When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time helping my grand-mother in her immense garden; planting seeds, watering flowers, picking up mushrooms. I would also feed the ducks and the hens, gather the laid eggs in the morning, and pretend to clean the barn. In her garden, there was an oak tree. I was often the only kid at her house, so I would sit down in the garden and spend hours talking to that tree, imagining it was a human being. For a long time, that tree was my best friend. Growing up, I lost touch with nature, and for a long time, I did not even enjoy leaving my busy city to spend time in the countryside. I could feel that something was missing in my life, but I never really took action. I became more and more interested about issues surrounding sustainability but, oddly enough, I did not connect the dots.
Bio-empathy is the first course of the Social Innovation Management programme, i.e. 4 days away from Nairobi, learning about Nature, how it can inspire innovations and a deeper understanding of ourselves. When I learnt about this course, I was deeply excited. It was exactly what I needed. When I shared this with my colleagues at my workplace, their reactions were less enthusiastic, and possibly more cynical. They wondered if smoking pot and resolving existential questions about the human condition were on the agenda.
Well, after this retreat I can tell they were not completely far off. After spending these four days in nature with incredible people, I was definitely in another dimension. I was high on emotions. So high that it was incredibly difficult for me to come back to reality. This course transformed my life in ways I could have never imagined.
These four days were about reconciling with Nature. They were about observing our environment, taking the time to notice. They were about understanding that nature is not an entity separate from us; we are nature. in a nutshell, they were about appreciating Nature as a model and a teacher. To lead us in this journey, we had the privilege to have the wonderful Denise De Luca with us. She definitely is one of the most inspired (and patient) teacher I have ever met and one of the reasons this trip was so special.
We started by delving into biomimicry to learn how Nature could inspire us to create innovative solutions to the most pressing issues of our time. Denise taught us invaluable tools to come up with innovative ideas while making sure they respected Life’s principles. One of these tools is the Biomimicry Designed Spiral that follows 6 steps:
- Identify the functions we want our design to perform
- Translate the functions into biological terms
- Discover the strategies Natures uses to perform those functions
- Abstract the patterns, processes and principles underlying the strategies
- Emulate the abstracted patterns and principles in the concept design
- Evaluate the design against Life’s principles and the design goals
We applied that learning to two challenges in teams, my favorite being designing a school. I am not going to lie, it was a real challenge! Translating the functions we wanted our school to have into biological terms, in particular, was definitely not a piece of cake. At that point, I felt completely disconnected from Nature, and the long and intense biology classes I had in high school were all a blur. When I stopped panicking about what I did not know and focused on what I did know, everything became clearer and easier. One of the functions we wanted our school to provide was a sense of community. How does Nature do that? The example that came up almost straight away among us was ants. So we decided to look at ants and design a school inspired by how they create that sense of community. Seeing things from this perspective enabled us to come up with really interesting and surprising ideas.
Looking at this challenge with a different lens definitely was worth it! I was also impressed by everyone else’s work accomplished in only three hours. Every group put forward unique and original ideas. When I see what our class came up with in such a short amount of time, I am really curious and excited to see what can come next!
This trip was not only about learning how we can apply nature principles to solve problems in our professional lives. It was also, and perhaps most importantly, about digging deeper into ourselves.
Through a wild wisdom activity, I reconnected with the 10-year-old me and had a conversation with an acacia tree, hoping to find clarity on a professional issue I had. Before you think I was really high, the reality is that by ‘’talking to a tree’’, we are, in fact, tapping into our own wisdom. For almost an hour, I reflected on a question I knew the answer too well. Or so I thought. Without going into much detail, my issue revolved around something I was so sure I needed to leave behind, give up on. I nevertheless decided to play the game. I reflected on what the tree standing in front of me would do in my situation. The answer was completely different from what I thought, yet it made sense to my heart.
I looked at the acacia tree and I could see that it was damaged, and probably hurt, but it was still standing tall. I could imagine that even when the wind hits it hard, the tree bends, may lose a few branches, but it does not break. I could relate to that. When life gets tough, I lose balance. I may even fall. But I always get up. By looking at it, I also realized that great things take time. Great love takes patience. I should not give up just yet. Be it in my professional and sentimental life. I was happy that I unexpectedly killed two birds with one stone, and solved more than one issue.
We also had the chance to do a Solo for three hours in nature. No talking, no phones allowed. Just us by ourselves. It was a real blessing (in disguise, I will admit). How often do we have the opportunity to just be? I did not set an intention for this activity. I just wanted to take it all in, the emotions, the beauty, the peace.
I noticed the ducks around me, the different shapes of the trees, the different colours of the sky. I touched some leaves and could feel the different textures. I smelt the air. I could hear the birds singing. It felt like I was opening my eyes for the first time. I could see trees of different shapes, different color, in the same space, despite all their differences. Nature does not care about differences, but embraces them instead. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep but I started thinking how us human beings could learn from this when we deal with difference and singularity.
I feel incredibly blessed to have had this space and time to reflect. A lot of thoughts came up and I know that they will impact both my personal and professional lives. I could feel that it was the beginning of something new, and that big changes were on their way.
Change can be daunting and very uncomfortable; I know a thing or two about it. It can bring doubts, challenges, fears. But when I look at Nature, everything changes all the time, and it’s ok. It’s more than ok, actually. Nature does not look backward, it moves forward. Winter can be tough, but Winter is a passage oblige for Spring and Summer. It is a cycle. And despite my current doubts and fears, I know deep down, with confidence, that Tomorrow, I will blossom.
It was the first time in the past couple of months that I was truly happy, without playing a role, enjoying the company of people who had incredible energy. It is not always easy to be yourself, to share your feelings or to trust people you barely know. I was scared of that. Yes, we are all burning for the same vision of making the world a better place, but does it mean that we share the same values and the same heart? Not necessarily. But so what? This course reminded me that this trip is a journey, an adventure towards the unknown, to myself. I should not expect anything, not fear anything, and just see how the path will unfold. I should just trust the process, and see what happens.
On the Side : The Lion King – The Circle of Life