Finding Biological Strategies
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.
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?”
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.
Research: getting the science right
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).
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).
Why are patterns helpful?
For example, Jay Harman, the innovator behind PAX Scientific, attributes his many inventions, including the Lily Impeller, to close observation of nature’s patterns.
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.