Discover Biological Strategies

Biomimicry depends on biological information, so knowing where and how to look for biological models and strategies is an essential skill for a biomimic. Here we’ll guide you through the key activities of the Discover step in the Biomimicry Design Spiral.

DISCOVER

Look for natural models (organisms and ecosystems) that need to address the same functions and context as your design solution. Identify the strategies used that support their survival and success.

This step focuses on research and information gathering. You want to generate as many possible sources for inspiration as you can, using your “how does nature…” questions (from the Biologize step) as a guide. Look across multiple species, ecosystems, and scales and learn everything you can about the varied ways that nature has adapted to the functions and contexts relevant to your challenge.

Tips and suggestions to guide you.

1.

Go outside and look around.

One of the most rewarding ways to connect with what nature has to teach us is to spend lots of time outdoors. While books and online resources contain a lot of great information, there’s no substitute for experiencing nature with your own senses. Cultivate a “naturalist’s mindset” through close observation of the critters in your environment.

N

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.

While you are outside, ask yourself why the features or behaviors of living organisms and systems around you are the way they are (i.e. what is their function?). If you already have a design challenge in mind, use the essential functions you identified (your “how does nature…” questions) to guide your observations. Look to nature and ask, “What organisms in this environment need to do the same function I’m trying to solve for?” Once you have some ideas and inspiration, you can refer to scientific resources to learn more.

Nature Observation Exercises

Download these exercises to hone your observation skills.

2.

Keep a nature journal.

Sketching and journaling are great ways to enhance your nature observation skills. Nature journals help us to see the world around us in greater detail and reveal patterns and relationships in our environment that we might miss as we hurry from place to place. It’s amazing what details you’ll start to notice when you draw something. Don’t worry about your drawing skills—everyone can make simple sketches. Work quickly and without judgement – the goal is not to create a great work of art, but to record what you see in nature and your thoughts and questions about it.

Keeping a Nature Journal (2003)

This book by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth provides a great guide to exploring nature through journaling.

It’s amazing what can be revealed to you when you take a close look at the creatures around you.

Get in the habit of taking notes and sketching what you observe. Jot down questions that occur to you, so you can look them up later or ask an expert.

3.

Explore AskNature.

The Biomimicry Institute’s AskNature website is the most direct way to find natural models for biomimetic design, because it’s organized by function. It’s also a great source for information about novel organisms and biological phenomena that you might never encounter in your own outdoor observations. Use AskNature as a starting point to help you find information about organisms and strategies as well as research citations you can follow for more information.

4.

Read scientific literature.

While AskNature is a great resource for initial ideas and inspiration, you’ll likely need to do some deeper research. While there are approximately 1800 strategy pages on AskNature so far, it’s still nowhere close to the diversity of life on Earth. And in order to accurately emulate a strategy, you may need more information than AskNature’s high-level summaries provide.

There are many additional sources where you can find biological information, both in print or online. Try checking out science news services and magazines like Discover, Science News, National Geographic, and EurekAlert!, which report on nature and biology research. Scientific journals and articles can also be useful and may contain illustrations and magnified images that can help you to better understand a strategy. Google Scholar is a great tool for accessing journal articles and finding links to related papers. Wherever you get your information, make sure it’s from a credible source. Check out the Biology Research reference section of this site 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.

5.

Talk to biologists and naturalists.

If you don’t have a background in the life sciences, speak with someone who does. Seek out biology students and professors, discuss strategies with a staff person at a zoo or a natural history museum, or post a question to an online forum. Continue the conversation as you move through the design process, to ensure you understand the biological details.

5.

Track your sources.

As you gather your research, be sure to keep track of where you found the information you are using. You may need to revisit these sources for additional details later, and you are expected to provide citations for all references used if you submit an entry to the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.

Resources

Nature Observation Exercises

Download these exercises to hone your observation skills.

Getting Past the 'Wigglies'

In this blog post for the Biomimicry Education Network, veteran biomimicry educator, Sherry Ritter, describes the rewards of pushing past the initial awkwardness of being still in nature and reaching a place of deep observation.

AskNature Website

AskNature is the world’s most comprehensive library of biological strategies organized by function.

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.

Keeping a Nature Journal (2003)

This book by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth provides a great guide to exploring nature through journaling.

Nature Journaling Video

Check out this video from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History for tips on how to get started keeping a nature journal.

Keep Learning

In the next step of the Design Spiral, Abstract, we’ll explain how to translate biological strategies into design strategies you can apply to your challenge.
Image Credits

Man watching snail: Ian Boyd CC-BY-ND via Flickr
Woman sketching: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Peeples, CC-BY

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