1. We, humans, are part of nature
This has to be said — over and over again — until it’s not a debate anymore.
We are not separate from, or even worse, above other life — even though some might believe that this is the case. Instead, we need to recognize that we are tightly interconnected with nature. Just one example: our own bodies contain trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1.
Recognizing that we are part of nature is important if we want to go beyond human-centered design and to life-centered design, which acknowledges the necessity of the survival and well-being of all life.
Another aspect of humans being part of nature is that we can indeed learn from ourselves. The caution here is that humans are a very young species, and rather than seeing ourselves as masters of innovation, we should perhaps see ourselves as late adopters. If Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history were compressed into one calendar year, humans appeared on December 31, around 23:24. We’re late to the innovation party!
2. Humans are homesick
How do you define home?
We tend to see home as a physical place, a house. We’ve surrounded ourselves with buildings that provide us shelter.
However, unlike any other organism, we’ve literally disconnected ourselves from our environment by building so many concrete structures — making it tricky to really be in tune with our environment. Therefore, we’re having a hard time identifying aspects of our lives that bring us that sense of familiarity — being in tune with the environment — which evokes a feeling of belonging. It’s the sense of “being home” rather than literally “being at home”.
So when things are changing so incredibly fast, it can be truly amazing to find your way home: the state of being that feels familiar to you and where you feel safe.
3. We have to (re)define our purpose
Sadly I hear too often: “The world would be better without humans”.
As if there isn’t enough weight on our shoulders already!
Even more so, humans are important ecosystem engineers, which means our actions have ripple-effect consequences — just like beavers who can drastically modify the habitats they live in.
We sure aren’t meant to be wasteful — or utterly useless. What I do agree with is that we should be (re)defining humans’ role within this larger ecosystem and finding places for us to interact and create value.
While this is an individual journey, we’re realizing there is much to learn from Indigenous peoples; they hold strong multi-generational wisdom and have had a lot more time to figure out their role within their ecosystem. As an avid TED Talk watcher (yes, I too suffer from a short attention span), Lyla June’s 3000-year old solutions to modern problems is my favorite.
4. Incorporate lessons learned from nature on different levels
Generally, examples that come to mind when thinking about what type of lessons can influence design are based on formsor shapes. Airplanes that mimic birds. Self-cleaning coatings that mimic the bumps of a lotus leaf. Velcro that mimics the hooks and loops of a burdock plant.
Perhaps some people will think of the process of photosynthesis. But usually not often would people consider, for example, learning from honeybees to inspire efficient group decision making.
Indeed, lessons learned from nature can be considered at multiple scales: forms, processes, and entire (eco)systems.
Ideally, for going beyond a “light” biomimicry approach, all three levels should be considered.
Think not only about a product or a material, but also how and where it is made (i.e. its supply chain), how it will be used, and its impact on the environment. A growing interest in how the built environment can benefit from biomimicry shows the potential of using lessons learned on a systems-level scale.
For those who find it daunting to dive into extensive biology research — or don’t have access to a biologist at the design table — the integration of Life’s Principles is often a good place to start. For a bigger picture view, these 9 Nature’s Unifying Patterns might be more approachable.
In any case, sharing the innovation party with over 8 million species means there is no shortage of opportunities for inspiration!
5. Let’s be round
“Survival of the fittest,” often wrongly quoted in the concept of competition, is actually a testimony of those that are the best at adapting to their environment. Humans, we have a problem: People resist change!
In this ever so rapidly changing world — partly of our own consequence — we’d better equip ourselves with a growth mindset and the ability to adapt to changes. It will make us a lot more flexible and resilient.
We all were put to the test with COVID-19, which definitely counts as a big disturbance that triggered many of us to question or even re-adjust important life decisions. But, the trigger doesn’t have to be that extreme; how can you turn your daily frustrations into reasons to make small tweaks, or optimize your current life, rather than re-invent a new one? Don’t wait until the next big pandemic to design the life that makes you thrive in your environment.
6. Let’s be circular
Waste is a human concept — it doesn’t exist in nature. Everything ends up back into the cycle of life; that’s why the little unsexy creatures like woodlice, worms, and termites are so important! How can you view your own life as circular? What can you reduce, reuse, and recycle in your life — and not merely from a material point of view?
7. Favor cooperation over competition
“But nature is cruel! And competitive!” are often raised concerns. The documentary scene in which you see a lion chase a wildebeest is what we picture, yet that’s probably less than 10% of the footage the film crew shot.
Sure, the world is not a fairytale in which only beautiful things happen. But, nature shows us countless examples in which cooperation increases survival rates, especially during times of stress. This is true across different species (think symbiotic partnerships like lichen with trees and clownfish with anemones) and within a single species (e.g. swarm intelligence in ant colonies, wolf packs, and elephant herds).
One of my favorite examples of how to apply biomimicry for social challenges is the application of The Dolphin Strategy in business management and leadership. Rather than taking a shark approach (i.e. there can only be one winner and the rest loses), dolphins actually realize they need their fellow peers in order to win over the long haul. That is cooperative leadership done really well!
8. Invest in the future, the one you won’t be a part of
We believe one of humans’ most impressive achievements is our capability to reflect and imagine. We can visualize a future state. However, our brains haven’t had a lot of practice in doing that. When we think long-term, we often think around 5 –10 years ahead. But, when looking at nature, we have to recognize that significant change — and the lasting effects of evolution — needs many more decades.
When we (re)design our world, we have to envision a future state in which we, ourselves, won’t be part of. We have to do it for our (grand…)grandchildren and their families and friends. We have to become good ancestors.
9. Measure progress accordingly
Thinking long-term also means looking at progress with that point of view. You don’t see your child growing every minute, but looking backwards a couple of years, that’s exactly what was happening.