Finding Biological Strategies

Once you have identified the function(s) and context(s) important to your design, the next step is to identify inspiring biological strategies.

Biomimicry depends on biological information, so naturally knowing where to look for it is an essential skill for biomimics. This section introduces three activities that help us identify relevant biological strategies: direct observation, research, and pattern finding.

Direct observation

A naturalist is a person who studies nature, principally through observation. Naturalists are great allies for biomimics, because they tend to have broad knowledge about many different types of organisms, as well as a systems view on how the organisms interact with each other and their environment.

The best way to connect with what nature has to teach us is to spend lots of time outdoors, cultivating a “naturalist’s mindset” through close observation. While books and online resources contain a lot of great information, there’s no substitute for experiencing nature with your own senses. Observing nature is helpful not only for gaining a deeper understanding of how the world works, but also for stimulating our creativity. In fact, a recent study found that “four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creative problem-solving task by a full 50%” (Atchley et al. 2013). So, go outside!  

How to observe

Ideally, you should go to a place with a native habitat that has not been too disturbed by the introduction of foreign plants or animals. Native habitats provide the best opportunity to find and observe organisms that have adapted to the local environment over many centuries or more.

Disturbed habitats, botanical gardens, zoos, and natural history centers can be good substitutes and also provide lots of inspiration. Even a cultivated garden has lots of hidden secrets to observe—spiders weaving webs, plants dispersing their seeds, birds building nests, and fungi breaking down plant material. Just try to keep in mind the organisms’ native habitats—that is, the context they evolved in—as you observe their strategies.

Nature Observation Exercises

Download these exercises to hone your observation skills.

While you are outside, think about function and take a moment to question why the features or behaviors of living organisms and systems are the way they are. If you notice an interesting strategy, can you think of a way that same strategy could be used in a design? Or, if you already have a design challenge in mind and have determined the function(s) that it must perform, you can use that to guide your observations. Look to nature and ask, “what organisms in this environment need to do the same function?”

When you first start out, you might find yourself getting distracted and impatient as you try to be still in nature. In this blog post for the Biomimicry Education Network, veteran biomimicry educator, Sherry Ritter, describes the rewards of pushing past the initial awkwardness (the “wigglies”) and reaching a place of deep observation.

Keep a nature journal

Another way to practice deep observation of nature is through sketching what you observe and keeping a nature journal. Sketching helps us forget what we already know and forces us to reconcile what we think we see with what is actually there. Don’t worry about your drawing skills—everyone can make simple sketches.

Check out this video for tips on how to get started keeping a nature journal.

Keeping a nature journal and observing, sketching, and taking notes routinely can provide even more insights to how the natural world functions and allow you to learn first-hand how organisms adapt to changing conditions and seasons. For some additional tips on how to experience nature in a new way, check out the articles Secrets of Observing Nature and Connecting with Nature.

Research: getting the science right

Because biomimetic design focuses on what biological strategies do and how they work, it’s essential that the science behind it is credible. For this reason, observation alone is not enough—you need to be able to back up perceived observations about strategies with scientific documentation that demonstrates how and why they work. Research can also be a great source for inspiration and information about organisms and biological phenomena that you might otherwise never encounter. Even more valuable than the text found in scientific journals and articles are the insights you may get by seeing researchers’ illustrations and magnified images.

Resources

 

There are many sources where you can find biological information, both in print or online. We provide a overview of these sources here, but don’t miss our Biology Research reference section for more links and additional advice to get you started.

Reading a Scientific Paper

Journal articles on biology and ecology can seem overwhelming for non-biologists looking to understand a biological strategy. But there’s a way to get through them and find the secrets you want to learn. Check out this reference for tips on getting the most out of these scientific papers.

Scientific journals, like Nature, PLoS One Biology, and the Journal of Experimental Biology are referred to as “primary literature” because they publish papers directly from the scientists doing the research.

For those with access to academic libraries, academic search databases like Web of Science make it easy to search primary literature archives for relevant scientific papers. Increasingly, more and more primary research is also being made publicly available on the Internet. Even without access to academic databases, often you can use Google Scholar or other search engines to find publicly available scientific papers.

AskNature Biomimicry Taxonomy Explained

AskNature is the world’s most comprehensive library of biological solutions. You can learn more about how to use this tool by downloading this supplement or by exploring the Site Tutorials at AskNature.org.

For those not steeped in the research sciences (or without access to academic libraries), primary literature research may be intimidating. That’s why the Biomimicry Institute created AskNature—to help designers find inspiring natural strategies as models, with credible research citations and summaries written in approachable language. Every biological strategy on AskNature is organized by function according to a three-level taxonomy. The top level represents a broad function performed in nature, the second level a sub-function, and the third level combined with the second level is a specific function. Also, every biological strategy on AskNature is connected to one or more specific functions (since nature tends to showcase multifunctional design).

In addition to AskNature, you can also try checking out science news services and magazines >like Discover, Science News, National Geographic, and EurekAlert!, which report on nature and biology research. These “secondary literature” sources interpret the science findings for you, making it easier to understand. If you do find something that might be useful to your specific challenge and need more detail, you can always go back and look for more information in the original scientific paper. Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to biologists and naturalists. Seek out biology students and professors at your school, discuss strategies with a staff person at a zoo or a natural history museum, or post a question to an online forum.

Pattern finding

Research and observation generate a lot of information. Looking for patterns is a good way to make sense of what you have discovered and concentrate on the strategies most relevant to your design challenge.

What are patterns?

A pattern is something that is repeated. Patterns are pervasive in nature and can be seen in recurring biological strategies (e.g., shapes, structures, biochemical processes), and in repeating phenomena, events, and relationships (e.g., symmetry, symbiosis).

The lotus leaf’s strategy for keeping clean doesn’t immediately seem to have anything in common with the Namib desert beetle’s strategy for capturing water. But looking closer at the strategies we see they share a common pattern—using nanoscale surface textures to move water. This pattern is repeated in numerous other examples from biology. Learn more about the strategies of the lotus and the beetle on AskNature.

Why are patterns helpful?

It’s helpful to identify patterns as part of a biomimicry design process, because doing so can highlight especially effective strategies, important contextual factors, or relationships that lead you to a new understanding or insight.

The Lily impeller efficiently mixes large volumes of water despite its small size.

For example, Jay Harman, the innovator behind PAX Scientific, attributes his many inventions, including the Lily Impeller, to close observation of nature’s patterns.

As a child in Western Australia, Harman spent a lot of time near the ocean and noticed that fragile seaweed survived storms by twisting into a spiral to let water flow through. He continued to notice the same three-dimensional spiral pattern throughout nature, and later identified it as the most efficient way to move matter and energy. This principle became the basis for Harman’s many design solutions that improve the performance and efficiency of fluid-handling devices (fans, mixers, pumps, turbines, propellers) by recreating the curved geometry of optimal flow in nature.

How to identify patterns

As you gather your research, you might begin to notice patterns right away. Other patterns may not reveal themselves without some added effort. One way you can begin to draw out patterns in your research is to start sorting and organizing it. There are a lot of ways you can do this, and each person may approach this process a bit differently, influenced by the tools and methods of their discipline or learning style.

Here are a few examples for you to try:

  • Draw or print out “creature cards,” with an image of your inspiring organism and its strategy for a function on each card. Don’t forget to make note of contextual factors. Spread the cards out on a table and make groupings by shared characteristics. Do you see any patterns? What additional questions emerge as you consider the groups?
  • Create a mind map (on paper or with any number of available software tools), drawing out the connections you notice.
  • Organize your inspiring organisms in a matrix using a chart or spreadsheet, using the columns to represent context, features of a strategy, scale, or other aspects.
  • Consider your strategies two or three at a time and ask yourself what, if anything, they have in common. There’s probably something, even if it’s at the most basic level, and it could be something truly important.

Questions to ask while you look for patterns:

  • How does context play a role?
  • Are the strategies operating as the same or different scales (nano, micro, macro, meso)?
  • Are there repeating shapes, forms, or textures?
  • What behaviors or processes are occurring?
  • What relationships are at play?
  • Does information play a role? How does it flow?
  • How do your strategies relate to the different systems it contains and is part of? (learn more about systems in the section Applying the Systems View)

In addition to patterns at the strategy level, there are deeper systems-level patterns observable accross the natural world, which can also inform your designs.  These patterns are explored in detail in the section on Nature’s Unifying Patterns.

Learn how to translate the biological strategies you found into design insights in the next section of the Toolbox.
Image Credits

Woman sitting among trees: Stephen Bowler CC-BY via Flickr
Man watching snail: Ian Boyd CC-BY-ND via Flickr
Woman sketching: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Peeples, CC-BY
Lily Impeller and nautilus: copyright PAX Water

GIVE FEEDBACK