Do As the Trees Do: Towards A Future Human Forest

By cohort member Karen Tomkins


On the heels of Global Entrepreneurship week, I've been thinking a lot about collaboration. I attended the Impact Vancouver event this past Tuesday evening, put on collaboratively by Groundswell, Spring, Radius, and UBC Sauder. Appropriate, given that one could say these groups are actually in competition. But it was both inspiring and refreshing to see them come together in support of the bigger movement towards entrepreneurship with an emphasis on positive social and environmental impacts as well as financial reward.

Our own Anna Bohn from last year's cohort, spoke eloquently about her organization Etho; a design firm, which she founded out of the beautiful pressure cooker that is Groundswell's social venture program. Her organization holds collaboration as a centre point. They work with other organizations to shift the doom and gloom messaging of climate change to one of empowerment, hope and inspiration. Without those collaborative relationships, Etho's mission could not be fulfilled.

Like most things that we discover and believe are innovative, nature has been doing this collaboration thing for eons. Turns out most of us just haven't noticed. We've also been told that evolution is driven by survival of the fittest, a concept that has emboldened the dog-eat-dog nature of the business world.

But this is not the whole picture. Darwin's work has been spun in such a way as to drive home competition, but he placed emphasis on environmental conditions as the key catalyst for the adaptions that drive evolution. Those who can adapt are the ones who survive. And it turns out that adapting is a lot easier if you have support – enter collaboration.

Recent discoveries in forest ecology have shown that trees communicate with and pass nutrients to other plants and trees within their forest ecosystem through a complex network of fungal mycorrhizal  roots.  Large 'mother' trees actively offer a helping hand to the younger trees of the forest, passing them nutrients through the fungal networks. Without this help from their elders their likelihood of survival would be greatly decreased.

Large-scale logging practices work against this natural system. By cutting down the mother trees and then replanting a mono-crop of well-spaced trees, we actually decrease their resistance to pests and their ability to adapt. This destroys their support network and hampers their ability to create new ones. This new understanding of the forest replaces the old paradigm of every tree fighting for its own survival, competing against all others for enough light, water and nutrients.

Paradigms are shifting in the economic world as well. Business as usual isn't really working any more, if indeed it ever worked. Entrepreneurs like Anna are beginning to weave collaboration into the very fabric of their business models, and ultimately fulfilling mutual needs for both humans and the planet.

It seems fitting that this new, more complex and interconnected understanding of the forest should come in parallel to the shifts in business towards collaboration and positive impact. As social entrepreneurs we are working towards doing as the trees do; empowering our human forest through collaboration and a sharing of resources. The best solutions seem to be the ones nature herself has already been doing. I am glad we are finally paying attention.


You can follow your own personal entrepreneurial journey like Anna and Karen in a strong community of support - join Groundswell's social venture programs - we are taking applications for January 2017 NOW!