Urban resilience, inspired by nature

Originally published in Shashwat- Let Nature be: Rejuvenating Resilient Habitats

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

~ E.B. White

Project: Hybrid futures, weaving a biomimetic urban fabric by Asha singhal; Illustrated by Johannes Fuchs

Let us reflect on the City. The urban lifestyle has framed our development and conceived new waves of creativity, culture, and community. It masquerades as a fortress from the harshness of the natural world while remaining exceptionally vulnerable to it. And while the best by-products of our urban spaces result from their diversity and communal attributes, our city’s greatest failures are derived by their lack of cooperative design.

From afar, we see the city as one operative place and give it one name. This view could not be further from reality. Our cities are made up of an assemblage of isolated components: systems, spaces, buildings, transportation elements, all working parallelly to provide a sense of limitlessness while competing for a variety of resources. Can we strive for something better?

Imagine a city that’s self-sustaining, one that produces its own food while nourishing the ground it rises from, where waste becomes a resource. Imagine a city that leaves the water and air cleaner than upon its entry. A city that manufactures its own materials at ambient temperatures and pressures, and runs on sunlight without the need of fossil fuels. This city is adaptive and responsive to information and resilient to systemic disruptions, thriving and pulsating with diversity.

The blueprint for our cooperative, regenerative, optimized city already exists. Replace each mention of the word ‘city’ above with ‘forest’ and the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. The millions of species alive today, embody adaptations and deep patterns that result from research and development spanning 3.8 billion years. They represent time-tested, sustainable solutions to the same challenges we face today as humans. We need only apply nature’s blueprint.

As a civilization, we have spent tremendous energy in fighting entropy and building ourselves outside nature, creating separation between ourselves and the natural world that sustains us. That disconnect of humans from nature only perpetuates our energy demand as we input time, money and resources into conserving an unnatural system.

The world’s natural capital and ecological services already supply more than enough to sustain our needs, accounting for an estimated $33 trillion and yet, our destruction of these services has led to more waste, chaos, disharmony and despair.

Climate change is a generational challenge and threat multiplier having been voted the biggest problem by Millennials for the past three years. Resilience literature refers to these as wicked problems, where facts are uncertain, stakes are high, decisions are urgent and multiple values are in dispute. What makes climate change so difficult is that it requires new ideas, paradigms, and new ways of working together.

This is where biomimicry has value.

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It invites us to look to nature as a model and mentor for how to thrive on this planet. It recognizes that nature’s forms, processes and systems are the evolution of four billion years, which can teach us about regenerative resilience.

Deeply rooted in Biology and interwoven with both indigenous and emergent practices, it is an interdisciplinary field at the confluence of engineering, business, education, architecture, and social innovation. The biomimicry design process is guided by function; seeking nature’s advice on ‘how would nature do this function?’ in context to identify natural mentors that have found solutions to those challenges. Biomimicry Practitioners look at nature as a model, measure and mentor, which means they learn from nature as much as they learn about it.

Practically, Biomimicry Frontiers has used biomimicry to disrupt traditional notions. In India, for example, we used our ‘biodata’ methodology to find more efficient methods of cooling a building. The key to these biodata sheets is knowing which function (passive cooling) should be solved. Inspired by elephant skin, barrel cactus ribbing and termite mounds processes became more self-reliant and less wasteful. The real success of biomimicry is when human designs learn to function like thriving ecosystems and create conditions that are conducive to life.

Unlike engineering resilience, which focuses on a static state, nature works in dynamic non-equilibrium where disturbances constantly push the system away from the static state. In order to thrive in such conditions, nature changes at multiple scales, and allows release (e.g. trees falling) for reorganization. It is a system of safe failure rather than fail-safe. The following represent key principles we can learn from the adaptive cycle of nature.

Create a culture of experimentation

Encourage small-scale, iterative release to promote creativity, innovation, and problem-solving by deactivating fear of failure. In nature, regular cycles of disruption create opportunities for innovative rebounding as resources are freed up to reenter the system in new ways. Summer leaves return to the soil in Fall to fuel next season’s cycle. What might this look like in a city?

Leverage existing assets and reconfigure them in completely new ways

Like all lifeforms, 96% of our bodies are composed of just 5 different elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus); in contrast, a mobile phone is made of 75 different elements all of which are hard to separate from one another, eventually ending up in a landfill. In which areas can we direct our cities to develop their own evolutionary innovation by reshuffling the possibilities?

Acknowledge biases and embrace creativity, heterogeneity and uncertainty

Although organisms are frequently exceptionally well-adapted, there is no such thing as being perfectly adapted because the only constant is change. Our planet is in perpetual, dynamic non-equilibrium and life runs on a tight energy budget. Thereby, there are fitness tradeoffs when it comes to evolutionary change: the tallest trees in the forest capture the most sunlight through photosynthesis but also risk falling over more easily in storms. We must optimize within our energy budget — choosing between an investment in growth or strength, as trees must, because the energy to do both is not available.

Embrace diversity. Incorporate multiple layers and decentralization

Nature favours diversity within the specific ecological roles that species play through niche differentiation. In this way, cooperation is favoured as it is much less energy-expensive than the competition. In natural systems, redundancy in the general roles that species play in the ecosystem (producer, consumer, decomposer) act as system back-ups. This way, when one part of the network is down, another from can take over its functional role. There are no monocultures in nature, diversity and decentralization are requirements for healthy ecosystems.

Encourage self-organization: building from the ground up

Slime mold self-organize without a brain. Trees grow at their tips adding strength where needed and thinning where not. Nature has a way of being ever-changing, self-renewing with constructive manufacturing, and zero waste. Phenotypic plasticity allows for flexibility in growth accommodating changes in the environment during the tree’s lifetime. Self-organization of social superorganisms insects — ants, bees, for example — makes wise group decisions without a central leader or top-down structure. Simply this can be translated into local interactions at small scales to promote emergent patterns.

Avoid short-term thinking and move beyond conservation

We can learn from both nature and indigenous teachings by adopting a “7 generation” mindset in which we start making decisions that support more life, over the long haul. A key element is to release ideas, behaviours and technologies that are no longer relevant or serve the goal of creating more life. A defining factor for humans is our ability to harness stored energy (e.g. fire) to conserve systems past their life. The challenge, however, is that the longer something is held beyond its time the larger and more extreme its potential failure.

Incorporate multiple layers and frequency of feedback

Nature is nested and interdependent, making it more resilient to environmental pressures. Homogeneous systems, like monoculture agriculture, are vulnerable because one pest or bad season can take out an entire crop. Through redundancy and diversity, nature can absorb more environmental pressures and dissipate “unforeseen” gradients.

The nested nature encourages constant feedback between layers. Our bodies are made up of genes embedded in cells, within tissues within organs culminating in organisms. Through feedback, these nested autonomous systems use information — rather than material — to ensure that the overall system is working.

Cities are ecosystems

Combining age-old indigenous wisdom with emerging technologies, embodied in the philosophy of living in harmony with nature gives us the opportunity to realize our vision of the future.

Urban ecosystems are a complex emergent web of dynamically interconnected systems spread over vast scales. Urban areas suffer from disrupted resource flows (hydrology, energy, biodiversity), and fragmented natural habitats making them vulnerable to systemic disruptions. In contrast to cities, elements within natural systems exist harmoniously while embodying greater complexity. If our cities begin behaving like these complex natural ecosystems, our planet can begin healing.

At Biomimicry Frontiers, we’re working towards creating and sharing a synthesized compendium of resiliency principles from nature to the benefit of our cities and our forests.

- Asha Singhal

- Deborah Bidwell

- Jamie Miller

Illustration by:

- Johannes Fuchs

1 Costanza R, et al. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature. 1997;387(6630):253–260. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/387253a0

2 Alberti, M., and J.M. Marzluff. 2004. Ecological Resilience in Urban Ecosystems: Linking Urban Patterns to Human and Ecological Functions. Urban Ecosystems 7, no. 3: 241–265.

Biomimicry Frontiers is focused on sustainability consulting and strategic planning. We work to create resilient solutions through the application of biomimicry