Why nature inspires the way we work

Kristine Nixon
April 22, 2021

Artwork by Silvia Fernandez

In honor of National Earth Day on April 22nd, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why and how nature has influenced my life and shaped the very principles that guide our work at A1M Solutions. This is a personal story about the role nature has played not only in my life, but it’s also in our company’s life.

There isn’t a lot of talk about nature in our business world. Our workday conversations are centered around government systems, programs, technology, workflows and the like…rarely does the topic of nature come up. In fact, in the 20 years I’ve been working in the IT side of government healthcare, I don’t think it’s come up even once. It is common to hear about the role of climate and the environment as they are playing a bigger role in health outcomes, but I never thought to make the connection between the IT business we’re in and nature, until now. The journey of building my own business has allowed me to build a bridge to nature — and it is one that has never felt so meaningful and harmonious.

I’m excited to share this journey with you, along with the principles my team and I have created together that align with our values, support our mission, and are anchored to our foundation through bio-inspiration.

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A natural beginning

I have always been connected to nature. It started when I was a little girl living on the A1 Ranch in the middle of California (hence the name of our company, A1M Solutions). My family raised animals for companionship, consumption, or sometimes both. Eating the steak from the calf I had bottle fed never set well with me, so now that my dad doesn’t get to say what we eat, I keep the two totally separate! We also had a humongous garden that we would eat from regularly, and whatever we couldn’t finish off, the animals would. Nothing ever went to waste and that’s still the case in our household today.

During my college years I had a long-distance relationship with nature. When I could, I would head off into the mountains to go hiking or camping. It was in the mountains that I always found a sense of calm and peace that I couldn’t find anywhere else. There is something to be said about being surrounded by thousands of pines, cedars, sequoias, and other beauties that make their homes in the Northern California forests. There is a certain feeling that I get when I’m in the mountains — it’s hard to describe, but it almost feels like being immersed in a totally different energy field and boundlessness takes over.

You can actually feel the magnitude of the forest, much like some feel the magnitude of the ocean. If you stand or sit still, peaceful stillness descends upon your body and mind, like a warm comfortable blanket.

To me, there is nothing else that feels quite like that. I had a connection to this experience long before I would come to understand why or be able to articulate anything about nature from a biology or metaphysical perspective. All I could be sure of was that nature was always a place where I found comfort. It was an important part of my wellbeing to go where there were more trees than people.

Uncovering how nature informs design thinking

For as long as I can remember, I knew I would one day run my own business. I was about half-way through my career in the healthcare IT industry when all the signs pointed towards starting A1M Solutions. I spent the first 22 years of my career observing, learning, and preparing for the journey A1M Solutions would embark on in January of 2018. For most of my life, my love and connection to nature and community felt disconnected from the hours I spent at work every day. I didn’t realize that the two would have an opportunity to come together in such a magical way until now.

There is a lot to say about the winding path of A1M Solutions’ journey over the past three years, but the one thing that’s most noteworthy is the people who have joined our team. We are blessed with an incredible team, with diverse backgrounds in knowledge and life experiences. It is in working alongside these individuals that I now have words for concepts that I’ve intuited forever, but didn’t know how to articulate. It was in a casual conversation with a colleague when the words biomimicry and bio-inspiration entered my vocabulary. She completed her graduate program thesis using biomimicry to inform a designed solution for combating a fresh food shortage in Baltimore, MD. Others on our team have a history with biosemiotics (another new term in my nature-based vocabulary). Who knew!

Bio-inspiration involves taking principles from biological systems and applying them to solve human technological and design problems.

Discovering biomimicry was as if a light bulb went off in my soul! I started thinking: how can we apply lessons and practices that nature has been following for thousands of years to the work we do? We design things here at A1M for the government healthcare sector — processes, websites, systems, programs, training, processes…you name it, we design it. We use product strategy to ensure value in what we design and data to measure outcomes. What if the core of our services framework was rooted in a set of universal principles important to us and founded by nature? More importantly, what if nature inspired the way we work in general?

Bringing bio-inspiration to our work

I want to preface what I’m about to write by saying I am not a biologist. I am not a scientist. I am not a geologist, anthropologist, or anything remotely similar that would allow me to “officially” describe the way nature works from a scientific perspective. What I am is a person in awe of nature and the way it works in complete coherence and balance (if left alone). For me, bio-inspiration provides a way to weave together nature and business, two aspects of my life that have been disconnected for many years. Incorporating nature creates a beautiful symbiotic relationship that will allow us to work in ways that are honest, simple, harmonious, and rooted in our values.

Immersing myself in researching biomimicry and bio-inspiration, I became incredibly inspired by how applicable nature is to our business world. In particular, the Biomimicry Institute, founded by Janine Benyus (pioneer of the biomimicry concept, as well as an author, entrepreneur and biologist), is a wonderful resource for understanding how nature’s designs and processes can create a healthier, more sustainable planet, and how strategies found in nature can be applied to solve human design challenges.

I believe designing solutions in a way that fosters harmony within an ecosystem, repurposes functioning elements, and flows with the current (not against it) will produce higher adoption and sustainability rates. There’s a lot of talk in the tech world about being ‘disruptive’. I don’t buy into it. I personally like things that work in sync with each other. We as humans often separate ourselves from nature in our day-to-day thinking, yet we need to remember that we are nature. We are one species, just like animals, insects, plants, etc. are other species. The more aligned we are to the basics of our being just makes sense.

Examples in nature that inspired A1M’s principles

The following are examples that bring to life how strategies found in nature that can be applied to human design challenges.

Betterment of the entire ecosystem. In nature there are many examples of species and organisms working collaboratively together for the mutual betterment of the whole. For example, mycelium is a connecting material underground for trees that distributes water, nutrients, nitrogen, etc. to completely different parts of the forest, sometimes many kilometers away. Instead of competing, it cooperates for the betterment of the entire system. Some species of trees use canopy disengagement, canopy shyness, or intercrown spacing to allow their neighbors and kin to receive adequate light.

These practices align with our company’s value of abundance and provide inspiration for how we can work collaboratively with other contractors and produce outcomes that are for the greater good.

Strong, lasting connections that ensure a bright future. Sustainability is a key pillar for nature’s ability to exist and thrive. Animals, organisms, and species abide by this tenant in diverse ways. For example, All types of organisms inherently strike a delicate balance between consumption and conservation for the sake of sustainability. Additionally, mycorrhizal fungi thrive in the forest, forming long strands called hyphae that run between trees, acting as connectors. This giant underground transportation network called the “common mycorrhizal network” uses chemical communication to exchange nutrients between trees on an “as-needed” basis. Besides nutrients, the mycorrhizal network also helps trees get water that their own roots would not be able to reach.

Our principles guide us to build and design things to last long after we’re gone and to make connections that support the infrastructure of their longevity.

Using examples such as these, we created a set of principles that integrate our core company values with nature.

A1M principles

We use our principles to create benefit; not just for our own business, but for our customers, partners, and industry. Our principles prompt us to ask uncommon questions and think in ways that benefit an entire ecosystem, not just a specific project/contract. They are a foundational filter through which we evaluate our day-to-day work and unify all of our efforts in a common direction.

Principle #1: Building sustainable change — We cultivate transformation that endures long after our involvement.

At the heart of A1M, we design things and ensure value, primarily for government healthcare programs (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, and the Federal Healthcare Exchange). What if we planned for sustainability on our projects? What if we designed everything to last long after we’re gone? Contractors don’t stay around forever. They may transition off projects, oftentimes leaving the government and new contractors trying to decipher customized code and processes fortified by the outgoing contractor’s intellectual property.

A1M embraces a different mindset; we know we won’t be here forever and building for sustainability is our responsibility to our government client and the taxpayers who fund these programs. Our principles guide us to work with stakeholders and clients to build capacity so that the people who need to know how to use the system and make changes have all the information they need. This includes creating documentation that is well organized, easy to find, and clearly understood.

Another way we cultivate sustainability is by developing solutions that create more value than the effort needed to reach the desired outcome. While this may seem obvious, it’s a highly effective practice that can help motivate our clients or partners to learn to do something new. By showing clients that the anticipated value is greater than the effort or expense needed to achieve it, they may be more apt to make the investment (i.e., time, energy, money) if they understand ‘what’s in it for them’ up front. This practice is inspired by the Optimal Foraging Theory, which is a behavioral ecology model that helps predict how an animal behaves when searching for food. Essentially, foraging animals select prey that provide them with equal to or greater energy than the energy it took them to forage.

Principle #2: Working for the betterment of the whole — We advance collaboration and build strong connections that benefit the entire ecosystem.

What if we considered the whole ecosystem that our project is a part of and made decisions for the betterment of the whole? If there is one thing common to all of the contracts in the Medicare program — they’re all connected! It may not always be apparent, but the programs, systems, websites, tools, data, and processes are all connected in some way. It may be overly ambitious to consider the entire CMS Agency ecosystem on our contract, but we can consider the micro-ecosystem of a certain Office or Center of the Agency in which we operate.

By applying this principle, we focus on leaving the project better than when we arrived and identifying surplus and connecting it with areas of need. Also, we are inspired to create relationships rooted in collaboration rather than competition, such as the mycelium example previously discussed. And just as mycorrhizae teaches us, we too believe creating connections to disseminate information to those who need it is one of the most effective ways to produce positive results for the entire organization.

Principle #3: Bridging the past to the future — We address today’s needs by learning from the past and adapting for the future.

The Medicare program was enacted in 1965 and has been facilitating healthcare services between providers and beneficiaries for over 50 years now. There is a tremendous amount of history behind the various systems and programs used to administer the Medicare program and CMS’ joint administration of the Medicaid program. We believe it is imperative to understand and respect the historical context of these programs to be able to effectively help CMS adapt and modernize for the future.

The principle of bridging the past to the future reminds us to always be curious about the history and current environment, culture, and needs of our customers and stakeholders. Lessons we can glean from the past allow us to adapt to uncertainty. We apply this principle by intentionally integrating historical knowledge and domain insight in our teams to explain the past and inform the future. We also bring curiosity to look at legacy systems and programs to find ways to revive and repurpose functioning components rather than jumping immediately to recreation.

Principle #4: Optimizing rather than maximizing — We work with focus, making deliberate choices about our commitments.

Just as animals and species in nature consume only what is needed and leave enough to continue reproducing for a continual food supply, optimizing rather than maximizing teaches us to be efficient with the resources (time, money, emotional capital) we are consuming. The lesson is simple, do more with less. As our name “A1M” (can be pronounced “aim”) suggests, we value focus, and our focus is on producing high quality services and outcomes rather than high quantity outputs. We also know that including diverse voices into our work allows us to create equitable solutions that serve a broader spectrum of people.

According to Emma Seppala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, research shows that nature benefits:

  • Our cognitive health,
  • Our compassion and empathy towards others, and
  • Our ability to innovate.

We’ve become a society that is accustomed to looking for answers from whatever is right in front of us or down at the phone in our hands. Our native ancestors looked out to their surroundings and up to the sky for answers. I believe there is a congruent balance between the two. By staying mindful of our natural origins and re-establishing connection between the natural world and our working world, we can enrich not only the products and outcomes we produce, but our own overall awareness and wellbeing.

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