Katie Elder

Sustainability. Leadership. Innovation.



Sustainable Consumption

The theme of sustainable consumption is a great topic with the holiday season rapidly approaching. The ads for Black Friday, a major shopping day on U.S. Thanksgiving next week, are filling my web browser as I’m on a U.S. IP address with my work computer. (“U.S.” Thanksgiving is different than “Canadian” Thanksgiving. In Canada, we celebrate in October and although the holiday centers on consuming food, overall it isn’t as shopping and consumption focused as the U.S. version – yet.)

To talk about sustainable consumption we really have to talk about “Sustainable Business Models.” I’ve recently been doing research on Sustainable Business Models inspired by my dissertation supervisor who is doing leading edge research in this area. Dr. Nancy Bocken has a great website of her own with highlights of her research which you can find here:

Before investigating the literature, I had trouble conceptualizing what a sustainable business model would look like versus a regular business model. I thought “Don’t all businesses, aside from shell corporations or companies set up with a specific short-term interest, need to think about some elements of sustainability – at least financially?” Of course, it’s more sophisticated and exciting than that!

Dr. Bocken’s research shed some light for me on what exactly a SBM is through her work on “sustainable business model archetypes” (Bocken et al, 2014). Her research built on the existing but very limited literature on SBM innovation to capture a wider variety SBMs and comprehensive review. Through each of these SBMs you can see the opportunity to reduce consumption in absolute or create more sustainable consumption models. The sustainable business model archetypes from Dr. Bocken’s research are:

  • Maximise material and energy efficiency;
  • Create value from ‘waste’;
  • Substitute with renewables and natural processes;
  • Deliver functionality rather than ownership;
  • Adopt a stewardship role;
  • Encourage sufficiency;
  • Re-purpose the business for society/environment;
  • Develop scale-up solutions.


The concept of more radically disruptive approach to sustainability through business model innovation – beyond product innovation for sustainability – has been occupying a great deal of my thinking as I’m wrestling with how to incorporate it to my dissertation research. I have always been a fan of different corporate governance models having exposure to the co-operative business model at an early age and serving on the board of a large retail co-operative in B.C., Canada. As much as I love the theory behind it, I’ve become skeptical about the co-operative model and the closely related credit union model. During my undergrad at Queen’s, I took a fantastic course from Professor Edwin Neave on Financial Institutions. In that course he shared with us that credit unions, despite being popular in Canada, exhibit lower growth rates than traditional banks.

I promised earlier during our course work on governance models and legal business structures to do a comparison of co-ops and B-Corps. With this task still outstanding, the additional lens I would like to apply to that comparison is: which legal structure (co-ops, B-Corps, corporations) is the best fit to enable a SBM? I now think that the comparison of legal structure alone is outdated given the additional thinking on the potential disruptive impact of SBMs – regardless of the legal structure the owners of the firms use to incorporate them with.

So what are my favourite examples of sustainable consumption via SBMs here in Toronto, Canada?

A local example in Toronto that comes to mind for the “functionality rather than ownership” architype is the Toronto Tool Library. At the Toronto Tool Library you can borrow tools for construction and DIY projects. I came across the TTL because they also have 3-D printers you can use to create projects without investing in a 3-D printer. I took a course to learn to 3-D print there a few years ago after reading so much about it in The Economist; I had to try it for myself. Since I visited, they have now expanded to two locations in Toronto. You can find more information here:

toronto tool library

3-D Printing a Bottle Opener at the Toronto Tool Library, January 2014.

This holiday season think about how you can support a SBM and sustainable consumption! How can you give without encouraging more consumption? What are your favourite architypes within the SBMs? Can you think of any examples in your local area?



Biomimicry in Action: Interview with REGEN Energy ™ Co-Founder, Mark Kerbel

To add some colour to my last post on biomimicry as a trend in sustainability, I arranged an interview with the co-founders of one of the companies that gets the most buzz and well deserved recognition for being biomimicry-inspired. REGEN Energy is based in Toronto, Canada. Mark Kerbel, co-founder, agreed to do a phone interview with me from California. Mark Kerbel is a frequent speaker on the topic of biomimicry and emergence. Biomimicry is a topic I covered in an earlier post so check it out for more background.

“REGEN Energy ™ provides revolutionary wireless electrical demand management and automated demand response solutions to commercial and industrial facilities using a patented approach that is affordable, easy to use and maintains occupant comfort. Drastically reduce your energy costs while gaining unprecedented access to load-level data.” (REGEN, 2014)

This interview has been shortened and edited for the purpose of the blog post.

Q: How did you get started with biomimicry and what inspired your current business model?

Mark: My business partner and I both read a book about Swarm Logic and emergent system principles, “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.” We couldn’t find a use for it with our current business and therefore parked the topic on the side. When we started our next business, given but we had experience with utilities and rate structures and thought we could apply swarm logic to it.

We thought someone must already be doing it. We talked to academics who were using emergence in commercial or industrial areas. They said it was still very much in the research phase and wasn’t ready to be used in commercial application. We thought we could build an algorithm for it.

As practitioners we learned not to trust so-called experts… We now have 8 patents and more pending.

Q: What is the main benefit of the technology that REGEN offers? 

Mark: Are you familiar with peak demand? Commercial buildings will pay for the consumption and a peak charge – the peak charge can be over half of the bill in a month. The peak demand charges are determined from the highest 15 mins in a month. That was the original impetus: how can we reduce the peak demand?

Q: What is emergence?

Mark: Emergence is the principle that in nature things happen to self-organize. With some genetic mutations, individual organisms can develop some very good control mechanisms that can help lead the group to evolve into a better state to meet the new environment – all you need are lots of nodes with each node having some decision-making ability and the ability to change/mutate.

Q: How is biomimicry included as part of the organization governance or management?

Mark: It’s more of an informal principle and part of the culture in R&D and also part of the operations. There is a natural want to keep things simple – the more simple the better. It’s more important to push embracing that on the R&D side where there is something that might be fun to do but needs to be balanced with the complexity and reliability constraints of the system installed in a building for 10 years.

It’s informally part of the culture that’s evolved over times. It’s part of design reviews. The comment will come: explain why we really, really need to do this.

Swarm is simple and self-guided so it helps reinforce it as a cultural norm. Traditional building control systems view each zone in isolation. In swarm, every node is cognizant of every other node – makes a decision that is good for itself and good for the group. It’s a completely different way to manage: not just simpler but it’s also better in certain situations to use swarm methodologies versus traditional methodologies.

Q: Where do you see the future opportunities for biomimicry?

Mark: For us it’s to do the most you can with minimal resources: waste not, want not. That’s a core element of everything we do. When it’s about adding another calculation, feature, hardware or sensor, we always think about the complexity being added versus the quality of the information. There is a tendency for engineers in the building field to want to add more… I ask them to make sure that we understand why we really, really want to do this.

Nature doesn’t overcomplicate things just because – it will only add something that will help the entire swarm or organism.

Q: What future opportunities do you see for applied biomimicry?

Mark: Nature is not predictable and it changes slowly as it goes. Biomimetic features require people to look at things without blinders because they have to look at what else is possible. There are opportunities for material science, the amount of energy to build materials and what types of materials to build so that they are strong, flexible, etc as building materials. Also in agriculture, medicine – there are opportunities for immediate applied benefits.

Q: What will it take to make biomimicry more mainstream?

Mark: There is stuff out there in nature that we haven’t figured out yet. It’s got to be there but we haven’t looked hard enough yet. Engineers are not taught courses that say your first step should be to ask, “what is the core of the problem that we are trying to solve and is there a taxonomy in nature that we can apply?” For it to become more mainstream, we need to keep spreading the word to product developers. It’s not as abstract as they think: it’s much more practical and applied than they may consider.

Q: What are the best resources for people to find out more?


The Biomimicry Institute:

Motionry is another company to look at:

Motionry is a community of start-ups, researchers and companies streamlining how to discover and develop partnerships. (Motionry, 2014).

For more information about REGEN please visit their website:

Biomimicry: #BeesDoItBetter

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! Thanks for all the great comments on the last post!

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! It’s hard to believe that the month of January is almost now behind us. For January’s blog post I am looking at another sustainability trend: Biomimicry. It is defined by the Biomimicry Institute as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Biomimicry is taking inspiration from nature and can be used to solve some of today’s toughest sustainability challenges.

Nature has perfected a lot of systems and yet it has taken (some) humans’ thousands of years to embrace the idea that our created systems may be more detrimental than the ones that nature has surrounded us with. The reason I call out “some” humans is that as I was writing this post I thought of the fact that many indigenous people, known in Canada as First Nations, developed many of their practices and systems in harmony with nature and with elements of biomimicry. Returning to this harmony and embracing biomimicry gives us the opportunity to return to systems that are well balanced and don’t produce externalities that need to be regulated with even more complex and inefficient financial and economic systems.

There are three broad areas where I see that the sustainability field can benefit from biomicry:

1) Individual physical design or forms such as the aerodynamics of a bird’s beak or the stickiness of a burr to other materials. The classic example of biomimicry is of course Velcro. This is a great example of the physical form from nature inspiring a novel solution to temporary closures for everything from footwear to military gear.


Closer to providing sustainability benefits is the example from the transportation industry of a bird’s beak serving as inspiration for the aerodynamics of trains that came from a Japanese engineer – reducing friction and drag to maximize fuel efficiency and speed.


Images from:

2) Communication systems such as how bees and ants communicate to accomplish large scale tasks. The inspiration for Canadian company REGEN Energy ™’s Swarm Energy Management optimization system was inspired by the communication system used by bees to communicate without a central leadership role. REGEN Energy ™ adds decentralized communication systems to existing systems to help them communicate to reduce peak loads and simplify energy savings programs.


Infographic From:

More information on REGEN ™ at:

3) Harmony in Ecosystems such as designing for the surrounding environment like termites homes that maintain low temperature even in the dessert. Although it is inherent for all natural beings to exist within their ecosystems, as humans look to find ways to create less disruption in ecosystems and to fit exist across different and changing climates and geographies, this is an important inspiration. This description from “Biomimcry” (Benyus, 2002) gives a vivid visualization about the dynamic nature of natural life:

“Redwoods have fewer but better offspring, which have longer but more complex lives. They live in a most brilliant                and artful synergy with the species around them and put a great deal of energy into optimising their relationships.                Their wastes are recycled endlessly and their energy source is the sun.”


Thinking about ecosystems makes me think back to the Phillip’s Machine that I saw in action at Cambridge in September 2014 and wonder what other systems could be optimized by taking inspiration from natural systems along with physical structures to identify opportunities and outages with current models.  The Philip’s Machine uses water to model the economy and shows the impact of changes in one area, for example taxation on other areas of the economy, like savings with adjustments to the flow of the water.

I think that the biggest opportunities are still in the areas of communication and ecosystems. The design area and function forms are the “low hanging fruit” of biomimicry but I think the other two areas are ripe with opportunity for further expansion in areas like the REGEN ™ swarm-inspired technology.

Why do you think that human’s inherently think that we can outsmart nature with our created systems? Where do you see the next biggest opportunity for biomimicry to have an impact in the sustainability field?

Up next: I am working on a further post with some first-hand insight into the usage of biomimicry for solving sustainability challenges and also looking at a comparison of the ever-trendy B-Corps with the less-sexy-yet-practical co-operative structure.

Starting a conversation

Welcome to my blog! I started this blog as part of my Masters in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge coursework. The programme is part-time and designed for working professionals. I am planning to use the blog as a home for posts on other areas too – from retail trends to restaurant recommendations! Stay tuned!

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