Learning From Nature Part 2:
Context and Connectivity

by Michelle Graves | Apr 3, 2020 | Biomimicry Launchpad, Blog |

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You heard in the previous blog post that we led our first Biomimicry Launchpad Entrepreneurship Expedition in early February at Geoversity’s remote campus in the Mamoní Valley Preserve. As Jared mentioned, we had three goals for our participants: to help them reconnect with nature, to build community as biomimicry innovators, and to contemplate next steps on their sustainability and entrepreneurial paths. I’m a biologist and lifelong naturalist, with years of experience leading expeditions to remote corners of the world, so I have to admit, I was particularly looking forward to being immersed in tropical nature with this dynamic cohort of designers, engineers, architects and entrepreneurs.

I believe the sustainability ethos and the ability to connect (or reconnect) with nature offer the most profound opportunities for mind-shifts, for genuinely rethinking all of our human designs.

Throughout my years as a naturalist and expedition leader, I worked to inspire people to care for the natural world by teaching them about nature. With biomimicry, I’ve learned that it can be much more impactful to help people learn from nature. As you probably well know, the practice of biomimicry involves three core elements: Ethos, (Re)connect and Emulate. We typically hear about the emulation of natural forms, processes, and interactions when speaking about biomimicry; however, I believe the sustainability ethos and the ability to connect (or reconnect) with nature offer the most profound opportunities for mind-shifts, for genuinely rethinking all of our human designs. As my colleague Erin Rovalo says, “ethos represents our respect for, responsibility to, and gratitude for our fellow species and our home”, and “(re)connecting is a practice and a mindset that explores and deepens the relationship between humans and the rest of nature”.

Spending several days immersed in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet helped everyone put these ideas in context and experience the Ethos and (Re)connect elements of biomimicry, in a deep and direct way.

All of the participants in our Biomimicry Launchpad program were part of teams that had created nature-inspired solutions to some of our biggest global challenges. Most were finalists in our Biomimicry Global Design Challenge and had already worked through the biomimicry design process at least once, with most teams focusing primarily on emulating forms or functions found in nature. Spending several days immersed in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet helped everyone put these ideas in context and experience the Ethos and (Re)connect elements of biomimicry, in a deep and direct way.

Context

In the Mamoní Valley Preserve, surrounded by tropical nature, we saw plants and animals that most had only read about, many of the iconic organisms of biomimicry, in their natural habitats. Although many of the participants had read about one of the primary examples of structural color in nature, few had ever seen blue morpho butterflies. We saw them everywhere at Mamoní! Watching them in flight and perched on plants nearby, we gained a firsthand appreciation of their brilliant blue wings, and better understood how nature creates color differently than our toxic pigments and dyes.

A previous study on AskNature.org had taught many of us that the architecture of [the leafcutter ants] nests helped them avoid flood damage and create uniform microclimates, and also how a symbiotic relationship with bacteria helps these fungus farmers maintain their crops.

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Around the campus and on our hikes, we learned to keep a sharp eye on the ground, to avoid stepping on the ever-present columns of leafcutter ants. A previous study on AskNature.org had taught many of us that the architecture of their nests helped them avoid flood damage and create uniform microclimates, and also how a symbiotic relationship with bacteria helps these fungus farmers maintain their crops. Seeing them in action was something else! It made me smile to see so many people crouching down to get a closer look as these ants marched along the forest floor, with bits of leaves held high.

Several of the Launchpad teams had designed products that addressed flooding and drought. During their early design process, they were inspired by the way some epiphytic bromeliads capture water, as well as by the way species-rich tropical rainforests maximize limited resources by collecting nutrients and water via superficial root systems. Others were inspired by orchids and other epiphytes, and the way their aerial roots rapidly absorb water and nutrients. Hearing the nighttime rainfall and feeling the intense heat and humidity of the rainforest made it so much easier to understand how these “air plants” work. I loved seeing those “aha!” moments when people connected the dots between the functions that they’d read about, and the real life plants around us.

It’s one thing to read about functions or strategies of plants and animals, but seeing them in nature really helped these designers understand their interconnectedness, and how they are all part of a larger ecosystem.

One morning at breakfast, we saw a toucan perch on a nearby tree limb. In the moment, we were all just excited to see this beautiful brightly colored bird, with its enormous beak. Who knows though? One day, one of these innovators might be trying to develop a strong, stiff and lightweight composite material, and remember this toucan! This page on AskNature tells us that material designs inspired by the structure of the toucan beak could offer these properties, as well as good energy absorption capacity and insulation value.

Seeing all of these organisms in their natural habitats, in context, provided valuable insight. It’s one thing to read about functions or strategies of plants and animals, but seeing them in nature really helped these designers understand their interconnectedness, and how they are all part of a larger ecosystem.

In building a community of nature-inspired designers and entrepreneurs in these uncertain times, we have to remember that connectivity among people also builds resilience.

Connectivity

On our first morning at Centro Mamoní, naturalist and business leader Lider Sucre gave a talk about the importance of the Mamoní Valley Preserve in protecting the flow of biodiversity through the Americas. Since the preserve borders both Chagres National Park and the sovereign indigenous lands of the Guna Yala, it helps protect one of the most important watersheds along the narrowest part of the Panamanian Isthmus.

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Covering nearly 13,000 acres within the Mesoamerican Biodiversity Corridor, the Preserve’s location makes it a vital link in this chain of parks, preserves, indigenous lands and other public and private properties. At one point in the talk, Lider told us that “connectivity builds resilience”, speaking about the need for contiguous tracts of land to maintain healthy wildlife populations and natural ecosystems. As a biologist, I understood this concept well, but this time I heard it metaphorically and realized that it also applied to us. In building a community of nature-inspired designers and entrepreneurs in these uncertain times, we have to remember that connectivity among people also builds resilience.

So many of us think of ourselves, of humans, as separate from “nature”. We forget, or, as urbanites in the modern world, never knew, that we’re actually deeply connected to, and part of, nature.

On our last afternoon at Centro Mamoní, after the teams had given their final practice pitches at the Bamboo Pavilion, I asked everyone to participate in an impromptu, potentially corny, exercise. My original request was to walk into the small clearing next to the pavilion, form a large circle and take off shoes, but since we always had to remove our shoes before entering the pavilion, and were all barefoot anyway, most everyone just walked barefoot to the clearing. Once there, I asked everyone to close their eyes and listen to the sounds around us, to breathe deeply and to really focus on the connection between their bare feet and the ground below. So many of us think of ourselves, of humans, as separate from “nature”. We forget, or, as urbanites in the modern world, never knew, that we’re actually deeply connected to, and part of, nature. By focusing on the feeling of our bare feet on the earth, we remembered, or felt for the first time, our connection to the natural world.

Our goal is to help these innovators incorporate the sustainability ethos of biomimicry into all of their future designs, and to understand the importance of context and connectivity in nature, as well as in their businesses. If we succeed, then we’ve helped create both businesses that benefit our entire planet, and a community of makers committed to regenerative and resilient design.

If you’re interested in learning about the strategies employed by more rainforest plants and animals, check out AskNature’s Rainforest collection here.

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Michelle Graves manages the Institute’s two entrepreneurship programs, Biomimicry Launchpad and the Ray of Hope Prize competition. Prior to joining the Institute, Michelle designed, marketed and led, expedition cruises to remote corners of the world as Director of Expedition Development for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic. She has also worked as a naturalist guide in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska and desert islands of the Gulf of California, Central America, and across the Indo-Pacific.

Read more about Michelle and the Biomimicry Institute team here.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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