Deep Principles from Nature

Image from Biomimicry Group: This evolving list of deep principles is a complex tool for deep inspiration. It is at the core of biomimicry as a systemic, regenerative innovation tool, and requires many people, like Kathy Zarsky, to experiment with methods of telling these stories. Click for a larger version.

Life’s Principles

Life’s principles are the deep principles of nature that fuel and inspire deep sustainability, or whatever is beyond that concept. These principles, in the table above, are present in all organisms at multiple scales and levels. They are the deep criteria for thriving and surviving on earth, while creating conditions conducive to life. It is through these principles that work is done to prevent superficial biomimicry, because each principles challenges humans to think systemically within a broader context than a single organism. As a consequence they can be challenging stories to tell (I have two lectures that go over 2 and half hours each…).

Enter Kathy Zarsky, alumni from the Biomimicry Specialty Certificate.

Image from Kathy Zarsky: example of one entry into materials use - when visiting the site, click on the various links to see different layers of stories regarding these principles.

Kathy is driven by complexity and the desire to tell deep, interconnected stories of relationships. Not satisfied with a list of life’s principles, Kathy built a web site with extraordinary depth of content. This web site goes through the life’s principles with examples from nature, case studies from design and a personal synthesis summarizing the need and opportunities of exploring these deep insights.

I thoroughly recommend spending some time and patience exploring the content, as there is a lot of depth and as with all complicated tools, it will take a moment to get into the flow of Kathy’s thinking.

Seeing the Principles in Action

To put the Life’s Princples into context there are a few case studies on Fast Company Magazine sharing stories of biomimicry and two of these projects have well documented processes.

Smart Design and IBM – Smart Cities

Smart Design used biomimicry in a workshop for IBM’s SmartCity initiative and the life’s principles formed the core element of their process. Here’s a good quote:

Although the designers were inspired by the natural examples, they quickly found a more actionable solution in the Life’s Principles, a chart created by the Biomimicry Guild to illustrate how the earth regulates and conserves resources within its own giant ecosystem.

Image from Fast Company: defaced version of the life's principles showing designers synthesizing and digesting the content. Very biological really.

The image above shows the designer’s scribbling over the chart and connecting it to their own insights. If you don’t know this, when a designer scribbles all over your work, it is usually a good thing!

The conclusion of the project appears to be a video outlining a future city scenario, but it is the process and experience of the designers in the article that is the most enlightening story from my perspective. They had fun looking directly at, or physically experiencing the organisms, but found it too difficult and forced to abstract the natural insights for design. When they were offered the broader, more complex principles, the creative team had the opportunity to find the connections to the design challenge, and then use organisms to full understand the principles further.

IDEO and the USGBC

The other case study is a workshop run by dear friend Tim McGee and IDEO, exploring how nature can inspire improved communication processes within the USGBC. My favourite element within this case study is the time line showing the design biomimicry process they followed (also included at the end of this post). The highlights are:

  • It begins in design – researching the “users” and understanding the context of the challenge
  • Before jumping to solutions, bio-inspiration is presented to the group according to the previous insights
    • Inspiration included organisms, but were presented in the deeper context of life’s principles; i.e. “why” should we look at this organism
  • Playful, challenging, broad ideation, connecting all the inspiration and insights into a variety of ideas
  • Simple, clear communication of final insights

The reason why I mention this story is to highlight the conversation of life’s principles within the biology research stage. Without the life’s principles it is easy to get excited about an organism, but the deeper principles reminds designers that the organism is parter of a larger, inter-connected system. If you make it explicit, it pushes whatever design ideas are developed to also be connected at a broader systems level.

Image from Fast Company: excellent visual diagram of the creative process. Link jumps to the article.

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5 Comments on “Deep Principles from Nature”

  1. Tim McGee says:

    Great post Carl. Love the collection of how LP has been put into action. Mark Dorfman and the Smart Design team really took off with their exploration, and it was exciting to see the results.

    I have to second taking the time on Kathy’s Website – and really for me, as someone who breaths this material every day -one of the most compelling things about her site is the ‘synthesis’ tab. Wonderful original thinking that really takes a go at applying Life’s Principles.

    • kzarsky says:

      Thanks, Tim! There was some great instruction from both of you that challenged me to tell a better story. So grateful for you both + Karen Allen. Mwah!

  2. Robyn says:

    Ohh that gives me an idea to bring clear sheets to overlay on top of LP and marking pens. By the way, I’m filling out papers to adopt you. ^^

  3. kzarsky says:

    I’m deeply flattered that you’ve included my little project here. I need to get back into that and fix the content that isn’t showing up for each of the subprinciples- I spent an equal amount of time there. As both Tim and Carl know, this just barely scratches the surface- for complex it is with numerous examples that just keep on going…and connecting!!

    Coincidentally, I’ll be speaking with IDEO in the next week or so as follow up to the USGBC exercise:) Tim, I should touch base with you on that as well.

    Robyn- we might have to figure out how to share custody. I want to adopt them both!

  4. […] Deep Principles from Nature [Biomimicry] | Science News | Scoop.it The reason why I mention this story is to highlight the conversation of life’s principles within the biology research stage. Without the life’s principles it is easy to get excited about an organism, but the deeper principles reminds designers that the organism is parter of a larger, inter-connected system. If you make it explicit, it pushes whatever design ideas are developed to also be connected at a broader systems level. […]


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