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.

Fostering Connections

The practice of biomimicry is all about making connections. As biomimics, our purpose is to build bridges between biologists and designers. We create connections between the language of biology to the language of design by looking at function so that we can design more sustainable and resilient products and environments.

Perhaps more importantly, however, we are also rebuilding bridges between humans and the entity we call “nature.” By calling on our innate “biophilia,” or love of nature, we are fostering connections between all creatures of the world with whom we are inextricably connected and interdependent.

A Changing Landscape: Urbanization and the Need for (Re)Connection

A strong connection with nature used to be something that we as a species depended upon. We needed to know where to find food, which areas to avoid, and how to get home after a long hunting expedition. As we have moved to more urban “hive” centers and constructed walls to protect us from the elements and predators, we have largely lost this connection to place.

We now have structures to protect us from wind, rain, and snow; fixed windows that block out the breeze in favor of “efficiency;” and food and water that shows up at the local market or in our home with little to no connection to where these essential elements originated. As human populations rapidly urbanize, we need to consciously consider the actions we take in the design of our buildings and cities to foster connections with nature that encourage healthy, productive lives.

Nature in Place

Few of us have jobs that allow us unimpeded access to the outdoors, and many of us are scheduled so tightly that it is hard to find time to eat and sleep, much less walk through and observe natural habitats. So given these constraints, how can we go about fostering connections with nature?

In my work as a biomimic focused on embedding nature’s resilience into human systems, a deep pattern emerges throughout most of life on this planet: if you want something to be resilient (i.e. stick around for the long haul through many disturbances), you need options and backup at multiple scales. So if you want to reconnect with nature and have this be a part of your life, you need to find many different ways to do it. Let's look a little deeper at what this could mean.

  • At the individual scale, do you and your family have visual and/or walkable access to the outdoors every day? For example, every occupied room in your home and office should have a window that looks to a natural space. And don't worry, city dwellers! A natural space could be a tree, a park, a water body, or a balcony with potted plants. It's amazing what you will see when you plant a few native plants outside your window. Or inside! Every day, spend a few minutes just observing what you see around you and try to find patterns in what you see. For those of you who live in less populated centers, spend time in your backyard or in your garden. Put out bird feeders to encourage wildlife to visit, and have your morning coffee while listening to the birds. Find ways to exercise outside instead at the gym, whether it be a bike ride, a run, or stroll. In a nutshell, find ways to do the things you will do anyway, but consciously observing the world around you at the same time.
  • At a community scale, many larger metropolitan areas have larger natural areas where inhabitants can spend a day on the weekend just being outside in a natural setting. Local parks, forest preserves, arboretums, botanical gardens, rivers, lakes, and other recreational areas are great ways to get outside, especially when combined with some background knowledge on the ecosystem you are exploring. Locate local nature preserves and spend afternoons biking through a prairie or picnicking in the woods. In the winter, local natural history museums, aquariums, and snow covered woods are great ways to experience the beauty and resilience of nature on a regular basis. Take natural history classes through local nature organizations and read nature guides to understand local ecosystems. And for those who live in areas that lack these kind of natural spaces, join local governance boards that work to encourage the formation of nature preserves. Nature starts small and builds from the bottom up, so emulate this in your community activism.
  • At a regional scale, find ways to incorporate experiences in nature into your longer excursions and vacations. Are there national parks or other points of interest that you can vacation to? If you enjoy camping, are there natural areas that you can spend a few days to a week exploring nature at a deeper level? Even if camping isn’t your thing (no shame in that!), staying at an inn and going on day hikes or excursions is a great way to go “back to nature.”

Fostering Connections

The practice of fostering connections with nature is integral to our survival as a species. The systemic disconnection from nature that we have experienced in the last 200 years has hurt us both physically and spiritually. If the walls we construct, both literally and figuratively, have served a disconnection that has hurt our chances of survival as a species, the process of reconnecting ourselves with nature will be our salvation. By starting to reconnect ourselves with the rhythms and flows of the ecosystems we inhabit, we can begin to make smarter, more environmentally responsible decisions - ones that will allow us to fit in with the natural environment again.

This article is first in a series exploring how we can connect with the genius of our place every day. Future entries will focus on what we can learn from nature, particularly Chicago's native tallgrass prairie ecosystem, to transform how we design, from buildings to business systems.

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 biomimicry@b-collaborative.com or visit www.b-collaborative.com/education.html 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! 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Resilience in the Midwest: How does nature buffer high speed winds?

Those of us who live in the American Upper Midwest have it pretty good. 

Although we rarely take the time to acknowledge it, comparatively to other more vulnerable regions in the globe, we are living in an ideal location. We live in the breadbasket and grow more than enough food to feed ourselves. We’re well above sea level, so we will not be affected by anticipated sea level rise. And we have the world’s largest accessible freshwater body – the Great Lakes – in our back yard. But, we still have our own forms of adversity with which we need to contend - and the tornado that flattened homes outside of Peoria, Illinois, this weekend proves that even inland areas must adapt to the challenge of increasing storm intensity.
Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 18, 2013
According to the Chicago Climate Action Plan, it is likely our region will experience a variety of disturbances, including stronger, but infrequent, storms causing wind damage, widespread flooding and/or intermittent drought. In the wake of the recent tornado that wrecked communities across Illinois, let’s start with wind damage – how can we make our homes and infrastructure more resilient to damaging wind speeds? As an architect and biomimic, I believe the answer can be found by looking at how our neighbors, the native organisms that have occupied this land long before we have, solve the same challenge. We can start by asking nature!

How does nature...buffer high speed winds?

Every time there is a large storm event, we see absolute devastation of our human habitats. There are no metrics to measure the wildlife populations before and after strong storm events, such as tornadoes, but it's safe to say that native populations have adapted themselves to survive and thrive through a variety of disturbances. By looking to native organisms and patterns found in nature, we can begin to think of new and innovative ways of surviving high wind speeds in our built infrastructure. Some patterns we find in nature include:

Monday, November 18, 2013


Indulge me for a minute as I complain about something that is clearly a first world problem: communication breakdowns between me and my communications provider (the irony is not lost).

After years of paying a ridiculous amount of money to have multiple carriers provide what has become a basic service in our society - communication services - I chose consolidation: a non-diversified, less-resilient strategy, but much, much cheaper. When ordering the service, I thought I had asked all the right questions - how much will it cost now, how much in the future, what channels will I get, how fast will my internet be, can I keep my old number, etc. I did what I thought was my due diligence to make sure I was ordering what I needed/wanted. But the cost I was quoted did not include some services, such as HDTV, that they consider to be an upcharge and I consider to be "basic," so much so that I didn't inquire about it assuming it was included and they didn't offer this information as the upcharge that they consider it to be. This lack of transparency about the baseline assumptions of our conversation lead to a communication breakdown and annoyance on the part of the consumer, namely me.

This problem illustrates a key point for resilience in human systems: one of the most common forms of disturbance in our business and economic systems involve communication breakdowns, and mitigating these disturbances is key to resilience of those systems.