Nature can give us inspiration about how we can create a perfect niche in which to develop our practice and make a sustainable business by building harmonious and cooperative relationships with existing organisations.
We all need to feel like we belong and that we have a place in the world. That might be the physical place where you live or the group of friends you hang out with. But it also applies to how we make our living, and for this, nature might give us some inspiration.
You may have seen David Attenborough on TV showing us how the weird and wonderful creatures of our planet live their lives. Those amazing creatures that have somehow evolved to live such a specialised life in a very particular environment – the slopes of a volcano, the deepest darkest depths of the oceans, or a humming bird that is the only way one particular species of flower can be pollinated. Their evolution seems so amazingly specialised and yet their adaptations allow them to thrive in harmony with their environment and with the surrounding species.
This could be a lesson for us in how we fit into the world and how we make a living as creative people.
It all comes down to understanding systems and our place within those systems and crucially how we can create new spaces to inhabit within those systems.
Take modern manufacturing – the many things that we like to buy to make our lives better, more comfortable or easier, are all made in a factory somewhere. A modern manufacturer is extremely efficient; processes and resource use have been engineered and honed to minimise waste and maximise profits. But often there is still ‘left overs’ – materials used to manufacture products that end up as waste. These can be anything from chemicals to raw materials to individual components – even complete products that somehow don’t make it to market.
These ‘left overs’ can be a headache for the manufacturer. With luck there might be a market for them but often there isn’t, or the value is very low. The waste streams don’t align with the core business of the product manufacturers and are a liability; a problem that needs a solution. Logically, that solution is normally the easiest and cheapest and is most commonly to throw them away. They will be disposed of by meeting any legal obligations (such as pollution regulations), but at the lowest possible costs and that can often mean diversion into the municipal waste stream. Some elements may be recovered for re-use – such as metals – but much will go to incineration or landfill.
This is a huge waste not only in resources, but also in value. Any recovered materials are typically ‘down-cycled’ into lower grade materials and products, or there may be some energy recovery through incineration.
If viewed as a system, it is a broken one.
But this represents huge opportunities for new products and services that fill in the gaps and fix the system – unoccupied niches ripe for development. A previous blog post spoke about the Circular Economy and how creative people are the key to making our existing system sustainable, identifying and creating your own niche can be part of this process too. It could also be a route to more self-determination and autonomy in the way you choose to spend your life and make a living.
How to do this?
The first step is to look at the big picture, or more accurately understand materials and resources in the context of their systems. For example, if you are a designer or maker who specialises in a particular material – wood, glass, metal etc – look in detail where your materials come from and also, at the end of their life. Where do they go for disposal in the existing system? Who else uses these same materials? Where do their supplies come from and what happens to their waste?
With some research, it is possible to make a map that shows you where resources and materials are used and, more importantly, where resources and materials fall out of the system with little or no value attached to them. Conventionally we call this ‘waste’ but in reality it is resource inputs to your business.
The aim is not to become a waste handling firm, but instead use these under-valued resources to create high value products by applying creativity and skills.
At the same time as creating your own products, you are simultaneously solving a problem for the ‘waste’ creating organisation by removing a liability from their balance sheet. You have created a symbiotic relationship that supports you and your ‘waste’ material supplier.
Somebody who has done this is Tessa Silva-Dawson. She has explored the use of leftover milk. She uses the milk protein, casein, to make a plastic-like material and form vessels.
In an interview with Crafts Magazine, Tessa says:
“I source the material and make it all myself. I’m trying to bring attention to alternatives that can be found within local communities, instead of having to order materials from the other side of the world.”
“It would be better if farms had such a tight loop that there wasn’t any waste at all, but as it’s happening now I am inserting myself into that system, drawing attention to waste streams that go unnoticed.” (See Crafts Magazine July/August 2019)
Tessa refers specifically to systems and how the milk production system doesn’t work. By ‘inserting’ herself into that system she has occupied a niche and by developing her own practice and products that niche gets developed until it forms and indispensable part of the production eco-system. Everybody wins.
Other systems, with different materials will all have differing considerations – there can be many variables, such as likely volumes of resources, consistency, variability and availability. Sizing up a niche for occupation does take research, thought and planning, but the rewards in styling yourself as an economic system hummingbird could be worth it.