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Tapping Our Planet's Creative Commons

[This Post is republished with permission of Dr. Tamsin, Mycomesh's Senior Biology Advisor. It presents a unique twist on the idea of a free "biological creative commons" that is available to us if we but learn to see. It originally appeared in 2015 in Asking Nature, the Biomimicry Global Network blog. It is an excellent example of the unique advisory perspective that Dr. Tamsin adds to MycoMesh. Enjoy! Much more coming... Barbara and John McDonald]

Life’s genome is a vast repository of ancient knowledge. After 3.8 billion years of scrambling, shifting, and selecting ideas that work, the diversity is staggering. Today, 1.5 million species have been named, and every year, scientists report 15,000 more. New species turn up in forgotten museum drawers- it’s hard to keep pace. Just a spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different bacteria, many new to science, and each one of them has a unique toolkit of adaptations, exquisitely honed by 3.8 billion years of trial and error.

The ancestors of every organism alive today spent billions of years discovering new ways to make a living. In their quests to find prey and avoid becoming it, find mates and raise their young to mating age, they found open niches- new ground on which to set seed and spread. Their descendants’ dazzling array of strategies and structures are our collective Earthling intellectual property- the ultimate Creative Commons.

That Commons is literally the raw feedstock for all future innovation. Back in 1930, the theoretical biologist Ronald Fisher showed that a population’s ability to adapt is limited by the amount of variation natural selection has to sculpt from. Evolution requires it. Populations that lack diversity stagnate and fail to change, destined to blink out and disappear. Daphnia water fleas (tiny aquatic crustaceans that thrive in ephemeral water pans) clone themselves as fast as they can when conditions are good. But as soon as that pool starts drying up, or the food in it runs low, they switch to sex. By scrambling their genes, they increase the chance of hitting on something new, something that may save them in the future.

Similarly, Steven Johnson writes about how good ideas come to us in dreams, from random combinations of neurons firing synchronously in our sleep. “A good idea,” he says, “is a network of thousands of neurons firing together that never fired together before.” The more experience and knowledge you have, the more inputs from your day, the more diverse your neurons will be, and the more likely a novel idea will result. Diversity catalyzes innovation, which unlocks value.

For those that have diversity, innovation brings exponential returns. These are regenerative ecosystems, with compound returns on re-investment. Because, lets face it, “more sustainable less-bad” will never be sexy. But regenerative riches spiral upwards in ever-widening cascades of opportunity. This is the good stuff.

Diversity matters- to populations, species, and entire ecosystems. Species-rich habitats experience exponential pyramids of productivity, all grown from sunlight, as diverse individuals contribute their bodies, carcasses, and feces. The result is more diversity, which feeds itself, often in bewildering and unexpected ways.

When a small number of wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 70s, for instance, the effects were dramatic and unexpected. Deer had stripped the valleys, but now the wolves kept them on the move. It wasn’t so much that they declined in number, they simply changed their behavior. Grasslands recovered, saplings sprouted and became trees. The valley forests returned, and birds filled the air with song. Beavers came, damming rivers, creating ponds, slowing the currents to create healthy spawning grounds for fish and stem erosion along the banks. Many creatures found new homes, and a rich assemblage of tiny herbivores and their predators flourished. Eagles came for carrion, bears came for berries. And most surprising, the rivers themselves changed course. In the words of John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

And would you guess that predators like wolves even regulate carbon emissions? When Trish Atwater experimentally removed the top hunters from freshwater ecosystems, atmospheric CO2 levels rose a staggering 93 percent. Why? Predators leave carcasses, which enrich the soil with microbes and nutrients and alter herbivore grazing patterns. Plants proliferate under their roving influence, spinning more carbon dioxide and sunlight into golden sugars that feed a teeming pyramid of life. The rich do indeed get richer, and abundance is surprising.

What if we could mimic these pyramids in our human ecosystems? Techno-philanthropist Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler believe we can. “Imagine a world of nine billion people,” they write, “with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.” It sounds too good to be true. But Diamandis (founder of the XPRIZE, a nonprofit competition for radical humanitarian technologies) and Kotler are convinced that exponentially advancing technologies will bring this vision to fruition. They speak of innovation explosions in artificial intelligence, computing, water purification, renewable energy generation and storage, broadband, vertical farming, digital manufacture, nanomaterials, social enterprise, and synthetic biology, among others. Because these technologies accelerate exponentially and are synergistically interconnected, Diamandis and Kotler believe that, like wolves in Yellowstone, the future will be delightfully surprising.

I know, you’re thinking- what a load of techno-utopian wild ass scat! Well yes, their vision is a bold one, requiring a great deal of imagination, will, and optimism. I can’t speak to all the technologies out there, but the ideas and statistics are enticing. And one thing I do know for sure, without hope we have nothing. I also know, as a biologist, that ecosystems achieve this kind of regenerative abundance all the time. There’s no reason we can’t do it.

In Glacier Bay, Alaska, the massive glacier that has steadily retreated for the last 200 years, proffers open ground to any who would take it. Humble pioneering lichens and liverworts cling to bare rock, crumbling it into soil where seeds find a purchase. Forbs and weedy opportunists sprout, stabilizing new ground for mycorrhizal fungi to settle in. The fungal networks bring water, nitrogen, and nutrients for bigger plants. Creeping shrubs shade developing saplings, grassy tussocks capture water and harbor bigger seeds. Alder grow, and finally give way to magnificent and highly productive spruce forests. As Fisher knew, and futurist designer Enzo Manzini echoes, “it is diversity that unleashes creativity, [and] it is diversity that creates conditions conducive to change.” Change we must. And so, I believe, we will.

With 9 billion people on the horizon, diversity is plentiful. But the 4 billion poorest people on Earth have been largely cut out of our collective imagination. Now, with cheap cell phones, they access mobile banking, jobs, training, and information, and we can access them. In fact, many companies see dollar signs. When the poorest people in the world get the technologies, services, and opportunities they need to rise out of poverty, they become the next generation of customers and sales people.

Like lichens crumbling bare rock into rich soil, this vision of the Rising Billion has powerful allure. It’s the bottom-of-the-pyramid strategy for growth. The cornerstone of its success hinges on providing basic-needs technologies around food, water, and energy. Dean Kamen’s Slingshot water purifier, for instance, transforms enough polluted water, salt water, or raw sewage to meet 300 people’s water needs. Coca-Cola is eagerly distributing the technology.

Similarly, vertical farms are moving agriculture into hydroponic ‘skyscraper greenhouses,’ using 80% less land and 90% less water for the same amount of food production. SkyGreen’s vertical towers in Singapore now feed 5 million urban people, with crops grown and sold right where they live.

On the energy front, innovations are blowing up like popcorn. Solar, as Singularity University co-founder Ray Kurzweil likes to say, is only six doublings away from meeting 100% of our needs. And now it can be stored- thanks to innovations like Tesla’s rechargeable lithium-ion Powerwall battery. All these technologies leverage the aggregate effects of many distributed, decentralized, small and diverse actions and opportunities, just as thousands of individual honeybees bring tiny bits of abundance to the hive.

Similarly, social enterprises like those supported by Yunus Social Business and Women4Empowerment are providing our poorest and most vulnerable global citizens with cell phones, microfinance, and business training, handing them the keys to DIY innovation and personal enterprise. When 4 billion people no longer spend all their time and energy battling malaria, dysentery, and fetching water, when they have light at night, enough food to eat, education and gainful employment, their diverse experience, ideas, and determination may create an unprecedented explosion of innovations and opportunities. Combine these advances with developments in 3d printing, internet availability, and online education, and the Rising Billion may well become a spruce forest in the wake of a crushing glacier.

Nine billion is a lot of diversity. But our planet has so much more than that! Some 10-30 million species face the same challenges we do- thirst, hunger, the need for energy and shelter, pressure from competitors and parasites. Each species has its solutions, and quite often, they are cheaper, and more sustainable to make, run, and maintain than our own. Everywhere we look, Nature’s laboratories inspire us with surprising and clever processes, materials, structures, and compounds. What if we combine our exponential technologies with theirs? To quote Janine Benyus, why not take Open Innovation all the way outside?

Biomimicry is definitely an exponential technology, and thoroughly synergistic with all those touted by techno-optimists like Diamandis and Kurweil. It’s in our nature to borrow, imitate, and modify ideas. We’ve always observed and imitated the animals around us- if we humans are specialized for anything, it is mimicry. And we know, from computer models, that when a lot of imitation is mixed with a little innovation, populations adapt at blinding speed. By mimicking Nature’s regenerative ecosystem pyramids, by investing in diversity and interconnectedness, the metaphorical wolves may surprise us with exponential returns. The rich do get richer, after all.

For every exponential technology – be it water purification, renewable energy generation and storage, artificial intelligence, vertical farming, digital manufacture, new materials, or social enterprise - we should ask ourselves, how would nature do it? If a good idea is a network of neurons that never fired together before, then lets dig deep into our intellectual property, our Evolutionary Creative Commons, and find some more neurons. Chances are, we’ll discover unexpected abundance.

Our Evolution requires it.

All rights reserved. c. 2015

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