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December 2, 2013

Biomimicry: the antidote to increasing complexity

Biomimicry – the art of copying nature – has long been helping to solve technical and design issues but the natural world’s inherent patterns of organisation and self-renewal are now inspiring strategic and system-wide problem solving.

The idea of Biomimcry as a design approach was popularised by Janine Benyus in her seminal book: Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997).

The classic example is the advent of Velcro, the hook and loop replacement for a zipper. It was the brain child of a Swiss inventor who came up with the idea after he and his dog returned from a walk covered in burrs. These seed pods were covered in hundreds of little hooks that caught on the loops in his clothing and the dog’s fur coat. Eureka, the idea of Velcro was born.

biomimicry termites
Above: Social insects like termites can come together to solve complex problems and create collaborative projects and may hold ideas to help us to improve humanity’s collective intelligence.

Today there is at least 1600 nature-inspired inventions listed on a database kept by the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute.

There is also a Da Vinci Index that measures the use of terms unique to biomimicry thinking appearing in scientific publications. The most recent update, released in the third quarter of 2011, shows an eleven-fold increase in the incidence of biomimicry in the research pipeline since 2000, the baseline year of the index.

But people are also starting to look to nature not just for technical assistance, but for system-wide strategic solutions. Whether it is working out the best strategy to deal with economic recessions or contemplating the best way to lay out a new town, problem solvers are looking to nature for deeper insights.

complex pattern

And little wonder. Over millions of years nature has managed thousands of interrelated components and living systems that collaborate to deliver a sustainable and self-generating system that benefit all its members.

It is the way that nature organises itself to deal with this complexity that is the key for a new way of thinking about our problems according to Tim Winton, the founder of Pattern Dynamics.

“Biomimicry takes the tactics of nature to make actual physical mechanisms, but Pattern Dynamics uses the patterns in nature to develop high level principles that can be used to build generative strategies,” he said.

pattern dynamics
Above: Natural systems exhibit consistent general patterns of organisation that have allowed them to thrive. These ‘patterns of organisation’ provide design templates that can help people unlock the mysteries of working with complex dynamics he said.

Organisational principles that flow nature’s patterns include: rhythm, polarity, structure, exchange, creativity and dynamics.

“So far it hasn’t really been a strength of western culture to take a holistic view of the problems we face. We are good at looking at individual parts but not the whole,” Winton said.

This limitation is starting to compound as the complexity of world increases, seemingly at an endless pace.

Pattern dynamics encourages a way of thinking that doesn’t isolate problems, it is about understanding the configuration of whole systems, or what Winton calls ‘systems thinking’.

“No longer is any one person brilliant enough to solve the complex problems we face, we really have to use our collective intelligence,” he says.

Pattern Dynamic can help achieve this because the patterns of nature can be used to form the basis of a shared language. This is turn can help the way we perceive and solve our problems he says.

Having a language means that people can communicate and work together collaboratively he said.

“Enhancing collective intelligence is an important way of unlocking latent value. We think this is an essential requirement for any organisation or business that wants to thrive in the 21st Century,” he said.

Winton has used Pattern Dynamics with executives from corporate multinationals, community groups, not for profits and individuals. Its principles are universal and applicable to small or large scale problems he says.

Pattern Dynamics is run as a not-for-profit enterprise and Winton is keen to embed systems thinking as widely as possible. He has plans to run a free web-based academy covering the basics of Pattern Dynamics to help spread his ideas.

Kind of like the wind dispersing seed.

For further related reading have a look at our previous biomimicry article.

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