Nature's Unifying Patterns

Learning from nature's overarching design lessons.

In this section we discuss what we can learn from overarching patterns observed in how organisms function and interact—at a systems level—to create resilient ecosystems. We call these patterns “nature’s unifying patterns” because examples can be found broadly across the majority of life on Earth, and they have profound implications for what and how we design.

What exactly are nature’s unifying patterns?

System-level patterns that point to underlying rules in how life operates—and how our designs should, too.

First, it’s helpful to state what nature’s unifying patterns are not. In this section, we are not referring to individual biological strategies. We’re also not referring to ubiquitous designs that can be observed in the natural world, such as logarithmic spirals, symmetry, fractals, and tessellations, nor to visual patterns on organisms, such as spots and stripes. And we are not referring to process patterns, such as nature’s common use of water-loving and water-hating surfaces to control the movement of liquids. As we discuss in the section on Finding Biological Strategies, these patterns certainly can and should inform our designs—they are common for a reason—but they don’t represent the deeper lessons or patterns we will talk about here.

Instead, we’re talking about system-level patterns, informed by context and constraints within the natural world (Earth’s Operating System), that point to underlying rules in how life operates—and how our designs should, too.

In the first chapter of her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus pulled together one of the first such lists of patterns applicable to biomimetic design.  She introduced the list this way (pg. 8):

“These individual achievements [of organisms] pale, however, when we consider the intricate interliving that characterizes whole systems, communities like tidal marshes or saguaro forests. In ensemble, living things maintain a dynamic stability, like dancers in an arabesque, continually juggling resources without waste. After decades of faithful study, ecologists have begun to fathom hidden likenesses among many interwoven systems. From their notebooks, we can begin to divine a canon of nature’s laws, strategies, and principles that resonates [with biomimetic design]:

  • Nature runs on sunlight.
  • Nature uses only the energy it needs.
  • Nature fits form to function.
  • Nature recycles everything.
  • Nature rewards cooperation.
  • Nature banks on diversity.
  • Nature demands local expertise.
  • Nature curbs excesses from within.
  • Nature taps the power of limits.”

In addition to Benyus’s list, there have been many other attempts to identify overarching patterns or lessons from nature, for various purposes. Some examples include those found in the popular science book Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland et al., 2001), McDonough and Braungart’s “Hannover Principles,” the Natural Step‘s “Sustainability Principles,” Biomimicry 3.8‘s “Life’s Principles,” Biomimicry for Creative Innovation‘s “Nature’s Principles,” and David Holmgren’s “Permaculture Principles,” to name just a few. Many groups are still trying to identify overarching patterns in nature that can inform design, building on previous lists or knowledge. Others are practicing applying existing tools and principles but often hit roadblocks in understanding, or apply the lessons incorrectly.

Given these factors, and the Biomimicry Institute’s experience teaching and working with many of the existing resources, we are recommending our own simplified list of nature’s patterns for use in our design challenge competitions—or any time you are designing or working to solve a problem.

10 of nature’s unifying patterns to consider

 

The Biomimicry Institute has created the following list of 10 patterns for use in our design challenges—but it can be used any time you are designing or working to solve a problem. The list is our attempt to identify key lessons from the natural world that have profound implications for what and how we design. Our intent is not to present this as a definitive and exhaustive list. Rather, it is a work in progress that we hope will be informed and enhanced by the growing community of biomimics who are practicing applying nature’s lessons to their designs.

Nature's Unifying Patterns

Download a reference sheet with the full descriptions of all 10 patterns.

Examples and Applications

Download a document with biology examples and design applications for each of the 10 patterns.

Putting the patterns into practice

The intent behind applying nature’s unifying patterns to problem solving, in addition to spurring novel ways of thinking and breakthrough ideas, is to create more sustainable designs, especially within a systems context. Taking these fundamental lessons into consideration will help ensure that your designs will fit in well with life on eartha key step in the practice of biomimicry, and one that distinguishes it from the broader category of bio-inspired design. Once you begin to understand these patterns, you should start applying them at the very beginning of your design process, in the scoping phase, and continue pondering and using them throughout all your design phases.

Your challenge is to translate these lessons into design specifications, quality control metrics, material selection and other manufacturing or process choices. Although it may be impossible to fully apply all 10 patterns within our own designs, given current limits in human-made materials and systems, replicating all of these patterns is an excellent aspirational goal.

Applying each of these pattern lessons to your own designs will take patience and practice. But doing so can and will help you get to more sustainable designs within more sustainable systems. If you are participating in one of our design challenges, you should attempt to address each of these patterns in your design challenge submission to the extent that you can.

We’d like to end with some inspiration from Janine Benyus from her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature:

… What will make the Biomimicry Revolution any different from the Industrial Revolution? Who’s to say we won’t simply steal nature’s thunder and use it in the ongoing campaign against life?

This is not an idle worry. The last really famous biomimetic invention was the airplane (the Wright brothers watched vultures to learn the nuances of drag and lift). We flew like a bird for the first time in 1903, and by 1914, we were dropping bombs from the sky.

Perhaps in the end, it will not be a change in technology that will bring us to the biomimetic future, but a change of heart, a humbling that allows us to be attentive to nature’s lessons. As author Bill McKibben has pointed out, our tools are always deployed in the service of some philosophy or ideology. If we are to use our tools in the service of fitting in on Earth, our basic relationship to nature—even the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe—has to change.

pg. 8

Image Credits

Hanover Principles: McDonough and Braungart
Natural Step: Natural Step
Life’s Principles: Biomimicry 3.8
Nature’s Principles: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation
Janine Benyus: courtesy Biomimicry 3.8

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