Sunday, March 20, 2011

Business as an Ecosystem (Coastal Salt Marsh)

What would it mean to run a company like an ecosystem?  

Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida
Using Sanibel Island as my test model, I've thought about this question.  
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Florida.  Th
e coastal salt marsh ecosystem is formed on the inland side of Sanibel Island and is a water-based ecosystem that has adapted to tidal fluctuations in water levels.  Mangrove trees and oysters form land masses and inter-tidal areas that are the nurseries for the sea and the rookeries for many birds and mammals.  

What can we learn from this ecosystem and how can it influence business practices?

An ecosystem is interdependent and the the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Successful businesses need to be able to see the big picture and to understand the connections between each aspect of their work.  This ability allows a company to plan for future contingencies as well as streamline operations and reduce waste and redundancies.  

One of the most abundant plants in this ecosystem is the mangrove tree, a freshwater plant that is able to desalinate the salty/brackish water in order to obtain the water it needs to survive.  If businesses were designed to cleanly harvest abundant resources without contributing harmful byproducts, they would restore the land and its resources they use instead of exploiting them.  Additionally, by learning a skill that other businesses cannot replicate, they have a competitive advantage.

Oysters create a natural concrete that allows them to adhere to sandbars, adapting to tidal fluctuations.  By manipulating their shell to close and keep the animal inside from drying out, the oysters survive where others cannot.  If businesses were flexible and able to adapt to not only expected changes, as the oysters do, but also unexpected changes, they are more likely to survive the "downs" and thrive during the "ups."

Over one half of the land mass of Sanibel Island has been set aside as a wildlife preserve and the areas that have been settled by humans fit fairly seamlessly into the natural environment and aesthetic.  Heights of buildings are limited to below the height of the trees; houses on the seashore are raised on stilts to reduce damage due to storm surge; beaches are left undisturbed and vegetation and seafood that washes up is a nutritious resource for shore birds; and so on.  In the example of Sanibel Island, humans have chosen to integrate with the natural ecosystem rather than fighting against it, which is a paradigm shift compared to the majority of human development.  If companies were to emulate this model and seamlessly integrate with the surrounding environment, costs associated with environmental cleanup, maintenance, and waste disposal (among others) could be reduced.

Sanibel Island Ecosystem Interactions

Marine Life Interactions at Sanibel Island
(sketch by Amy Coffman Phillips)
This iSite took place on an ecology tour through Tarpon Bay on the Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, FL.  A biologist, Brianna Coffman who turns out to be a distant unknown cousin of my dad (it's a small, interconnected world), led our tour with incredible knowledge and insight about this coastal marsh ecosystem.  In addition to the insights learned from the boat, our tour guide also gave us knowledge about how marine life interacts below the sea, interactions I've sketched above.  Because this was a boat tour and not a snorkeling tour, my photos of their aquarium will have to suffice for now.

my biologist guide's attempt to recreate tarpon bay's marine ecosystem
(photo by Faye Coffman)
Barnacles attach to any hard substrate they can find, including the shells of various marine organisms.  While walking the beach, I found beautiful pink and white barnacles attached to a pen shell (marine mollusk).  Given the amount of dead pen shells with barnacles I found on the beach, it is possible that the barnacles could get out of control and adversely affect the pen shell's ability to feed itself, developing a parasitic relationship. 

Whelks, such as the Lightening Whelk Conch, are carnivores that are able to eat the flesh of the barnacle by grinding down their outer shell.  The Conch uses its shell to grind and can repair and grow new shell using calcium from the ocean - talk about life friendly chemistry!   They also use suction to pry open the shells of their prey, and their favorite food seems to be the Arck, because their shells must number in the trillions and create Sanibel's white sand beaches.  These beaches create more land mass and continue the cycle of land creation.
Red Mangrove roots forming new islands
(photo by Amy Coffman Phillips)
As this sketch shows, terrestrial organisms are continually looking for new opportunities to colonize new land formed by the shells of marine life.  
Terrestrial Interactions at Sanibel Island
(sketch by Amy Coffman Phillips)
Intertidal zone sand bars are colonized by oysters, which form land by secreting a natural concrete-like compound and bind them together and with the land.  The interstitial spaces are filled by crabs and other organisms looking for shelter from the birds.  The birds land, looking for the crabs and find some, leaving feces to fertilize the sand bar with nitrogen, necessary for plant growth.

Sand bars that stay more or less above the tides are colonized by floating mangrove seedlings, which grow roots into the sand.  Barnacles and other organisms colonize the roots and trap more sediment, which stabilizes the roots and allows the plant to grow more roots.  Birds sit on these roots and look for food, giving nitrogen to the new soil with their feces.  This process grows an island and the sum of its parts are greater than they would be if each organism existed alone.

Mangroves have an impact on the ecosystem at the macro-scale as well.  This network of roots in the coastal marshes are the nurseries of the ocean and they help coastal nurseries respond to dynamic non-equilibrium by dampening hurricane winds and slowing flood waters.  

Sanibel Island Coastal Ecosystem

Jacob chasing shore birds on Sanibel Island, FL

For this iSite, I was to translate what I saw into an engineering diagram of energy flows.  I noticed that all normal energy flows are cyclical - each organism's waste creates an input of energy for another.  The energy my son expended chasing shore birds is not accounted for on the diagram below, but maybe it should be.  

Sanibel Island Coastal Ecosystem Energy Flows

The Laughing Gull on Sanibel Island

Laughing Gull on Sanibel Island

We just returned from our vacation to Sanibel Island and Ft. Myers, Florida and it is so nice to get a break from the cold winters in Chicago. As a part of my work on the Biomimicry Professional Certificate Program, I get to do site observations called iSites. During this time, I have the luxury to think and observe nature while trying to tune out distractions - not always easy for a mom with two small kids. For this iSite, I was to imagine my life as an organism I observed, and the seagulls on Sanibel Island are ubiquitous.

I feel a bit like I am cheating on my iSite to talk about the sea gulls at Sanibel. I threw down a cracker and within three minutes, there were about 20 birds hovering over me. Yes, I know I'm not supposed to feed the wildlife, but sometimes you get great pictures that way!

If I were a seagull, I would spend much of my time waiting for humans on the beach to leave or throw food. I would not be that dissimilar to a vulture in my feeding habits. When humans are not around as much, I scavenge and swim for crabs and shrimps. I coexist nicely with other shore birds, but we are very competitive over food. I have agile wings and can catch food in the air. I'm an omnivore. I'm not picky. Most of my cousins scavenge in parking lots and landfills, so by comparison I'm very classy.

My special niche is my ability to take advantage of areas where humans or other organisms have changed the habitat substantially. While I prefer to breed in coastal marshes and beaches, human modification of this habitat does not bother me. My colony mates and I adapt well. We make our nests of grasses.

I have few natural preditors. Some herring gulls feed on my eggs if I am not careful, but beyond the search for food I have little population control. You will find me everywhere on the coast.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Multi-Functional Design

Recent one page report on Life's Principle to be resource (material & energy) efficient, focused on the sub-principle to design multi-functionally.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How will we feed ourselves?

Green Drinks - Naperville, an organization I help organize, has decided to delve deeply into the issues of local self-reliance and adaptability this year.  Every month, lectures will focus on the Transition Town initiative as we explore different ways that our community will adapt to peak oil and climate change.

This month's lecture was entitled "how will we feed ourselves?"  Steve Tiwald of the Green Earth Institute and Ron Nowiki of The Land Office discussed organic food production and permaculture, respectfully.

Highlights from Mr. Tiwald's lecture on organic gardening and community supported agriculture:
  • There are approximately 6 billion critters in 1 cup of good, organic soil.  The use of petroleum based fertilizers kill these critters.
  • 3 c's of organic gardening: Compost, Crop rotation, and Cover crops.  He likes red clover as a cover crop.
  • Soybeans are now 80% genetically modified.  The organic seal forbids GMO.
Highlights from Mr. Nowiki's lecture on permaculture and Liberty Gardens
  • By 2100, one-half of all species currently alive today will be extinct.  (We are in the middle of 6X, or the sixth major extinction our planet has faced.)
  • "a child can only learn so much from a mown lawn"
  • A 40' tree transpires 40 gallons of water per day +\-
  • A linden or bass wood makes a delicious and flowery tea that is mildly sedative
  • An AIA study determined that design changes alone can save 40% in energy costs. 
  • Lemon grass makes a beautiful decorative grass in container arrangements with sage surrounding it.  Lemon grass makes a good tea. Ornamental grasses can be harvested and used as mulch under strawberries.
  • Kwintis beans are a good pole bean.
  • Another decorative arrangement is red cabbage in front of dinosaur kale.
  • Tuscan kale - gorgeous tall fountain looking plant.
  • Gooseberries for juice.
  • Clove currant - fragrant plant with edible berry that doesn't taste that great.
  • Apple service berry - gorgeous white glower tree with berry that looks like a blue berry but tastes like a seedy apple; autumn brilliance has a great fall color.
  • Elderberry - mates a fritter; berry high in antioxidants, but invasive.
  • Rhubarb grows in some shade.
  • Hardy kiwi is a vine, also called grape kiwi; best when soft and mushy after a frost
  • Neonicotinoids may be causing honeybee colony collapse disorder.
  • Bird baths are popular and attract birds to eat insects.
  • Succession of a mature landscape.  At first, mice and voles loved his permaculture yard.  Unitl a screetch owl moved in to help control that population.  
  • Pesticides we use were evolved from chemical warfare from WW2.  Since production capacity was already there, it was just adapted to a new use.  But do you really want chemical warefare in your food?
  • Victory gardens in 1944 produced 40% of produce consumed in the country.
  • Compost, sand, and topsoil in equal parts make good soil starter.
  • "Liberty Gardens," liberating ourselves from the industrial food supply.
  • Sungold cherry tomato.
  • Microgreens grow in the basement under lights.  Standard 4' fluorescent bulb almost as good as full spectrum lights.
  • Forest gardening - martin Crawford; part shade gardening
References and Future Reading: