Looking to Nature

Have you heard of biomimicry? It’s the field that looks to nature as a proven “innovation lab”  and uses the characteristics of successful experiments (with “survival” being the mark of success) to inspire design, decision-making, systems thinking, and problem solving. biomimicry.org, a leading source for information on nature-inspired learning and solutions, defines it like this:

"Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies."

Nature, it turns out, can help us improve the way we make things, if only we learn how to learn from it. Open up a pomelo (those big green citrus fruits) if you need inspiration on packaging: their spongy peels and pith help the juicy treat inside withstand up to a 30-foot fall.

Want to create a win-win? Study how clownfish and anemone benefit from interaction that helps both of them thrive. Need surfaces that shed water, resist dirt buildups, and reflect more light? Look to a butterfly’s wings. Seeds, beetles, sharks, lotus leaves: all these and more are helping innovators solve big problems and increase impact with the things they design.

Yet there’s more we can learn from nature (probably many things, actually). Looking beyond the physical aspect of nature’s bounty, what can we learn from the bigger picture: the ever-changing system that is nature in all of its persistence and tenacity. Three things always hit me as I look to nature; I’m sharing them below. I’m no naturalist, so please don’t take this as scientific expertise: merely as observations I’ve learned from and thought about throughout my life.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. Give nature half a chance and life will emerge. It may be in unlikely places – pitch-dark volcanic vents at the ocean’s depths, frozen in ice (and seemingly time), and likely in plenty of settings we haven’t even found yet. Nature is resilient as heck, fighting back against the odds (and even volcanic ash) and restoring equilibrium to off-balance environments. It morphs and specializes to fill available niches – ask Darwin, or this gazelle – and keeps growing through the sidewalks with tenacity (and sometimes even style).

Nature reflects reality. Life and death are one in nature, with new forms rising up as others decline. Nature is pragmatic, wasting nothing: the fallen insect feeds those who will survive. Nature reflects truth, without judgment: too many chemicals in an environment and a life form dwindles. A life form dwindles, another opportunist takes its place. In the reality of nature, what “is” simply is: in gentleness and in violence, in demise and renewal, in all of its elegance or oddness: there it is. Couple this thought with “will and way” and you might sense an attitude of resourcefulness and purpose: as if nature is always asking “What is possible now?”

Nature is inherently interdependent. Everything in nature is connected on some level, ebbing and flowing in response to all around it. We can look to the individual creatures found across nature’s continuum, or to the species or ecosystems, or to the entire system of nature itself. We can look to an individual bee, or to a buzzing superorganism of a colony, or to the place the bee holds relative to the season’s flowers or even the larger forces affecting its existence. Nothing in nature exists in isolation: everything reflects the larger environment and each thing in it. Each individual, species, or environment has its place in accord with all individuals, species, and environments.

If innovators can radically improve product design by looking to the intelligence of the creatures Nature has evolved, what can we learn by looking at its unstoppable rhythms, it’s “oneness” with all else, its ability to adapt? How can we look to nature as we evolve our own understanding of ourselves and our place in something bigger, whatever we believe that to be?

And since we are part of nature, can we look to its lessons when we need the tenacity to keep trying, the courage to accept reality, and the wisdom to find accord with others?

What do you learn as you look to nature? How can its example help you understand your place in all that’s around you? 

If these thoughts inspire you, you may enjoy these reflections from groundbreaking scientist Lynn Margulis on some of nature's – and life's – invisible secrets.