We thought it would be worthwhile to work together at a distance, combining the efforts of both groups. Many of us are working remotely anyway – so why would this be different? Biomimicry Granada is made up of scientists and creatives and could use the influx of marketing or business expertise. The business students at ERBN were able to apply the skills they have been practicing in class to a real-world scenario, gaining valuable experience along the way. These are the sort of symbiotic relationships present in nature from which we can learn a great deal.
Each team brought its strengths to the project. From Biomimicry Granada, Chris Gauthier acted as the project manager, nurturing us across the distance with best practice project management techniques. The distance, time requirements for class and other commitments demanded that every meeting deliver value. Establishing a discipline and cadence of communication helped to make sure that we stayed on track to deliver that value. Previous intern, Katharina Hecht , had already completed an inventory of nature in the city which set the groundwork for the types of organisms we would include. Luis Calle Sánchez and Matthew Neiman determined the best location to start working on prototype tours to make it easy to test our ideas with the general community and Carolina Ferreira and Javier Fuentes provide graphics and communication content. Theresa Millard provides the overall glue and motivation to the team to bring the whole project together.
On the ERBN side, an equally qualified team showed up every week to further our progress while applying their business knowledge in a sustainability-focused project. The group’s specializations at UW-Madison vary including Political Science, Marketing, Finance, Economics and many more. Although their backgrounds and areas of study are diverse, these students are all united by their passion for sustainability and desire to reduce the environmental impact of businesses in their community. The students were split into two groups of 3, with each team focusing on a different aspect of the project.
After assembling our team and debriefing the students on the goals of the project, we needed to determine the best way work with the ERBN team. Working with people you have never met, who live many miles and time zones away, and are volunteering their time outside of class and extracurriculars requires careful collaboration. Rather than trying to boil the ocean with the limited time available, we chose to limit the scope of work to the development of personas by one ERBN team and an environmental impact matrix by the other one.
The Personas Team identified potential users & target markets. This work brought to life our prospective customers and is the cornerstone for us to keep the needs and wants of those customers at the forefront of our ideation and subsequently develop a more valuable tour. The work on the target markets also provided us with insights on spending patterns, motivations, and concerns for the customer segments. The Team brainstormed ideas using Miro, an online collaboration site, allowing all members to contribute to visual representations of the personas. Ultimately, the Team identified 5 personas and created storyboards demonstrating their needs, interests, and behavior patterns for the proposed Biomimicry Tour of Granada.
The Environmental Impact Team’s matrix of materials and possible energy flows forced us to ask more questions about and understand that every tourist activity has an environmental and social impact, even a walking tour. The Environmental Team’s spreadsheet organizes possible waste streams for each section of a potential tour (i.e., before, during, and after). The team also incorporated insights from the personas group into their work by altering anticipated waste flows based on characteristics of different groups. For example, the personas group hypothesized that tourists from abroad would be more willing to spend money on souvenirs or food throughout the tour than a group of local schoolchildren. The questions and insights in the matrix, along with information gathered on analogous tours, provided us with a solid stepping off point for designing the tour.
Finally, both teams used templates designed to be applied to a wider geographic area. Should we or an associated biomimicry team want to develop a tour for another location, these templates can serve as a foundation for those projects as well. Our collaboration with ERBN proved to be mutually beneficial, and we hope to have inspired a new perspective on nature in the students as they worked alongside us this spring.
The (Not Yet Final) Product: Biomimicry Tours!
After the hard work by ERBN, we were finally ready to put what we learned to the test. The tour aims to evoke awe as we learn about the amazing mechanisms of even seemingly simple organisms. The first prototype takes participants through Europe, Asia, and the Americas – a journey of the plants in Parque Fuentenueva here in Granada. They all tell a story – whether an agave americana that is shaped like a funnel to capture water in the arid desert, or a daisy that uses the golden ratio to efficiently pack the seeds on its head. Pomegranates, cacti, caterpillars, pine-trees, and Chinese lanterns… catching bugs, zooming in with a magnifying glass, feeling waxy surfaces…
The invaluable personas work helped us prepare to test the prototype with any group. We needed to be ready to teach curious students boundless new facts, while at the same time entertaining young children with hands-on challenges. Gauging time and engaging the audience are crucial. Education about impacts comes in the form of Nature’s Unifying Patterns (The Biomimicry Institute) and making participants understand how actions (be it choice of transportation, snacks with single-use plastics or even the surprising facts behind using cell phone data) have consequences. The work done by ERBN greatly enhanced the quality and preparation over what we would have managed had we jumped straight in.
Takeaways from our International Collaboration
In the end, it was a successful collaboration and a unique experience for all. We trusted that if we do good work together, and believe in the bigger picture, then good things happen. This is the kind of energy and intellectual contribution that the world needs. This project is a steppingstone to how we can think about working together differently. ERBN inspired us that even though we are thousands of miles apart we can change the world. One tour step at a time.
Humans evolved in nature, and we possess an innate connection to other organisms. In fact, our survival has often depended on this connection. With increasing numbers moving into urban environments globally, we no longer appreciate all the amazing services that nature provides – from food to clean air and water, comfort, materials, and much more. Exacerbated by covid-19 and the online era, people are losing touch with our origins. When you are far away from nature, it is easy to ignore its value, and part of the solution to the current environmental crisis must be restoring natural connections.
How many times do you run through a park or sit in a café under a tree and don’t even notice the nature around you? In the city we have many opportunities to experience the awe-inspiring nature around us – but we just do not know how to see what is in plain sight. That is what we are trying to change.