Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stories from the Prairie: Applying the “Genius of our Place” to Unlock Nature’s Strategies for Resilient, Restorative Design

Nature is inherently resilient and restorative while our human systems are...not. But what could we learn about the nature of design by studying the science of nature? By exploring our native organisms and ecosystems with a biomimicry lens, we can unlock nature’s locally-attuned design strategies and begin to apply them to our context: creating buildings, businesses and communities that are inherently sustainable, naturally.

Lurie Gardens. Photo by @amycoffman
In the other articles in this series, I wrote about the importance of connecting with nature and ways to do so. In this last (for a time, at least) article in this series, I share some stories of what I've learned in my exploration of the tallgrass prairie as well as a vision for a more sustainable and resilient world: one where our choices are based on working with and leveraging local context and energy flows rather than fighting against them.

It’s time to start thinking differently.

Like Wes Jackson who was inspired by the prairie to rethink industrial agriculture to Allan Savory who emulates grazing for holistic land management and Gerould Wilhelm who emulates the prairie in landscape design, each of these innovators look to the prairie ecosystem as inspiration for alternatives to standard practice. Doing so, they were able to (re)think standard practices, creating more low-maintenance, cost-effective, and biodiverse alternatives. And you can do this too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Learn from Nature: Activities for Exploring Nature's Genius

After reading last week's entry, you may be thinking - I've found time to get outside, but what do I do now? Last week, we focused on the importance of getting outside and exploring nature as a part if your regular routine. This week, we will focus on what to do when you get there.

Photo by for @amycoffman
One of my favorite memories of the Biomimicry Professional program was that time spent in nature was built into course requirements. We called them "iSites" and every term I had a dozen or so structured exercises to complete. Some are simple observational exercises while others are more specific studies of particular components of an ecosystem. I have documented my contributions on this blog, so please browse the archives for 2011 and 2012 to see for yourself!

When I first started this practice, I had no idea what I was doing. As an architect with little training in the sciences after graduating from high school, it was a daunting task to go out and observe something I felt I knew little about. That's why these exercises are so powerful - they give us a chance to quiet our minds and focus on one aspect of what we observe. With this focus, we are able to see things from a fresh pair of eyes and start to ask questions. And this is the practice of biomimicry - observing nature with an eye for how things work so that those lessons may be applied to our challenges.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

(Re)Connecting with Nature: Exploring Biomimicry in Our Local Ecosystems

Whenever I talk about biomimicry, I am usually asked a question along the lines of “how do I get started?” And the answer is remarkably simple - you start by going outside. Going for a walk through your local ecosystem, setting aside all that you need to do, reawakening your natural curiosity, and experiencing nature’s genius is a powerful act that will change your perspective on nature, your place in it, and forever alter the path of your career and life.

I recently had the opportunity to lead a biomimicry walk through the tallgrass prairie reconstruction at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, and I want to share some of the stories I tell when walking through the local ecosystems with a biomimicry lens. This article is the first in a series that explores the importance of reconnecting with nature, and how that simple act can have multiple benefits for the humans species to lead more sustainable, resilient, and connected lives.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Dormancy as an Energy Strategy: Learning from our Native Prairie

It’s been a long winter! Can you remember last summer’s lush green prairies when looking at them today, just emerging from their brown and dormant stage? As we drag ourselves out of our own winter dormancy and into the full light of spring, let’s take a moment to consider how our buildings and businesses can begin to emulate the biomimicry Life’s Principle to “Leverage Cyclic Processes” by embedding the ability to automatically respond to local conditions.
By understanding how ecosystems, like our native tallgrass prairie, are attuned to local conditions, we can begin to design buildings that optimize resource allocation while being more responsive to user needs. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Top 10 things kids can do to connect with nature!

  1. Get outside and explore. Enjoy the outdoors by going for walks, meeting animals at the zoo, and taking hikes through the woods.
  2. Ask lots of questions. Be curious about the world around you – ask and answer lots of questions.
  3. Show and tell. Pick up objects in nature – leaves, pine cones, feathers – and ask what they are and what they do.
  4. Take only what you need. Buy less stuff, reuse what you can, and recycle when you are done with it.
  5. Celebrate the seasons. Celebrate the change of the seasons by picking seasonal flowers for your parents.
  6. Limit screen time. Connect with friends and family by going for walks, playing games, and playing outside –away from a screen.
  7. Grow your favorite foods. Start a garden that grows some of your favorite foods and share them with your family.
  8. Let bugs be. Bugs are our friends, so be careful with them when playing outside and catch and release them from your home.
  9. Turn waste into food. Collect kitchen scraps and compost them outside – they make great food for your garden.
  10. Make an animal friend. Find an animal to be friends with and share your experiences with them – we are all a part of nature!
Content developed by The B-Collaborative for Nature’s Next: Raising Kids Connected with Nature. All rights reserved. Contact or visit for more information. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Waste is Normal?? Lessons from a Bird Feeder

My husband has become a birder. He hung up a bird feeder on our back porch and every few minutes or so I catch him looking outside to see who is munching away on his treats. He checked out a bird field guide from the library and keeps telling me the names of the various finches, sparrows, and our beloved cardinals that pay us a visit. His love for the birds is a treat for me to see because as a lifelong asthmatic with allergies to "everything alive", he doesn't get many opportunities to interact closely with nature. But his bird friends are perfect - he can enjoy them, learn about them, and they don't stay in his house and make him sneeze!

I can't remember the names of the bird species that pay us a visit (my memory is notoriously terrible), but remembering the names of the species isn't as appealing to me as trying to figure out how they work and what lessons we can learn from them. So what is my main takeaway from observing our bird friends so far? 

Waste is normal. 

This observation is a bit shocking to me. It flies in the face of all sustainability theory I've read and practiced for the last fifteen years, so so how can I observe that waste is normal? Because it is, when you look at component parts in isolation without seeing the larger system. Not every species can consume the entirety of the resources that are offered. Sometimes, there is waste, but this waste is readily taken up by another component, resulting in a zero-waste system.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Learning Resilience from our Immune Systems!

My daughter and I have been sick with the flu for a week now. This is a typical fate this time of year when viruses linger in the air. But last night as I told her the story of her immune system, I was grateful to my biologist collaborator, Maria O'Farrell, who during the creation of our "BEND, Don't Break" Naturally Resilient workshop, taught me all about my immune system so that I could tell it to my daughter. The story I told her goes a little something like this:
"Once upon a time, there was a virus. This virus came into our house on the hands of a little boy, otherwise known as brother-the-carrier-monkey. He picked it up at school by touching something and then touching his eyes or mouth. He then came home and touched many things in our house. Meanwhile, this virus was not alone - it was busy invading our cells and having babies and its babies were having babies, until there was virus all over our house...and in our bodies. And we got sick. 
But then, an amazing thing happened! We fought back! Our bodies have an immune system - something akin to a police force that is always running throughout our bodies to determine which parts are "me" and which invaders are "not me." When the police (white blood cells) find something that is "not me," or just not right, they send out a signal to other police cells to see if they found an invader too. If they both have an invader - and know that others do too - they pass a threshold for action and tag the invader for destruction! Then, the police cells go for backup. They go back to police headquarters (the closest lymph node) and replicate themselves (but a new and improved version that can better fight the invader!) who then return in full force to attack the virus and they beat it up until it explodes! And this is happening all over your body and will keep happening, until all the virus is dead.
So you see, your body is resilient! By looking out for potential problems, knowing when there is enough of a problem to react, and learning from experience, your body is able to not over react or under react to potential harm, but your response is, like Goldilocks, just right. Think about what it would be like to not have an immune system! We couldn't live on this planet because we literally swim in viruses in the air like a fish swims through plankton in water. Now think about THAT as you go to sleep tonight!"
What can we learn about resilience from our immune system?
Our immune systems are our body's adaptive strategy to respond to disturbances that we know will happen, but we don't know when and we don't know how bad it will be. And there is quite a bit we can learn about resilience from adaptive immune systems.

What instances can you think of where we know a disturbance will happen, but we don't know when and we don't know how bad it will be? This makes me think of economic fluctuations, talent migration
necessitating personnel changes, energy and maintenance costs fluctuations, and other cyclical and
expected disturbances. By looking at nature through the lens of antigen invasion in an adaptive immune system, we can begin to create human systems which effectively adapt to changing conditions and result in effective, efficient information exchange coupled with a regulated response and held in balance by feedback loops. I could go into more detail, but again, I have the flu and the resources usually allocated to my brain are currently being rerouted to my immune system.

Want to know more? Talk to us about our "BEND, Don't Break Naturally Resilient Workshop" where you can learn more about this and other biological phenomena and apply nature's lessons to your business or organization!