Learning From Operating System Earth

Last Updated Feb 22, 2008 5:53 PM EST

Learning From Operating System EarthThe earth's biosphere -- the area that supports life -- has been in operation for 3.5 billion years, nourishing an incredible array of life forms.

Do you think your business can learn a thing or two about sustainability from an operating system that has worked and evolved for several billion years?

Gregory C. Unruh lays out these lessons in his Harvard Business Review article, The Biosphere Rules. It's a fascinating read. Unruh is the director of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.

The secret to the biosphere's success is this: it reuses the same materials in an ever compounding cycle of evolutionary growth, he says.

Unruh expands on three rules of the biosphere:

  1. Use a parsimonious palette. In other words, do more with less, keep it simple. Nature uses just four of the 115 or so elements as the basis for all life.
  2. Cycle up -- virtuously. Nature is an up-cycler. When something dies, its remains are up-cycled into evolutionary development. "A dead beaver can be reincarnated as a tree, a mollusk, an eagle, or even another beaver -- all high-value applications of nature's recycled materials." Mankind tends to down-cycle; we destroy the original value of something when we recycle an aged computer into a speed bump, to use Unruh's example.
  3. Exploit the power of platforms. This rule we understand innately. Just as the basic architecture of life has supported everything from simple multicelled organisms to complex humans, companies exploit platforms upon which to build other products and services. They don't call Microsoft Windows a platform for nothing.
Read the article for very concrete examples of how business can exploit the biosphere rules to create a healthy and sustainable businesses.

Now a question for you. What companies do you know that exemplify the Biosphere Rules?

(Biosphere image by Mtl Shag, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.