Nature's Unifying Patterns

Learning from nature's overarching design lessons.

“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.”

–Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature


In the section on Earth’s Operating System we discussed the planetary context in which life on Earth exists and introduced the idea that, from a systems perspective, life allows other life to flourish. This section builds on that understanding and focuses on identifying persistent patterns in how organisms function and interact that contribute to resilient ecosystems. These patterns are worth paying attention to because they can have profound implications for human design. If we aim to build a world that is sustainable (i.e. compatible with life on Earth over the long haul), we need to consider nature’s lessons in a systems context.

What are nature’s unifying patterns?

Nature’s unifying patterns is our attempt to identify the 10 most essential lessons from the natural world that should be considered as part of a design process. We call them “nature’s unifying patterns” because examples of the patterns can be found broadly across the majority of life on Earth.

Consider these patterns at the start of any design process and return to them throughout the process as an evaluation tool.

10 of nature’s unifying patterns to consider

Click any of the patterns below for a detailed explanation and examples.

Note: 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 biomimetic design is to create more sustainable solutions. Bio-inspired design can spur novel ways of thinking and breakthrough ideas, but only by considering nature’s lessons in a systems context can we ensure that our designs will fit in well with life on earth. This is a 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.

The goal 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 a design given current limits in human-made materials and systems, replicating all of these patterns is an excellent aspirational goal.

Applying these patterns will take patience and practice. But doing so can and will help you get to more sustainable designs within more sustainable systems.

Closing Thoughts

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.”

(Biomimicry, pg. 8)

Notes

In the first chapter of her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus pulled together one of the first lists of patterns applicable to biomimetic design. 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.

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