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Biomimicry (design) thinking?

If some of you follow me on Twitter, you would already know that i recently posted a question to my tweeps asking what they would prefer to see more of on my blog. The overall response favored an academic discussion; posting papers and discussing in context of practice. Missing out by a whisker was the second most popular response, which was more lolcats and memes.

Realising i haven’t posted anything related to sustainable practice in a while (yes its not going to go away) i thought i should hunt around for something that was new, interesting and could somehow be taken away by you folk and applied (even if just ideologically) into practice. So after stalking a recent discussion over Twitter amongst a few tweeps poking at the concept of biomimicry, i knew this topic would be perfect material for my next post.

I should note that this paper might seem a bit abstract. Its not about providing a new tool or method you can directly apply; its more about offering an exciting new way of approaching problems which can create more adaptive and flexible solutions.

Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature

D. C. Wahl. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee, UK Design and Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, Volume: 87, Publisher: WIT Press, Pages: 289-298

To sum it all up in once sentence/quote: ” the intentionality behind science and design needs to shift from aiming to increase prediction, control and manipulation of  nature as a resource, to a transdisciplinary cooperation in the process of learning how to participate appropriately and sustainably in Nature”

Main points: diversity good, linear bad. Holistic good, collaboration good. Adaptation good, control bad. 

This article places a LOT of emphasis on holistic practice and the responsibility design has in transforming current practice that aims to control our nature, into one that learns from it and works with nature.


” The root cause of the utter unsustainability of modern civilization lies in the dualistic separation of nature and culture. It is in nature, that all peoples and all species unite into a community of life.”

I think most of us (and by us i mean westernised individuals) forget that we are culturally separated from nature. With exception of tribal communities, design is largely to blame for our unsustainable, industrial life. We view nature  as something detached from ourselves; an ongoing process independent and unaffected from our actions.

“The aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process, rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control. The transition towards sustainability will require a new approach to design and technology that is based on a participatory and holistic worldview informed by science, ethics and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives. It is a biophysical and ecological fact that culture is never  truly separate from nature.”

This is where we start to realise that much of the mindset that is needed for a sustainable future is very similar to that which is inherent in design thinking (this includes service/human centered design). It is now possible that we can take lessons from biomimicry and apply our learnings into the design process.

Section 2: Learning from Nature as model, measure and mentor:

During the methods movement (1960s-1970s) McHarg, Todd and Mclarney, founders of The New Alchemy Institute, were first to introduce research on biomimicry- taking design lessons from natures process. John Todd provides a quote:

“The Earth’s ecologies are embedded with a set of instructions that we urgently need to decode and employ in the design of human systems”

The question here is: we know we can directly translate lessons from nature and apply these into the design process for technological outcomes (devices, artifacts and engineering), but how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems? This answer requires more research but the information can be invaluable. The following includes guidelines on how to start.

Section 2.1. Bionics: A prediction and control approach to learning from nature:

During the same period when biomimicry was announced, bionics was introduced by US Air Force engineer Major J.E. Steele (who also coined the term). German Zoologist Werner Nachtigall took over the trend and stated in the 70s that bionics is, “the process of “learning from nature as an inspiration for independent technical design”. He developed the principles of bionic design:

Principles of Bionic Design (plus commentary!)

1. Integrated instead of additive construction

(ideal. not always easy to do, but easy to forget. Service design, meta design and co-design can offer strategies and tools to utilise what we have to create integrated solutions than creating a result that requires new needs or materials. This approach is crucial for any designer. Examples of integrated solutions can be found here )

2. Optimisation of the whole, rather than maximisation of individual elements

(Again, in service design/design thinking much emphasis is placed on the whole than tuning into details. This is about creating a harmonious and sustainable ecosystem. Small detailed changes often yield the most successful (and feasible) outcome, but great decisions on details that have negative effect on the whole service/company/environment need to be optimised if possible.)

3. Multifunctionality instead of monofunctionality

4. Fine-tuning adapted to particular environments

(may seem a bit of a contradiction of point 3, however using statement from point 2, if you have to diverge and ‘tune in’ to a particular aspect of a project, adapt this to the environment it is situated in. This ensures that despite focusing on one area and not ‘the whole’ -as it sometimes may not be feasible- try to ensure the detail is adaptive to the surrounding environment)

5. Energy saving instead of energy squandering

(more of a product design thing. obvious nonetheless)

6. Direct and indirect use of solar energy

(as above)

7. Temporal limitation instead of unnecessary durability

(this again relates to product design but can also relate to service/intangible products. Create solutions that are not fixed (unnecessary durability) or hard to ‘recycle’, but are able to be re-used or re-shaped for new solutions that evolve with environment- both nature and culture)

8. Total recycling instead of waste accumulation


9. Networks instead of linearity

(socially, this can be translated as ‘collaborative networks’.)

10. Development through the process of trial and error

(iteration is much of the ethos behind design thinking)

Section 2.2 Biomimicry: ecologically informed design for sustainability

“During the 1970s, research at the ‘New Alchemy Institute’ began to explore how ecology, biology, and a bio-cybernetic systems approach, could inform more sustainable solutions to meeting fundamental human needs.” And as a result, they came up with this: (with, you guessed it- commentary!!)

The Precepts of Biological Design:

1. The living world is a matrix for all design

(The environment is much more evolved than we are. It surprises me to this day that most design outcomes and designers do not consult the fabric which gives us life)

2. Design should follow, not oppose the law of life

(Similar sentiment to point 2 of bionic principles)

3. Biological equity must determine design

4. Design must reflect bioregionality

(design outcomes need to be adaptive to the unique environment it lives within. This can be tangible (nature) or intangible (culture). Design outcomes whether service, policy or product, must reflect+integrate local environments and communities for sustainable development and evolution)

5. Projects must be based on renewable energy sources

(same as point 5 under bionic principles)

6. Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems

(again, reflects same sentiment as point 4. Designing outcomes that do not incorporate a living system, whether animal, plant or people will persist with the dependancy on unnatural and unsustainable (artificial) artefacts)

7. Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world

(same as above)

8. Building and design should help heal the planet

(makes me think of this)

9. Design should follow a sacred ecology

10. Everyone is a designer!

(this was probably a sneaky way to imply that everyone is responsible for their actions)

At this point in the whole biology and nature inspired history comes Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry –Innovation Inspired by Nature. She, like her predecessors in this field, came up with her own set of principles:

The Biomimcry Approach:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.

2. Nature as a measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billon years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as a mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

It is evident that this paper is highlighting the theory and need for biomimicry but with vague directions on how to perform it. Interestingly enough, the author goes to state that THE wicked problem of the 21st century IS sustainability and that all aspects of design: from policy to ecosystems, require transdisciplinary teams with the designer as instigator and facilitator in this process.

The author shifts into the theory of complex systems, quoting german systems psychologist Dietrich Dörner. Dörner investigated ways trans+multi disciplinary teams interact in the process of complex, unpredictable and interrelated problems. This theory should be fundamental for design thinking. So for all of you designers out there wanting to work in the wicked 4.0 sphere (services, policy, systems, sustainability, urban planning, etc) you need to take note and staple the following to your forehead:

Common Mistakes in Dealing with Complex Systems:

1. Inadequate definition of goals (vision)

(problem framing is key)

2. Lack of a joined-up systems analysis

(not understanding the parts which make up and affect the whole)

3. The creation of irreversible emphasis

(dead end solutions must be avoided)

4. Lack of attention to side effects

(what effect will your decision/solution have on the whole ecosystem?)

5. The tendency to over-steer or over-react

(go in with an ‘equal’ not ‘ego’ mentality towards participants during co-creation)

6. The tendency to act in an authoritarian (controlling) way

(as above)

“Adaptive complex dynamic networks are nature’s way of responding effectively to change. Sustainable design that reintegrates culture and nature has to emulate nature’s way of dealing with unpredictability, fundamental interconnectedness and dynamic transformation”

This is exactly what everyone’s talking about at the moment in sustainable design. But i get the feeling that amongst this discussion we are not quite sure how to create solutions that live up to this philosophy. How can we go wrong if we design solutions that are a natural extension from nature? Im sure this all sounds incredibly hippy but I dont mean designing outcomes covered in flowers and leaves-this is about unlocking new processes and growth.


“Effectively, or from within a more holistic and eco-literate perspective that regards culture as a co-dependent participant in natural process. Such changes in intention are changes in metadesign that affect all human activity. Changing the intentions behind design –changing mindset – is design at the paradigm level and life style level

The case im trying to make here is that observation and analysis of natures process which can be synthesised into design practice might be the most efficient way to create sustainable solutions that are as painless as possible. Biomimicry offers an avenue of research and design that tackles sustainability in the most pragmatic way possible. It holds clues that might make our sustainable journey much easier- we just have to find them.


  1. “how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems”

    It seems to me that gamification provides one example of a framework for translating nature into design of human systems. ‘Gamification’ technology is still often crudely applied through little more than points and badges, but it is actually the notion of achieving macro policy objectives through micro-incentivisation of behaviour across an ecosystem.

    Many misunderstand gamification, but it at its essence is exactly what you, and the article highlight. Humans behave with familiar patterns. We respond to incentives for gain or to avoid pain. When incentives are designed by humans for humans, there are often gaps that lead to perverse outcomes – i.e. “gaming-the-system” – because the designer has not considering the whole complex system. Game designers seek to create a sustainable experience that includes positive and negative feedback loops to maintain stability and viability.

    This is a great article find and discussion provocateur. Thanks!

  2. This has been really taxing my brain this morning and I know I missed your intended point by (at least) a couple of meta-levels.

    Do you envisage methodologies that deliberately factor in bio-traits like self-organising threat response to deal with known and unknown agents (e.g. the human immune system)? Culture does this but not always in a positive way, so designers may need to consider mimicking bio-interventions like anti-inflammations.

    A practical implementation challenge is emulating the desired bio-system while allowing humans to remain human. Perhaps that is where micro-incentivisation plays a part.

    And perhaps in some (all?) instances it may be desirable to design for eventual obsolescence/death rather than (the false promise of) indefinite growth, adaptation and life.

    • I dont think biomimicry implies indefinite growth- its an aim for it. With animals becoming extinct (some partly natural, most due to us) theres no doubt the human race will become extinct as well. And even though we know theres going to be ‘an end’ in the distant future we dont want to accelerate that end.

      The challenge as you said is knowing how to translate this information we learn from natures process and synthesise appropriately into our (human) life. Mammals often kill their young that are weak/insects feed off their dead for survival, etc, but that doesn’t mean we are going to directly translate that natural process into our human life.

      The way i see it is biomimicry will offer ideological insights as well as strategic. Speaking not about applying biomimicry into product design or artefacts (this we already know and do and is almost directly transcribed in practice)- i am proposing that we can create methodologies that mimic a natural process which best fits the current problem to resolve. Part of this implementation requires knowing how to synthesise this information to, as you say, maintain humanity. The reason for doing this is a natural process may provide more sustainable and adaptable outcomes.

      I doubt much of biomimic information used in design thinking/service design will be applied verbatim. Its learning how we can adapt the process which can adapt to nature.

      I hope this answers your question

  3. Thanks Stef. It is a fascinating perspective.

    It occurs to me that we need to reintegrate humanity into our fundamental perspective of nature. We are part of nature and thus everything we do is, at it’s root, the outcome of a natural process. A book called Plague Species by Reg Morrison has an interesting examination of “us”.

    Your exchange with @grahamhill was interesting for the specific examples of biomimicry and places to begin searching.

    And I completely agree with you observation that we need to discover and abstract the principles underpinning nature rather than directly apply the examples we see.

    Thanks again.

  4. Tanya

    Hi there! Great post. I’m actually an RA to a researcher doing work on biomimicry. I’ve been given the task of tracking down discourses on AI, swarms and biomimicry (before it was called that) from the 1960s but, as this isn’t my area, five hours of research have yielded me little. That’s when I turned to google and found your post! Would you mind pointing me in the right direction? Any particular movers and shakers or articles you recommend? Even names would help immensely. Thanks so much!

  5. Carl Hastrich

    Great review of a lot of core concepts.

    Some key things:

    Biomimicry and sustainability can not be discussed without defining “fitness” in nature. The survival of the best fit = the ability to survive within a habitat while creating ongoing conditions conducive to future survival.

    Ecosystems increase in diversity and complexity over time due to harnessing wasted energy/nutrients. This is VERY different than infinite growth according to economics. As an ecosystem increases in complexity the finite resources (e.g. water) get used in more ways. Rather than there being “more” of a given resource, it is “used” more.

    I have worked a lot with people “changing mindsets” while abandoning or rejecting existing mindsets. This doesn’t work. The key is integrative thinking, which is evolutionary. We are currently dominated by revolutionary ways of thinking (large dramatic changes) which we don’t see as much in nature.

    The core conversation that re-emerges from this space is the process of bridging knowledge between different disciplines to generate insight. Your paper discusses the didactic mechanics of “this is what you must learn from nature”, which I have found is less successful than treating this as an open question: “what should we learn from nature, here?”

    So much more to explore. Great post. A few of my own thoughts that might be of value:

    Biomimicry as Journey vs. Destination:

    How is the Eastgate Building NOT like a Termite Mound:
    This a key paper to see what a dialogue between science and design could be in the future. I.e. Architect interprets nature and acts. Scientists are provoked into research by the action and come up with a new finding. Next we need a designer to respond (i’m workin on it) and we continue the cycle…

    And never ending waffling about theories…

  6. Pingback: Design Thinking Resources « Bouncing Ideas

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