Nature's Unifying Patterns

Detailed descriptions and examples

Nature is locally attuned and responsive.

Chances of survival increase when individuals are good at recognizing local conditions and opportunities and locating and managing available resources. Survival also depends on responding appropriately to information garnered from the local environment. Organisms and ecosystems that are present in a location evolved in direct response to local environmental conditions. Some of those environmental conditions change in a cyclic pattern, such as tides, day and night, seasons, and annual floods or fires. Organisms use those predictable cyclic patterns as an opportunity, evolving to fill a particular niche. Within a particular location, there are micro-environments, such as a low spot that is moister than the surrounding area or an area that experiences more wind than others. These also provide opportunities for organisms to have an advantage over others and thrive. Some environmental conditions change slowly over time as the climate changes or as the organisms and ecosystems influence the local conditions. Being able to respond to these changes, again using them as opportunities, allows organisms and ecosystems to flourish.

Biology Examples



Termites in the sub-Saharan region of Africa need a steady supply of fresh oxygen and a way to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, just as we do. If the termites and their symbiotic fungi don’t have adequate ventilation in their nests, they will suffocate.

The solution to their dilemma is in how they construct their mounds. The mounds, measuring 2 to 3 meters (3 to 10 feet) above the ground, act as a ventilation system. The genius of this construction would challenge an engineer. Yet a million termites do it without one foreman in sight.

Think of a termite mound as a giant pear with the fat end—the part with the termite nest and fungal gardens—buried underground. The thin part of the pear, the visible spire of the mound, consists of a central, closed-top chimney and a network of tunnels and air conduits. The mound’s walls are made of porous soil. Porosity is important to the design, because what drives most of the ventilation system is the wind. As wind flows past a mound, a complicated pressure field is set up, with positive pressures at the leading face of the mound and suction pressures at the lateral and trailing faces. These patterns force air in through the surface layers of the mound’s leading face, and draw air out of the surface conduits at the mound’s lateral and trailing faces. Because wind speed and direction frequently vary, air movement in the mound is neither unidirectional nor circulatory; rather, it’s tidal, with air moving in and out, similar to our lungs.

Termite mounds are adaptive structures. As internal levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water moisture change, the termites respond by adjusting the tunnels and the height of the mound. This maintains a balance, or homeostasis, within the mound.

Desert plants

Atacama desert in Chile.

Some annual plant species live in arid environments like the Atacama Desert in Chile, where rain may only come once every five years. These annuals don’t have robust water conservation strategies, but instead are highly attuned to the occasional presence of rain (as in El Niño years). Their seeds respond quickly by sprouting and growing rapidly only during these periods. They sacrifice water in these rare rainy periods to produce larger leaves to capture more sunlight, allowing for rapid growth. They also expend energy to grow flowers quickly to attract pollinators during the brief window of water availability. Because they are highly attuned to the presence of moisture, the seeds do not even attempt to sprout in years where there is inadequate rain, instead remaining dormant during any dry periods.

Design Applications

Just-in-time manufacturing

Interface carpet tile manufacturing.

Most carpet companies ship their products inter-continentally from their home region, but Interface has developed another model using regional production on four continents and just-in-time manufacturing to be more attuned and responsive to their customers in each region. Just-in-time manufacturing means that Interface manufactures most carpet it sells after it gets ordered, allowing for easy customization and avoiding stockpiling of inventory that is not needed in a particular region. Interface also produces many locally popular styles in each location, which might not be top sellers if produced in other regions.

bePro helmet

Motorcycle traffic in Uganda.

Although motorcycles and motorcycle taxis are a dominant form of transportation in East Africa, few drivers and passengers wear helmets and many people are injured each year. Industrial designer Vanja Steinbru’s research in Kampala, Uganda, revealed a number of reasons for lack of helmet use, including the fact that helmets are expensive and not designed for hot climates—they are uncomfortably warm and heavy and cover the ears, impeding drivers from hearing potential customers and fellow travelers. Understanding the need for a design that fit the context of users in East Africa, Vanja partnered with local experts and a Norwegian sports helmet company to design a helmet attuned to local conditions. The bePRO helmet design is much more lightweight than a traditional helmet, includes integrated ventilation, has holes for hearing, and features adjustable sizing. It will be locally produced using a readily available fiberglass composite, meet safety standards, and be affordable. Further emphasizing a design attuned to its context, the helmets feature exterior graphics by popular local artists.
Image Credits

Atacama Desert: Terry Feuerborn CC-BY-NC
Interface manufacturing: Interface Blog
bePRO helmet and motorcycle traffic: via Norskform


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