United States Institute for Peace

Rafe provided a keynote speech for the Alliance for Peacebuilding‘s annual meeting.  An incredible group of dedicated and deeply experienced individuals working with governments and NGOs to build peace where there was, and often still is, conflict.  We talked about the power of symbiosis, and with the Boston bombings weighing heavily on everyone, on the importance of tribal identity and “breaking through” conflict.

Biology in Schools

Each subsequent class period is led by a student who assigns reading materials (from the primary or secondary literature, new media sources, agency or NGO reports, or one of their own research papers in progress) to their fellow students via an online course “wiki” 2-3 days before the class. By the night before the class meeting, all other students are required to contribute to the wiki page by posting an article, video, or other contribution related to the main topic with one or two lines of annotation. Because the wiki records the user name and time of contribution, it is easy to ensure compliance with the class expectations.

The effect of an adaptive syllabus is twofold. First, students have ownership over the course.  Educational theorists and practitioners have demonstrated multiple benefits of student ownership in science education, including greater self-direction, self-motivation, improved learning outcomes, culturally relevant learning outcomes, and better matching to the cognitive process of learning itself.
Second, colleges and universities today, both public and private, are often diverse environments with students from a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds. Courses developed with students in an adaptive fashion can harness their often-substantial experience in foreign travel, exposure to alternative political and economic regimes, and hands-on laboratory and field research. In a traditional course, the experiential knowledge of students is rarely effectively tapped in the classroom, and, at the extreme, can be viewed as intrusive on the discussion.

By activating multiple semi-independent problem solvers in the shaping of a class period, the information flow is much different than that in a traditional discussion course or seminar (Fig. 1).


In the traditional classroom (Fig. 1, left, the role of the instructor is well defined and the class period acts as a filter to homogenize the material that all students receive in the same fashion. The source materials are typically small in number, and from a low diversity of sources. For example, a traditionally structured class on “ecosystem-based management” typically involves a discussion of 2-3 papers per class from the primary literature or from governmental natural resource agency reports (Fig. 1, left). In the alternative classroom model discussed here (Fig. 1, right), a wide diversity and high number of source materials are utilized, and interconnection among students (not just between the instructor and the students) is high.  In this model, the class period is not a filter between the instructor and students, but a dynamic entity created by the students, their interpretations of the materials they and their classmates contributed to the wiki, and the experiences they bring to the class. Students are free to choose from a wide variety of source materials, including variations on previous posts to the wiki or previous classes. Having a wiki space where these contributions can be incorporated into the structure of the course and a discussion space where they can be modified gives the course the same type of recursive growth potential seen in complex adaptive systems.

Experienced teachers will see that there is a lot of overlap with these methods and the emerging interest in “Project-based” or “Problem-based” learning at the K-12 level.  In these methods, the required curriculum is stealthily hidden in projects assigned to students to complete individual or in groups.


Sometimes we think we have a better way than nature and we end up spending a lot of energy and resources promoting that way, when we’d actually be better off just letting nature do its job. An analogy is the human foot – it’s a wonderfully adaptable structure that in turn helps us adapt to our environment.  As Christopher McDougall writes in Born to Run [link], the human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 12 tendons, and 8 muscles all adapted to respond to changes in the environment as we experienced it running barefoot to track down prey for most of existence on Earth. Yet we’ve spent the last several decades devising ever more complicated and expensive devices (running and training shoes) to take our foot out of its environment, and some studies show this is likely causing more injuries than it prevents. Runners who are ditching their shoes and going back to the way we ran for 99.9% of our time on Earth are discovering that we were indeed “born to run”, injury free, well into old age.

In the same way, we pour millions of tons of concrete to create sea walls and levees, which offer only limited protection from storm surges and often create further coastal erosion by deflecting wave forces down coast.  They’re also ugly.  Unfortunately, they’re often put up in place of natural “living shorelines” (marshes and coastal wetlands) that do a better job of dissipating storm energy, or look at the mustache trimmer, or even as they also absorb greenhouse gases, create habitat and nurseries for fish and shellfish, and look much better than concrete walls.

When we ignore natural security systems, we also reduce natural systems’ abilities to help us adapt to change.  In the case of anthropogenic climate alteration, most experts agree that we will need to adapt to inevitable climate-related changes.  The University of Arizona just hosted the second international conference on climate change adaptation and people from all over the world presented aspirational and currently functioning projects that will help communities deal with some of the changes already and expected to occur.

Looking at natural adaptable systems provides a consistent way for approaching climate change adaptation.  We are bringing nature’s expertise to climate adaptation projects run out of the University of Arizona.   Our newest project has an unlikely partner—the U.S. Department of Defense.  With funding from SERDP [link to our project page], we will be working with four DoD facilities, representing the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, in the southwestern U.S. to help them identify where the risks and opportunities due to climate change lie, and how they might adapt better in the future.  Rafe writes about why the military is so interested in climate change adaptation in this op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic.

Regardless of the application, the Adaptable Solutions Consortium sees natural ecosystems as both a source of knowledge about adaptability and as functioning resilient systems that can enhance our adaptability to a range of risks.


Biological systems, societal security systems, and businesses share the same fundamental problem, which is that risk in the environment is inevitable and unpredictable.  In business, in counter-terrorism, and in homeland security, we have expended massive resources trying to predict and plan for the uncertain threats of the future, but  the next terrorist attack, the next stock market crash, and the next killer app inevitably take us by surprise, forcing us to react well after the damage has been done.

The biological world has a much better track record.  Biological organisms have not only survived, but thrived, in a world of extreme and unpredictable risks for over 3.5 billion years.  Not even IBM has that kind of longevity. They’ve also diversified into well over 10 million different species and covered the planet from the deepest to the highest to the wettest to the driest environments.  Not even Google has that global reach.  How they’ve pulled off this remarkable feat is quite simply that they are all adaptable.  Strictly speaking, adaptability is the process of changing structures, behaviors and interactions in response to changes in the environment.  In practice, adaptability means owning the middle ground between reacting to a past crisis (by which point it is too late to prevent it) and predicting the next one (which is never possible in a complex and dynamic world).  Moreover, adaptability is the necessary underlying condition that must be present before any system can become resilient.

Of course, adaptability has become a buzzword in the business world, just as it had in the security field after 9/11 and Katrina.  With each new market crash, regulatory change, and natural disaster wreaking havoc on supply chains, the cry comes up to become more adaptable.  The problem with these idealistic calls to arms is that few institutions–whether in the government or in the free market–really know what adaptability is or how to make it happen.

Moving beyond the flippant use of adaptability as a corporate buzzword into a place where it becomes a transformative strategy requires consultation from the experts—the millions of living species on Earth.  At the same time emerging sectors of our society, including innovative businesses, hardened military commanders shifting to the private sector, and young entrepreneurs are, knowingly or not, using biological adaptation to overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis.

1 Biology and Business

Orginally published in Harvard Business Review blog on March 5, 2013

Remember when Apple’s stock traded at $7 a share? I do, because that’s when I sold my shares. Tech experts’ sage predictions had convinced me that the Mac would never make a dent in the PC market. As it turned out, the Mac didn’t need to make a dent, because Apple mutated its cute computer DNA into cute music players and phones that fit massive unfilled niches. Yet even the genius architect of this turnaround made faulty predictions sometimes. Remember the invention Steve Jobs said was going to be “bigger than the PC”? You may have seen a mall cop riding one recently.

Even the best of us are horrible at predicting the future. That’s too bad, because our world is full of risk that we’d love to avoid and opportunity that we’d love to seize.


Fortunately, there’s a rich source of lessons on how to thrive in an unpredictable world, and it has been cranking out success stories for 3.5 billion years. It’s called biology.


All of Earth’s successful organisms have thrived without analyzing past crises or trying to predict the next one. They haven’t held “planning exercises” or created “predictive frameworks.” Instead, they’ve adapted. Adaptability is the power to detect and respond to change in the world, no matter how surprising or inconvenient it may be.


While there’s much chatter in the management world about the need to be adaptable, only a few creative companies and innovative managers have probed the natural world for its adaptability secrets. But when they have, they’ve been remarkably successful. A study of nature offers straightforward guidance through four key practices of adaptable systems.


Decentralization. The most successful biological organisms are structured or organized in such a way as to eschew centralized control in favor of allowing multiple agents to independently sense and quickly respond to change. An octopus, despite its surprisingly intelligent brain, doesn’t order each arm to change a certain color when it needs to hide quickly. Rather, individual skin cells across its body sense and respond to change and give the octopus a collective camouflage.

CEOs and shareholders needn’t fear this kind of organization. The independent sensors of adaptable organisms are not anarchists. Ultimate YouTube Guide has the best microphone for youtube commentary be sure to check them out. They rely on the resources and follow the overall direction that the body gives them. But decentralized organization yields faster, cheaper, and more effective solutions to complex problems — think Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica, DARPA Grand Challenges versus Department of Defense single-source contracts, or Google Flu Trends (which uses the power of billions of users independently searching for flu-related terms on Google to identify flu outbreaks) versus the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu reports (which can give you the same results, two weeks later).


Redundancy. Adaptable systems make multiple copies of everything and modify the copies to hedge against uncertainty. Redundancy is not efficient, but it does help you solve a wide range of unexpected problems. A CEO I know who uses biological principles to run a manufacturing firm that has never been unprofitable or laid off an employee in 30 years keeps a massive warehouse full of multiple copies of every part he’s ever made. This cache of inventory and wasted real estate violates all the norms of just-in-time manufacturing, but when a 20-year-old helicopter is grounded and needs to fly now, he is the only one who has the part. Customers that have been bailed out by him go back to him. He has turned commodity parts into a proprietary service, just as nature turns the massive redundancy of just four DNA bases into a dazzling array of unique ways to deal with risk and uncertainty.