This is part two of Biomimicry 101: Nature & The College Freshman. Read Part 1 here.
A key lesson in biomimicry is that life adapts to survive not despite adversity, but because of it. Nature’s genius might just be the best professor we have. From product innovation and sustainability to systems thinking and partnerships, reconnecting with nature has shown us how to build better communities. But biomimicry also offers us a lens to see how the very ways we think and act might not be so different from the natural world already.
In the fall, a writing assignment inspired me to revisit an interest first peaked by a high school biology course – biomimicry. I spent hours lost in Janine Benyus’ groundbreaking book of that very title. Page after page I was let in on a million little secrets of how the natural world can help improve every aspect of our society. Biomimicry is essentially drawing design inspiration from the successful biochemical, physical, and cooperative characteristics of life. In medicine, agriculture, energy, data, and industry, nature’s wisdom reveals the guided path to a more efficient and sustainable future.
Yet, I could barely find spaces on campus where biomimicry wasn’t a term I got blank stares at for bringing up. In losing our connection to nature, among losing an appreciation for its ingenuity in evolutionary design, we are missing countless opportunities to incorporate an interdisciplinary mindset into the frameworks of learning.
Interdisciplinary by nature, the process of bio-inspired change relies on a diverse community of contributors and collaborators. The engineers need to have a conversation with the biologists. Don’t forget the political scientists or the business fanatics, let alone the marine biologists. Imagine how generative a new project for better air quality in Harlem could be if somebody just taught an urban studies researcher about fish gills and filtration. At the heart of my college experience are the people I meet, learn from, and grow with. I shouldn’t have to convince you why. It’s evident as part of our humanity.
Sure, biomimicry can transform success rates for heart surgery, help engineers revitalize renewable energy, or start to reverse the impacts of environmental neglect. But that’s for the professionals, the entrepreneurial professionals who have embraced nature’s genius as a guide after careers as specialized experts. For the next generation of professionals and workers, the students across the world demanding urgent climate action and taking leaps for environmental justice, our educational institutions need to reconnect with nature. And so do we.
Biomimicry is essentially an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes a theory of change. It considers the patterns, throughlines, and trends of life with that childlike curiosity – with a unique scientific framework – to understand them. Having the expertise to solve a very specific problem, take developing a vaccine for example, falls short of properly solving the issue by not accounting for the socio-economic and political logistics of people actually getting vaccinated. We need the holistic perspective of system thinking to meet the complex challenges of an increasingly complex world. If the climate crisis hasn’t set off enough warning alarms already, the current pandemic is a deafening roar in our ears. A more resilient future is possible and yes, even probable: it’s time to evolve.
Thinking like a biomimic has shown me how a broadened perspective radically increases the possibilities of action. While it’s often shunned to be a jack of all trades but a master of none, the ability to communicate across the trades even as a master of one is what biomimicry is all about. Even in nature the most likely species in nature to survive a shock (an abrupt change to their environment) are known as generalists. Able to survive in a wider range of conditions, generalists are more resilient than niche specialists. Biomimicry is by definition the conscious emulation of life. It seems a bit odd that people forget we are part of “life” on this planet, too. Author David Epstein sets this idea in the context of our built societies in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
A key lesson in biomimicry is that life adapts to survive not despite adversity, but because of it. An individual does not adapt alone, but in the context of a specific community in a specific environment. At the systems scale, life finds balance within an ecosystem. For the ecosystem of humanity, we could learn a thing or two from nature about finding that balance.
Biomimicry is so much more than restructuring our built environment to echo the efficient designs of nature. It is a powerful reestablishment of the intrinsic link between ourselves and the systems of living around us. Biomimicry has changed my outlook on what it means to be a student, a friend, and a productive member in a community. I encourage all of you to reconnect with nature, to use this time to see the bigger picture and how you fit into it. At a time of uncertainty, biomimicry has taught me to get comfortable being uncomfortable – that is to say, reminding me that adapting is just a part of life. We are living in an unprecedented time of fear, anxiety, and disruption – but also one of unity, creativity, and most importantly resilience!
Reconnecting with nature is simply recognizing the fundamental ways we fit into the natural world, and how life always finds comfort, safety, and community amidst constantly changing conditions. Diving deep into biomimicry these past few months has shown me that sometimes all it takes to make things better is simply a change in perspective.
Each day is a new opportunity to make this world a better place: for ourselves, for the planet, for the future. Over time we’ll see people return to work, makeshift graduations for seniors, and communities reconvene. Hopefully, I’ll walk back through the famous gates on 116th and Broadway in the fall alongside my friends. Everyone will change in some way before then, each in a unique way, but certainly together. It’s simply in our nature.
Isabelle Seckler is a first-year student at Columbia University in New York City. She intends to study sustainable development along with a pre-medical track with the hopes of advancing community prosperity at the intersection of our built and natural environments.
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