Biomimicry and Software Development

21 Feb, 2011
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Just this morning, I listened to Michael Pawlyn’s wonderful TED talk on “Using nature’s genius in architecture”. It left me with a few thoughts buzzing around in my head during the rest of the day. I just want to jot them down here quickly, even if it only were to serve my own memory.

Setting souls ablaze

Let’s start by fast-forwarding to the end of the talk. Right before the very end of the talk, Michael quotes Alexander de Sainte-Exupéry:

“If you want to build a flotilla of ships, you don’t sit around talking about carpentry. No, you need to set people’s souls ablaze with visions of exploring distant shores.”

I haven’t been able to find references to the quote anywhere else (yet), but even if it would have been Michael himself who made it up, I am still totally happy with it. I do believe this quote captures one of the essential virtues of people leading teams in a (software) company. People who are not able to ‘set people’s soul ablaze’ should not be in front of a team, as far as I’m concerned. Period.

Should we really eliminate waste?

Michael’s talk also raised another question. I have been working on agile adoption for years in a row now, and until today, I considered ‘eliminating waste’ a vital attitude for running a healthy development process. You don’t want waste; you want working software instead.

However, Michael’s talk makes you wonder if reducing waste isn’t really just sub-optimimizing it. He basically promotes: “shifting from a linear, wasteful, polluting way of using resources to a closed loop model”, and shows how waste created by one natural process often can be fed back into another natural process to grow something else. (Like using the waste of coffee grains as a substrate for growing mushrooms.)

Now, I am sure this not new to any of you. He just has better examples than you have ever seen before. But it made me wonder if there might be a counterpart to this in our industry as well. I mean, not creating any waste at all seems like the ultimate goal, but could it be that there is a way in which we – instead of focusing on getting rid of it, just for sake of getting it out of our system – could feed it back into our system in an efficient way? (And then I don’t mean reusing paper copies of pointless documents as cat litter.)

Honestly, I don’t have the answer. It seems like a crazy idea to consider in our industry. But perhaps the environmental guys are ahead of us. It might be worth to consider it for a while, since we spend quite a bit of energy getting rid of it.

This is how Michael says it:

“But perhaps more than anything, what this thinking provides is a really positive way of talking about sustainable design. Far too much of the talk about the environment uses very negative language. But here it’s about synergies and abundance and optimizing. And this is an important point.”

It seems to me that if we would be able to shift our focus in a similar way, there might be some room for further optimization.


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