Nature inspired community design

Every year or two, I try to find a new way to view my work, a fresh way to devise research questions, and a new way to inspire and challenge myself. I use this lens to build my speaking presentations and guide my editorial calendar. Despite failing biology during my school days, I remain fascinated by the simple and complex workings of nature. Several years ago, I became obsessed with the octopus and thinking through how businesses (especially community development) could learn from decentralized systems. Later, I moved on to comparing community management to a tide pool and what we can learn from these micro-ecosystems.

A discussion during a Community Roundtable event and mention of the book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, would turn my interests to urban planning and forever change how I viewed my position as a community manager and academic researcher. For the past couple of years, I have been breaking down how we can learn from physical community development and adapt these lessons and citizen behavior to online communities and creation of scaled digital ecosystems. I had yet to tie nature with urban planning until quieting my mind (as best as one can while commuting on a bus throughout Disney World) and staring outside the window at a patch of wild flowers.

My mind was primed to make the connection. The previous week, I had had the opportunity to attend Museum Camp hosted by Nina Simon and Beck Tench. The theme of the event was spacemaking and Nina Simon shared her “honeycomb” inspired community first program design. And the day before the light bulb went off in my head, I had listened to a NPR report on honeybee research. I was ready to think about bees. Staring out that bus window, I noticed a couple of bees making their rounds in a patch of wildflowers. This flower patch was most likely chosen to compliment the carefully created and pruned landscape of the resort rather than the pleasure of the buzzing bees. When designing a community, many choose aesthetic design over function or vice versa, rather than working to creatively blend the two.

I have been struggling with how to make blend the two and thinking about a digital ecosystem highly influenced by urban planning principles as a giant mind map. Instead of disparate community circles bridged or bonded by green spaces of social networks, what if the neighborhoods were visually represented by the “honeycomb” design as Nina Simon and her museum uses to define the needs and assets of the community?

Honeycomb. Hives. Bees. What had I just heard about the destruction of the honeybee communities? Was there a lesson to be learned from nature? Would I find a connection between bees and urban planning? <– This is how my mind works.

Colony collapse disorder has prompted scientific researchers to find out how the honeybee population is impacted by stress and pesticides and if any other bees are able to step in and do the work of the honeybee. It turns out squash bees (that can carry 100 times more pollen than a honeybee) and a type of Japanese orchard bee (that can do the work of almost 80 honeybees) may be a cost effective solution for farmers without the sacrifice of honeybees.

I think the key to remember is resilience,”says Shelby Fleischer, Professor of Entomology at Penn State University. “So don’t just aim for any one species. Historically, there’s been a lot of emphasis on making honeybees our pollinator, and resilience suggests that we should try and support a community of bees.

As organizations build online communities, they cannot aim for just one type of member with a single source of sustenance or risk a monoculture that will run the same course as the honeybee and colony collapse disorder. Simon uses the “honeycomb” design to surface new ideas and match community needs and assets with projects and collaborators. Design is not sacrificed for function or vice versa. Many types of people and ideas are required for a healthy community to flourish. Let’s take a cue from bee expert, Dan vanEnglesdorp – “Make meadows, not lawns.” A company cannot pollinate itself and relies on the communities served to be natural pollinators of innovation. Rather than forget our connection to nature, how can organizations be inspired by and learn from all that surrounds us and allow nature to guide the design of our interactions? A community first design trumps a digital first strategy.


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