In the beginning of March I set out to conduct research on how business design can be harnessed to support craft based businesses, examining Totomoxtle, a business that produces veneers from heirloom corn husks, led by industrial designer Fernando Laposse.
For those who are unfamiliar, business design, it is a method born from human-centered design, used to make sure that innovative solutions can go out and succeed in the real world. In our toolkit, you can find everything from strategy and market analysis to business model generation, and helping clients work through business problems through a design lens to transform wild ideas into viable business offerings.
To kickstart the project, I realised that in order to get a firm understanding of the business, I would have to go back to the beginning —getting familiar with Totomoxtle’s USP and key asset, the heirloom corn. Being far from an agriculturalist or biologist, I saw this as an opportunity to use myself as a test tube, considering how designers can practically bridge knowledge gaps when onboarding themselves onto projects working closely with nature.
I. A brief history of corn
Travelling across rich terracotta hues to pure creams and deep purples verging on black, the textures and colours of the featherlight corn husks create a rich mosaic that departs from the monotonous yellow tones most of us are familiar with.
This is precisely what first sparked my intrigue in Totomoxtle. The business acted as a vessel in which rare corn varieties were brought to life after decades of not growing naturally — it’s USP dependent not only on these dying varieties but also a part of the corn that had previously gone to waste.
It was clear that beyond the veneers being used in interiors for tiles, wallpapers and furnishings, there was something much deeper at play and I wanted to understand this— to open the product up and see it as a placeholder for a much more complex reality of processes, materials and stories.
So let’s go back to the beginning...
Evidence from archaeological and genetic studies believe that corn was bred and cultivated by early Mesoamericans who developed the crop through selective breeding from a wild grain called teosinte. In fact, the oldest sample of corn ever discovered dates back 1500 BCE, located in the same mountain range as Tonahuixtla, the village where Totomoxtle is located.
After generations of selective breeding for larger ears and softer kernels, corn as we know it was developed. Corn grew and expanded like no other crop before it, becoming not only a staple food for millions across Central and South America, but also a cultural and spiritual emblem.
Understanding corn’s intertwining history with humans, we realize that this crop does not exist in isolation. In fact, quite the opposite. Corn is a human innovation developed through a patient collaboration with nature.
II. Success through interspecies value-exchange
Saoul is a farmer in his early 30s, born and raised in Tonahuixtla. When not working in his fields, you can spot him in his finest cowboy attire walking through town or even riding horesback through the meandering dirt roads.
Driving to the periphery of Tonahuixtla to visit Saoul, we turn into his fields. He emerges from a cement hut. This is his shelter from the harsh sun, as well as sleeping quarters while he stays for weeks on end to make sure no pests or predators damaged the corn crops.
Saoul is one of several farmers who has started planting heirloom corn varieties for Totomoxtle. The seeds are given to the farmers by Totomoxtle at the beginning of each season along with a partial pre-payment to cover the initial investment and risk.
The farmers are then responsible for planting the seeds saved from the previous harvests, watering and protecting the corn until maturity. Once the corn has reached maturity, the farmers carefully remove the corn husks to sell back to Totomoxtle. They are free to keep the corn to feed their families or to sell at local markets.
As we continue to walk through the fields, you can hear the drumming of a loud generator pumping water from the well under a big shady tree. Saoul is flooding his fields, channeling water through rows of dirt canals, a grid of water emerging. This noise will continue for more than two days and the costs of gasoline will be high.
Like most living organisms on this earth, corn’s aim is to spread its unique DNA — to grow and survive. Of course, we haven’t heard this from corn, so this is our best assumption. Likewise, as humans, for most of us our animalistic, biological aim is to spread our unique DNA, and in order to do this we must grow, survive, reproduce and sustain offspring.
In this context, corn and humans can achieve their aims through servicing one another. Their relationship is marked by mutual benefit — humans grow, spread and help to increase the variety of corn through labour, knowledge and investment, and corn in return offers its nutrition and excess materials at the end of each harvest.
Of course, this is oversimplifying the dynamic because nested around the corn and the farmer, are the systems that they exist in. The ecosystem of the corn (ie. the field) and social system surrounding the farmer (ie. community, Totomoxtle) that support (and also hinder) the well balanced orchestration of give and receive.
For example, when Totomoxtle first took off, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the world’s largest corn seed bank, caught wind of the project and provided Totomoxtle with the seeds of six critically endangered corn species — species on the verge of complete extinction.
Corn on the brink of extinction — no longer grown by farmers in Tonahuixtla — was brought back to life, with farmers receiving fair and stable pay from Totomoxtle to opt back into growing the rare varities.
And what does it tell us? We start to see that when humans collaborate with nature, there must be a fair exchange of value.
We are also reminded that real and legitimate value exists beyond financial capital. In addition to the seeds, the bank provided Totomoxtle with best practice for reintroducing these varieties back into nature, all in exchange for valuable on-the-ground insights to support their own research.
Through the examination of the trade-offs between ecosystems (corn field), social systems (farmers, Totomoxtle, seed bank) — we spot meaningful exchange of value to also include social capital, cultural capital, intellectual capital, spiritual capital, material capital and living capital (“8 forms of capital,” Ethan Roland).
III. Innovating through nature
This give and receive relationship between ecosystem and social system shifts into new terrains when we examine an ancient indigenous system still used by farmers in Tonahuixtla during the summer seasons.
The Milpa System, also known as the three sisters, refers to an ancient Mesoamerican integrated agriculture system where corn, beans and squash are planted together.
The exchanges of value can be summarised as the following:
- The corn offers support for the beans to grow, the beans offer nitrogen to the other crops and the squash provides shade, weed control and a micro-climate of moisture. In addition to this marriage of crops helping one another in their fight for growth, they in turn offer humans higher yields in addition to a more balanced diet — what one crop lacks in nutrients, the other offers.
In return what do the farmers and human counterparts offer?
- Farmers set up the Milpa system and support the survival of the Milpa crops season after season. Traditionally the entire Milpa cycle takes place over the span of several years — and the maintenance of the system requires long-term thinking.
Beyond planting and caring for the crops, farmers service the crops through rituals. The making of the Milpa has been described as,
“… the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe… forming the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance,” (Nigh, 1976).
By acknowledging, respecting and celebrating the crops, an intimate bond is created between humans and the Milpa — shifting the human perception of the system from object to subject. These rituals can be seen as cultural capital that support corn’s survival by enhancing the perceived worth while also passing down knowledge of maintenance for future generations.
The Milpa system also highlights the innovation potential of human-nature collaboration. In conceiving the Milpa, farmers mimicked and enhanced nature through nature — reconfiguring wires and orchestrating feedback loops to manipulate and sculpt systems into new forms without disrupting flows of value. The adaptability of these systems to integrate with one another was supported through farmer’s deep understanding of nature.
Bringing it all together, the relationship between the Milpa crops and their human counterparts reinforce the idea that robust and healthy systems are those with fair value exchange — a give and receive relationship of checks and balances, where each actor is satisfied with their trades without jeopardizing their own survival. In nature, this seems to be how systems survive and produce steadily in the long run.
With this insight of healthy systems being those of fair value exchange, it is interesting to consider businesses working with nature based assets and how many of them return meaningful value back to the plants and animals that offer them services. Even for tech companies who create digital products and services — everything all comes back to a physical and natural source (ie. materials of hardware, energy of server farms. In exchange for the labor of an employee, a financial fee is paid, but how about the natural materials used to create a product or service — what value do they seek in return for their service?
While the Milpa system was designed to, “create relatively large yields of food crops without the need for pesticides or fertilizers,” thereby reaching a self sustaining state, “agronomists point out that there is a danger that at more intensive levels of cultivation the Milpa system can become unsustainable,” (Bridgewater, 2012).
When we ask too much of systems, we run the risk of compromising the whole thing. Bringing this logic to the mainstream norms of business, it challenges fundamental assumptions that the health of a company is assessed through markers of continuous growth and scaling.
In a world made up of finite resources, how can we support an economic system built on continuous and infinite growth KPI’s?
IV. Translating nature’s strategy to the local economy
Sitting down with the part-time employees of Tonahuixla, over and over again, each one expressed their dream for consistent work, if not for them, then a career for their children.
In Tonahuixtla there is no industry, no thriving businesses, no factory. Most women do not work, and the jobs for men come arbitrarily — forcing many to take the dangerous trip over the border again and again.
Observing the struggles of the community, I wondered how we might examine their situation by mapping out this idea of fair value exchange to try and pinpoint where some of their ailments are born from.
Walking on the dirt roads of Tonahuixtla, the local reality of precarious work comes in high contrast to the slick branding painted onto cement facades and hanging in windows.
A deep blue “Coors” logo acts as a mural for a storefront, lush red Coca Cola plastic seating at its entrance and Lays trash cans by the counter. It seems every family has their own fully stocked corner store, which kind of defeats the purpose of having one in the first place? The infinite pink wrappers of lollipops gather dust.
The system is out of flux — there is an unbalanced exchange of value.
Ubiquitous, global brands have arrived to Totomoxtle to sell commodities that the villagers had previously made for themselves (ie. food, soaps, etc). Now, the little money saved by villagers consequently does not remain into the local village economy — but rather seeps outwards to these big brands.
And what services are brought back to villagers?
Thanks to them, basic infrastructure like roads were built, connecting villagers more easily to other towns and cities.
Susanna, 34, is the mother of 2. At the end of each month, she takes a bus to clean homes with her sister in a nearby city from 7 AM to 7 PM for 150 pesos. The bus to go there and back costs 54 pesos. She uses this money to supplement the 900 pesos / week her husband makes to support their family.
But these roads were not built purely as social goods. Their principal aim is to improve supply routes for transporting goods. The result has been a steady stream of junk brought into town.
Having access to cheap thrills — sweets, beers and processed foods — malnourishment can be seen throughout the village. Youngsters’ smiles are tinted light brown. Our gracious host Mary plugs herself into a dialysis machine each night, her kidneys failing due to diabetes.
There is a great irony when a village grows such nutritious foods — yet consumes the options coming from the outside because they are cheaper. Looking to the elders who maintain traditional diets — eating freshly grown veggies and slingshotted animals — many of their teeth remain perfectly intact.
An extractive dynamic is present. Outside brands collect local money without exchanging valuable capital or creating the opportunities for locals to create financial capital.
Its like a broken feedback loop that trickles down to farmers who struggling to meet ends meet, compromise their land in the future for more immediate returns — switching their heirloom varieties to pricier, high-yielding monoculture seeds.
And the monocultures dazzle for the first years — producing outputs like never before. However, with too many services demanded from the soil, after a few years, fields that produced crops for generations, become unproductive. Entire systems that served as the foundations of a community — their identify — stopped working.
Unbalanced relationships can only be supported for so long before damaging shockwaves are sent through a system — reverberating out to the surrounding systems.
In the end, we discover that the corn and their human collaborator’s challenges start merging together, preyed on by a seductive globalised economic systems that have silenced and erased them — asking too much, with little reward, or as Fernando said,
“Having all of the disadvantages of being part of the global economy with no advantages.”
Niko is in his mid-40s, formerly serving in the Mexican military. He is the husband of Martina, proud father to Diana and helps to manage Totomoxtle.
Walking up to Niko’s home constructed of cinder blocks, an energetic, plump puppy greets us — its wagging tail swaying its body back and forth. Full of joy we pet him and continue on.
As we are about to enter his home, we discover 3 more puppies half the size hiding and full of fleas. While their tummies are inflated — don’t be fooled— for they are visibly malnourished. The plump pup, their sibling, has been taking all the mother’s milk.
When survival is on the line and resources are limited — we must not forget, that nature can be cruel. And so we must ask — are our resources limited? Must we extract more than we give? And how much longer can the scales be in our favour until we feel a push back?
V. In conclusion,
Once we realise that the products and services we produce stand as placeholders for much more complex realities — we can start to illuminate the contributing actors previously erased from our view.
Thousands of years of collaborating respectfully with nature has shown us that the most successful systems are those where all contributing actors give and receive meaningful value without jeopardizing their own survival.
In knowing this, we start to understand that we as humans, communities, businesses and economies are inseparable from the natural world. Together we exist in integrated systems of wholes made up of a spectrum of living organisms joined together through webs of value exchange.
However, this understanding comes in contradiction to the neoliberal economic system we have constructed and exist within. Narratives of human-centricity, consumption, extraction, industrialised efficiency and continuous growth have become our lived reality.
In our current state, we are neglecting the needs of all the contributing actors who provide their services to us.We have broken the silent agreement of mutual exchange. We can not continue on like this.
But how do we move forward?
Borrowing the logic of value exchange from our natural systems, what if we start designing our businesses more inclusively by serving all of the living organisms who are servicing us? A business design approach rooted in interspecies-centered design.
This approach acknowledges the wider systems at play, identifies the needs of all contributing actors and works to find intersecting pathways of value (ie. customer x business x employee x natural resources).
It does not disregard the needs of the customer or business, but uncovers and invites the needs of the natural resources, employees and communities to the same line by harnessing the underlying logic of existing tools (ie. human-centered design and business design) through a new lens.
Embedded logic in our natural systems along with ancient knowledge shows us that we humans can work innovatively through nature — so long as we pay our dues in return.
It’s not about starting over. In pinpointing our ailments, we can open up space for improvement to heal. Tapping into a hybrid of age old wisdom with our own (iterated) tools can help us forge a collectively abundant and resilient pathway forward.
Resources & Inspiring Minds:
- Diving into the Milpa system in “Lo-TEK” by Julia Watson (2019)
- Insightful conversations with Sara di Moitie (Designer & Agriculturalist) and Stefan Knauf (Sculptor & Urban Farmer)
- Regenerative models : Circular Economy, Crade-to-Cradle Certification and Regenerative Organic Certification
- Bridgewater, Samuel (2012). A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest. London: Natural History Museum. pp. 154–155
- 8 Forms of Capital in “Financial Systems like Ecosystems,” by Ethan C Roland, Permaculture.co.uk
Giuliana Mazzetta operates at the intersection of design, culture and futures. She works as a strategic design consultant based in London, co-director of the Speculative Futures London and guest lecturer at Imperial College London. She is passionate about building inclusive futures, captured in her ongoing project @future_archives. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or LinkedIn.