This piece was originally published as a blog by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP). This year, the Director of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program, Denise DeLuca, is Board President of ISSP.
As we observe the breadth of UN observances in October, from World Habitat Day to World Migratory Bird Day to United Nations Day, we might all be wise and ask a tree—or perhaps a migratory bird—how we might achieve the UN’s SDGs.
Biomimicry has long been known as “innovation inspired by nature” and a “model, measure, and mentor” for sustainable design. If we need ideas, innovations, or guiding principles to help us achieve the SDGs, we need only ask nature. Why? The premise is that evolution reflects extremely rigorous quality-control standards—less than 1/10th of 1 of all species that have ever lived on Earth are around today. Those that have survived, and share the Earth with us, know how to live within the limits and boundaries of the planet, as well as live with each other. Biomimicry gives us tools for discovering functional strategies, processes, and systems that exist in nature and then emulating them to create sustainable design solutions. Honoring and preserving the world’s habitats and inhabitants also honors and preserves the source of the innovative and inspiring solutions that we need to create a future that is regenerative.
Beyond sustainable design, biomimicry can help us think and approach all problems differently. Environmentalists often get accused of being “tree huggers,” but I must admit that when I need solid advice, I often ask a tree. Not out loud, of course—I just look quietly out the window at my neighboring Doug Fir. My questions might be as simple as, “What should I say in this blog piece?” or as consequential as, “How might I best use my unique position, skills, and passions to make positive change in the world?” Trees don’t understand what it means to write blogs or try to change the world, so it asks me a series of clarifying questions. Pondering these questions helps me slow down, reflect, and tap into my deeper knowing, our own “wild wisdom.” Taking this approach to asking nature can yield both more simple and systems-based solutions.
Practicing biomimicry has also given me, and an expanding group of colleagues, a new way to understand how we got ourselves into this mess—climate change, social injustice, poverty—and how we might get ourselves out of it. According to Donella Meadows, the most effective place to intervene and make change in a system is to shift paradigms.
The paradigm that got us into this mess is one of scarcity, individuality, competition, greed, fear, and resistance. This is the paradigm of predatory capitalism, supremacy, and exploitation. It’s what we’re talking about when we refer to “The Real World.”
Nature’s paradigm, on the other hand, is one of abundance, synergies, systems, trust, curiosity, and resilience. Nature’s design solutions are multi-functional, responsive, adaptive, and regenerative. Participants in nature’s “economy” value and leverage what is locally available and abundant. All living things in nature support the systems they depend on, taking only what they need and giving back in the process of simply living. This is the paradigm that we need to re-align with nature and to create a future that is regenerative.
Shifting from the conventional to the natural paradigm may sound impossible, but nature’s paradigm is also our own natural human paradigm. We already know it.
Think about the last time you enjoyed a long sunset, smiled at the smell of rain, or lost track of time while playing the guitar, gardening, or talking with a close friend. During those moments, was your worldview one of scarcity or one of abundance, competition or synergy, fear or curiosity, greed or trust, individuality or systems, resistance, or resilience? You already know and live the natural paradigm, particularly when you feel most alive.
In the workplace, we’ve all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That’s the natural paradigm beating out the conventional paradigm. We’ve also all read about the qualities of a good leader. Those are qualities that reflect the natural paradigm. We all know that resilience and innovation are critical for surviving change and disruption. Those are products of practicing the natural paradigm. So even in the “real world,” we recognize the benefits of the natural paradigm.
The conventional paradigm, and the thinking and designs that it generates, got us into this mess. We can use biomimicry, the natural paradigm, and our wild wisdom to achieve the UN’s SDGs and create a future that is regenerative.