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Nature’s Business – Staying In Context

Nature’s Business – Staying In Context

From the Galapagos to the Amazon, Biomimicry Communicator Anjan Prakash travels the world to be inspired by Nature’s designs. In this 10-part column, Nature’s Business, she shares her adventures and learnings.

After high school, I ran away from anything to do with Science. I had made it clear at home that I wanted to be in the field of creative communication, and therefore Science as a subject fell by the wayside. I failed to see how it could impact my future field of interest, which was to be a journalist, or a media professional, or a linguist, but definitely not an engineer or a doctor.

I wondered how Science could ever fit into the context of a creative or an artistic field. I looked at learning biology as a way of learning about organisms, and not as a way of learning from organisms.

While education as a whole largely works in silos, drawing sharp lines between disciplines, a quick look at other human designs reveals that most design solutions are rooted in squares, straight lines and boxes, that, whether we recognize it or not, are connected to one other. The system works as a whole; it is after all, the `circle of life’.

In Nature, all designs have to fit their functions to the context in which they exist. This is fundamental to survival. Will an organism choose to feed during the day or during the night in a desert? Will it choose to migrate long distance in winter, or hibernate? Will it choose to have a coat of fur in winter, and then shed it during summer? Will it adapt the shape of its beak to drink nectar from a particular flower because it is in abundance? Will it build nests in an old growth forest because it offers better cover and protection? Will it move from salt water to fresh water to reproduce and lay eggs? Will the organism grow its food in a tropical climate or temperate climate?

Just about every design decision in Nature depends on the context in which the organism lives, or, what we call in Biomimicry, the Earth’s Operating Conditions.

All life survives by working within and leveraging its surroundings.  If all the species that came much before us, have already designed themselves sustainably, then we have a library of 30 million species to borrow from.

What are these Earth’s Operating Conditions that define all designs? Though there are several, a few have been consistent over the last 4.5 billion years, and life has evolved accordingly.

Photo: NASA.

a. Sunlight, Water and Gravity:

These three are very strong operating conditions.

The Sun not only influences the climate but is also the ultimate source of energy for nearly all life. The changing seasons as the Earth moves around the Sun impacts how organisms adapt to survive. The entire food chain needs sunlight, directly or indirectly.

With 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface covered with Water, this dominant element constantly shifts between liquid, solid and vapour, playing a significant role in all chemical transformations, acting as a solvent, crucial for all metabolic functions.

Gravity is a major environmental force that shapes life on Earth. It not only keeps us planted firmly on the surface, it also gives weight to all objects on Earth. Gravity influences tidal cycles and causes precipitation. Even as life evolved in the sea, then crawled to the land, and even took flight, all organisms had to develop strategies to adapt to gravity.

b. Limits and Boundaries:

Every resource on Earth is finite, as is the boundary of the planet itself.

For example: 97 per cent of the Earth is ocean and salty water. Two thirds of the three per cent of freshwater available is locked up in glaciers, ice caps, permafrost and underground. From the freshwater that is available, 70 per cent is used up by agriculture. This clearly highlights how all resources are finite, and our designs have to acknowledge these limits and boundaries.

c. Cyclic Processes:

Seasons, night and day, tidal cycles, all represent the predictable cyclic processes that are important operating conditions for all life on Earth. These processes have their own time period in which they occur, and all life forms adapt to them using strategies. The resources available during these cyclic processes vary, and organisms must learn to take advantage of this occurrence. Further still the migratory cycles, reproduction cycles, regulation of body temperatures, and management of food availability are all dependent on either the season, or any of the other cyclic processes, clearly highlighting the influence these cycles have on Nature’s designs.

d. Dynamic Non-equilibrium:

The Universe loves challenges, as with challenges comes growth. Our planet is dynamic. Earth is subject to innumerable disturbances – forest fires, earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes and more. Changes are unpredictable and this is what dynamic non-equilibrium alludes to. Organisms have to survive this context with appropriate design strategies.

Photo: Naser Mizbani.

Our Earth is a working and evolving system that constantly adapts to the above changing conditions. Step into a tropical rainforest, and you will find trees adjusting their heights, the shapes of their leaves, their location, and their growing cycles to the context of excess sunlight and water. Dive in an ocean, and you will find creatures managing excess salt water with various design strategies, a non-negotiable context for sea dwelling organisms. Walk through a desert, and you will find the inhabitants managing excess heat with designs to regulate temperatures that are essential for survival in those harsh conditions. Visit a forest after a forest fire, and you will find strategies in which they move through primary and secondary succession to restore the ecosystem, a sign of design resilience. Each of these strategies and adaptations are a result of their environmental context.

Understanding the fundamental laws that govern all life blurs the line between Science and other disciplines. Biomimicry clearly and definitely bridges this gap, as the wisdom accumulated by Nature over 3.8 billion years carries the potential to inform human solutions in all fields.

This month, even as you go about designing things – your children’s life as parents, events as organizers, products as designers, businesses as entrepreneurs, processes as scientists or engineers, advertising and marketing as brand strategists… take a step back to become conscious of the context.

For example, if you are launching a new business, check the context in which the business design needs to exist. Are the resources limited-be it natural factors like water, soil and sunlight that the design might be dependent on, or be it money, space and time? Will the business be subject to any cyclic process, natural like seasons, night and day, or man-made like summer vacations or festivals?

List the conditions in which your design needs to exist and survive. Once identified, one can look to nature to see which organisms thrive in a similar context and what their strategies and mechanisms are to function effectively in such conditions. This is the beginning of the Biomimicry Thinking process.

Anjan Prakash is a Biomimicry Communicator, and a Mumbai-based entrepreneur.

Author: Anjan Prakash 


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