In Times of Scarcity, Be an Emperor Penguin

Today’s blog post is written by Christa Avampato, Director of Product Development, PatronManager.

This is the first in a series of two posts about how lessons from science can inform the work we do in our arts organizations. My hope is that this new lens gives all of us a fresh perspective on how we can learn from and replicate both the beauty and efficiency of nature in our work.

In January I started a Master of Science graduate program in Biomimicry through Arizona State University. Biomimicry is the study of biology (the study of all living beings) and the application of its genius to our human-built environment and products. Nature is at its core a 3.8 billion-year-old research and development lab. “Life finds a way” is not just a clever line from Jurassic Park, but one of the most profound truths of our planet. Life has found a way through the most tumultuous of times—ice ages, mass extinction events, fire, flood, and famine—and it has much to teach us.

So, what can arts organizations learn from nature? Let’s work through an example together. For this first blog post, the question we will pose is: “How can we continue to thrive in times of scarcity?”

Every organization deals with resource scarcity on some level now and then whether that resource is time, money, or skill sets. Let’s imagine we run a theater company in a town that has a number of similar organizations all competing for the same base of audience members who have a finite amount of money to spend on going to the theater. How can we thrive in this seemingly scarce and competitive environment?

Photo by Ian Parker on Unsplash

Behold the emperor penguin, the tallest and heaviest penguin species. It lives in Antarctica, one of the harshest climates on Earth. Temperatures regularly hit -40 degrees and wind speeds can reach 124 miles per hour. It cannot change its environment so it’s developed several adaptations to allow it to thrive in these conditions. Many of these adaptations are physical but it also has a behavioral defense as well.

When the temperature and wind become too much for male penguins to manage on their own, they huddle together in very large groups. The patterns of these huddles change depending upon the point in the breeding season. While eggs are incubating, they huddle in the largest groups. Why? Male emperor penguins are in charge of incubating and protecting their eggs while female penguins go on extended hunting expeditions. This means the male penguins must conserve as much of their energy as possible to survive a long fasting period while also protecting their yet unborn offspring.

These huddles are also dynamic. Every 30-60 seconds a male penguin will move slightly, causing all the penguins nearby to also move. This creates a wave-like effect which increases the density of the huddle and generates additional heat. Whenever a penguin becomes too warm, they leave the huddle and the huddle reassembles to fill the vacated space. The penguins also rotate their position within the huddle frequently alternating those on the outside of the huddle (which is cooler and more windy) and those closer to the center (which is warmer and less windy).

So, what design principles can we take from this example and extend into our organizations?

Stay maniacally focused on the end goal.

For emperor penguins, their most important goal is the propagation of their young. Rather than a pair of penguins going it alone with their own tiny egg, all of the male penguins in a group band together to persevere through the long, harsh winter in Antarctica. So for arts organizations, think about your goals in terms of your local arts community as a whole. A crowded space does not have to be a competitive space.

Action to take: Form a local cohort and come to a consensus about what’s important to the community at large and discuss how you can support one another in meeting that goal.

Identify and plan for a common future need.

All of the penguins must deal with their harsh climate, and they all need a way to generate heat and protection in the face of their cruel environment. In our theater community, we may also deal with challenging circumstances—the loss of donor money, the cycles of the greater economy, change in our community, natural disasters that impact our business, and the list goes on and on. Rather than waiting until a challenge is upon you, figure out how you can get out in front of potential problems and make a plan to manage them when they inevitably find you and cause some level of scarcity. The penguins don’t stand around wondering how they will deal with the harsh winter. They know winter will arrive, and they have a plan for dealing with it when it comes.

Action to take: Plan for the inevitable! Identify potential obstacles that may come into view down the road and create action plans to help minimize impact should those specific challenges come to fruition.

Aggregate and share resources.

In times of challenge, we need support networks that can help us survive and find a way forward. Is there a shared set of resources that we can all contribute to and access as needed just as the emperor penguins have a way to access additional warmth when the season makes community cooperation necessary?

Action to take: Every organization, even if they are occupying a similar space to you, brings something different to the table. Strategize with fellow organizations about how you can pool your unique resources together for everyone’s benefit.

Take turns.

There are no warmth hogs among emperor penguin waddles. (A waddle is the name for a group of penguins on land.) Those who need more warmth make their way closer to the center and other penguins make room for them. When they have received enough warmth, they will make their way out of the huddle, thereby making room for others who need warmth to enter. Nature understands and has learned to master resource scarcity. It takes only what it needs and contributes to the community as it is able.

Action to take: One of the best things about having a community is that you can support one another during difficult times. With a common goal, strategy in place to overcome obstacles, an accurate read on resources that can be shared, and a commitment to support one another, everyone wins.

I’m in the early days of my Biomimicry journey, and I’m excited about all of the learning that lies ahead to inform my work in product development. If you’re also fascinated by science and the lessons it has to teach us, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, and stay tuned for my next post in this series.

Read the second post in this series here.

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