Deep Listening to the Voice of Nature: The Journey Towards Sustainable Innovation

Jakki Mohr, University of Montana, Linda Price, University of Oregon, and Aric Rindfleisch, University of Illinois, 2019, 19-134

As firms try to develop sustainable innovation practices, some are turning to biomimicry. This approach leverages 3.8 billion years of biological intelligence by listening to and then translating the voice of nature into sustainable products. This is vastly different than the traditional innovation approach of listening to the voice of customers, and little is known about how firms employ this new approach towards sustainable innovation.

Jakki Mohr, Linda Price, and Aric Rindfleisch undertake the first marketing study to investigate how firms adopt listening to nature to develop sustainable innovations. They examine the use of biomimicry among over a dozen Fortune 500 firms from a wide variety of industries. Their examination employs a grounded theory approach that includes nearly a decade of participant-observation and over 40 depth interviews with executives in firms seeking to use biomimicry as well as firms providing biomimicry services.

Their research offers insights for further developing marketer’s listening capabilities, redefining notions of innovation success and failure, and reimagining organizational resilience.

Their findings reveal a challenging journey that unfolds across four key phases, each with its  own unique activities, barriers, and outcomes:

  • Exploring: Obtaining fresh perspectives from natural world and key thought leaders; responding to market and customer needs
  • Broadening exposure: Training more groups; building nature-based space; scoping a pilot project
  • Diving deeper: Reformulating product design challenge; gaining expertise in biological intelligence
  • Diffusing nature’s lessons across the organization: Applying to other processes (HR, manufacturing, facilities); setting more ambitious environmental targets.

While only a few firms successfully used biomimicry to develop new products, nearly all experienced some degree of transformation by trying to do so.

While listening to the voice of nature is incredibly challenging, it can also be highly rewarding and offer the potential not only to develop sustainable innovations to enhance financial outcomes but also develop broader organizational practices that enhance environmental well-being.



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