If you’ve ever admired the work ethic of an ant colony and wished you could apply those principles to your company, you’ll do well to check out Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker’s newest book. In ‘TEEMING: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World,’ Dr. Woolley-Barker describes the many ways companies can learn from animal societies, as well as sensible ways to to apply those principles. A combination of sociobiology, biomimicry, and organizational theory, this book is a practical yet entertaining guide on how to make organizations of all scales thrive – in a sustainable way. Read on for our interview with Dr. Woolley-Barker – and enter our raffle below for a chance to win one of 25 copies of TEEMING: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World!
Inhabitat: Can you talk about your background and what inspired you to write this book?
Woolley-Barker: When I started writing it, I was really struggling––there was never enough time, enough money, enough hope. I’d lost a daughter, a husband, a business, my self-respect, my career, and I had three little boys to care for on my own. Some friends of mine got me to try one of those 21-day meditation series. It’s not typically my kind of thing, but I figured I might as well. The first day began with this goofy mantra– “I come from a place of infinite abundance” or something like that. But then the guide talked about sunlight and cosmic stardust streaming down. As a botanist, that clicked for me. Sunlight is the source of most of the value on Earth––plants use it to create sugar, and every animal lives on plants or other animals that do. At the end of the meditation, I thought––“I’m going to write a book about this. Infinite abundance is real” and immediately started writing. I scribbled 50 pages longhand on the spot, and TEEMING was born. The second day made no sense to me at all, and I quit the program, but I kept on writing.
I’ve been into biology my whole life, and that’s one of the themes of the book––if you follow your childhood passions, you can do what you love for a lifetime. I studied Botany as an undergrad, backpacked the Hawaiian backcountry, the California redwoods and mountains and deserts. Bob Trivers, who kind of invented Sociobiology––the science of social evolution––was one of my first mentors, and I instantly knew that was what I wanted to study.
I got my PhD in Biological Anthropology at NYU, studying baboons in Ethiopia. I was into the relationship between behavior, social structure, and evolutionary change in primates––our relatives. Then my career took a major detour. 12 years, 3 kids, some medical and economic trauma and one divorce later, I found myself trying to get back in the workforce. That’s not easy to do––science doesn’t wait around for you. I was obsolete.
Somehow I managed to get work as a corporate facilitator, doing sustainability and executive coaching, and I was always fascinated in the biological anthropology of innovation, organization, cooperation, leadership, and sustainability. Once a geek, always a geek! One day, I was driving down the freeway and a piece played on the radio about something called biomimicry—innovation inspired by nature. I had a full religious epiphany. That was it. I read everything I could, networked with anyone who seemed vaguely connected, and helped out with the San Diego Zoo’s foray into the subject. I started writing a blog, BioInspired Ink. I did an incredible biomimicry workshop in Mexico, got certified as a biomimicry professional through Biomimicry 3.8, and was among those earning the first Masters degree in Biomimicry from Arizona State University’s Biomimicry Center, where I’m now an adjunct.
Today I mostly work as a Biomimicry Consultant, helping companies develop biologically-inspired solutions. We look for deep patterns––strategies that stand the test of time––and help translate them into workable solutions in everything from material science to automotive design, packaging, cosmetics, medical devices, business models, algorithms, cybersecurity—and everything else. If you can ask ”how would nature do it?” I can probably find some surprising innovations for you to play with.
Inhabitat: A major focus of your book is “superorganisms.” What is a superorganism?
Woolley-Barker: Superorganisms are colonies of genetically distinct individuals that work together as one creature––like ants or honeybees. Different workers specialize in different tasks, the same way our skin cells and neurons do. Every colony has a dedicated caste of reproductives, and the rest support them in that. No individual can survive and thrive alone, but together, the colony does all kinds of complex tasks––like building, farming, hunting, fighting, or gathering. All of them are aligned around future success for the colony as a whole. Basically, if it takes a village, it’s a superorganism.
Humans are superorganisms too. We all have different jobs and personalities, and contribute to society whether we’re reproductive or not, and we can’t survive on our own. I mean, if you go all the way back to growing the beans, how many people did it take to get your latté this morning? Or the clothes on your back? As a primatologist, I think of humans as “ant-like apes”––with little iPhone antennae.
Inhabitat: What are some surprising or favorite discoveries you’ve made about the animal kingdom in your research for TEEMING?
Woolley-Barker: Nature is crazy. Set it loose and check on it in 4 billion years, and you’ll find 30 million or more unbelievable designs. You’ll never get bored studying it, that’s for sure. I mean, platypus? Go home evolution, you’re drunk.
Octopuses blow my mind. They are about as smart as baboons, but they have little brains about the size of a lizard’s. The rest of their neurons are in their skin, along with photoreceptors like the ones in our eyes. Basically, they are inside-out brains covered in cameras. They can even pass a Mirror Self-Recognition Test, which is the test biologists use for sentience. They let the animal get to know itself in the mirror, then anaesthetize it and put a dot of paint on its forehead (or genitals for dolphins, because they’re into that). Most animals get aggressive when they wake up thinking they are looking at a competitor. But some do something totally different: chimps pick their noses in the mirror, dolphins check out their privates, and elephants and magpies try to wipe off the dot. Octopuses feel their forehead. Picture that for a second and try not to laugh.
The most mind-blowing thing is the fungal networks underground. They are like a subterranean brain, sensing our footfalls and everything that goes on nearby. Nearly all the plants on Earth depend on them to gather water and fertilizer, move sugar from parent trees to shaded seedlings, and to deliver chemical alarms when insects attack. Scientists have found that the fungi will move specific nutrients long distances to feed one particular tree while ignoring others around it. These guys are literally farming our world. Maybe they see us as irritating pests, who knows?
Inhabitat: What’s a common mistake or challenge that modern companies face that’s addressed in your book?
Woolley-Barker: Darwin has been paraphrased saying it’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. That’s true for companies as well, and yet we design them like machines, filled with standardized, rigid cogs. Thinking happens at the top, doing at the bottom. Departments and jobs are fixed and static, and management has to penetrate many layers to tell the front lines what to do––and then the front line information has to filter all the way back up to the brain. We’ve designed all the adaptability right out of our organizations. Living things aren’t like this––life organizes as it goes, sensing and responding to change in the moment. Of course, most living things don’t work together that much, as they are just out to maximize their own reproductive fitness (though that usually requires cooperation because everything is connected). They don’t have much in the way of specific goals either. We can’t work this way because it‘s too slow and random. Companies would go broke. But ancient superorganisms societies have worked together on complex, specific goals for 500 million years. They know how to find the sweet spot between bottom-up chaos and top-down control to compound their wealth from one generation to the next. They know what works. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here.
How do they do it? For one thing, they don’t rely on hierarchies to adapt. Hierarchies in nature are used to prevent change. A hierarchical system of cells stops cancer cells from proliferating in our bodies, and separates signals from noise in our brains. Hierarchies are important—but they aren’t the right structures for adapting to change.
As hierarchies grow, the costs of management rise, along with the risk of error. Decisions get bigger as you move up the chain of command, and the number of people making them gets smaller. The most powerful managers are those furthest from the frontlines—and they are overwhelmed with meetings because all the report lines converge. Vertical just doesn’t scale. It’s a recipe for instability, and you have to constantly restructure and issue more top-down directives to keep things standardized. We call it quality control and Standard Operating Procedures, but they prevent each of us from taking effective action in our sphere of influence. We feel powerless, and disengaged––70 percent of workers don’t really care about or even like the work they do. We live for the weekend. We all know we could do things better if we had the decision-making authority to do it. What a miserable waste of our creativity and intelligence.
Superorganisms have a lot of unexpected lessons to teach us about leadership as well. Every ant and honeybee team has a “leader,” but they don’t give orders. There is no single leader either—one-third of all ants act as leaders. Their role is to gather information and distill it into patterns, which they spread among and across teams. They provide the social glue that knits bottom-up local information into a global vision. They also nurture the colony two most important assets––diversity and independence. Without those two things, the colony can’t access collective intelligence or swarm creativity, which are essential to nimbly responding to changing conditions. Without them, the colony will go extinct.
Inhabitat: Do you have a favorite biomimicry principle for improving happiness and creativity in companies?
Woolley-Barker: Other superorganisms build their compounding wealth with infinite things—sunlight and carbon, diffuse specks of water and nutrients, complexity, diversity, connection, and trust. Their teams grow from the edges out, in modular, self-managed units that seek and respond to opportunity and risk on the front lines, and they leverage symbiotic partnerships to unlock value. They focus on their shared purpose, build with infinite stuff, and spill the value they create out into the larger ecosystems they inhabit, feeding the life that feeds them. That’s regeneration––my favorite principle.
As for individual happiness and creativity, superorganisms have a great recipe for it. They self-organize, and every individual simply does whatever it thinks is best at that time. The thing that keeps the system working is shared purpose, mechanisms of trust and mutual accountability, an ethos of sharing and fairness, diversity and personal independence, transparent information flows, and careful distributed prevention of the parasites who are always trying to deceive and steal from them. No meetings, targets, bosses, or performance reviews.
Inhabitat: Your book is aimed at companies, but do you think the lessons from TEEMING could be applicable elsewhere?
Woolley-Barker: Absolutely! TEEMING isn’t just a new way to do business. I think of it as a new way to organize our entire global society as we adapt to a finite Earth. Networks are built from the bottom up, one person at a time––individual hearts and minds have to connect to one another to make this kind of change. So it’s useful on every level, every time we interact with each other.
Really, it’s an old story, and one that only a superorganism would tell––Stone Soup! You probably remember it. A hungry stranger enters a starving village, and knocks on doors to beg for a meal. The people hide in their homes, miserable behind their closed doors–– no one will share. Finally, the stranger makes a fire in the town square, takes a pot from his pack, pulls some water from the well, and puts it on to boil. Then he adds a simple stone. A few curious children come out to see what he’s doing. “I’m making Stone Soup,” he says. “You’re welcome to join me. But it needs a little something.” They bring little things—an old potato, a shriveled carrot—and their parents come too. Soon, a delicious aroma fills the air, and everyone can smell the soup. All who shared eat, everyone who trusted is full.
That’s how superorganisms thrive in landscapes of scarcity that exclude other species. They pool tiny scraps of value that aren’t worth the effort for other creatures, like splinters of wood, bits of chopped up leaves, specks of pollen, and molecules of water and fertilizer. We’re superorganisms too, and it feels natural to us. It’s the way we work best.
Inhabitat: Do you have another sociobiology topic you’re itching to write about?
Woolley-Barker: I’m fascinated by parasites, which all superorganisms are plagued by, because a colony offers a juicy collective target, and because the colony relies on trust. Parasites try to penetrate superorganism networks through deception and mimicry. For instance, there’s a spider that mimics the scent of ant larva. When an ant comes across it, it picks up the spider and takes it down to the larval chambers, where it devours the young. Other ants practice slavery—another kind of parasitism. They raid the colonies of closely related species, and steal their eggs, putting them to work for themselves. Some species can’t even eat without these slaves. Parasites are everywhere, trying to get in, but superorganism societies have been evolving protection and detection mechanisms for hundreds of millions of years. We have a lot to learn in this department––our social media networks are pretty much wide open to predators right now, and we readily spread fake news to serve others at our expense. The same is true for cybersecurity and airport screening. The answers are already out there.