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Problem Solving Using Insights from Nature

November 5, 2009

A few weeks ago, I participated in the bi-annual Discovery AE Group meeting.  (The Discovery AE Group is a think-tank of professionals – mainly architects and engineers – who collaborate to explore how their firms may respond to today’s adaptive challenges such as climate change and other sustainability issues.)  We gathered on the Washington Peninsula, in Ocean Park, a few miles north of Long Beach, and our meeting took place at Caswell’s On the Bay Bed & Breakfast, whose property looks out over the beautiful Willapa Bay, the second largest estuary of the Pacific Coast.

While we always include a nature walk in our meeting agenda, it was the first time our walk was framed as a problem-solving exercise inspired by Biomimicry – a discipline created by Janine Benyus that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.  In sharp contrast with traditional, analytical and reductionist methods of investigating problems and their resolution, Biomimicry follows Life’s Principles and observes natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to inspire the design of more sustainable human technologies.  (Explore the concepts of Biomimicry further at the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry Guild websites.)

While companies as diverse as Nike, Boeing, Arup Engineers, Patagonia, Interface, and Seventh Generation, among many others, are most often applying Biomimicry to support the design of innovative sustainable industrial products and engineering solutions, our exercise was presented in such a way that it could generate insights for the resolution of non-technical problems as well.  It is from this non-technical perspective that I took the nature walk.

The exercise was framed as a way to force us to slow down and to carefully and intentionally observe nature as opposed to a casual walk where we might have just looked at nature without truly seeing it while our minds meandered.  I found the exercise both fun and insightful and am happy to share a few reflections about my nature observations.

Biomimicry Walk*

Step One:

Identify a particularly difficult problem/issue that you are currently dealing with.

Step Two:

Take a walk and identify and observe nature.  Select plants, animals, objects, situations, or nature’s dynamics (movement of tides, wind through the trees), etc., and observe them “precisely.”

Make a list of the items you observe.

Step Three:

When you return,

  • Try to identify one or more principles from nature embodied in the thing you observed.  Look for ways to transfer nature’s principles embodied in the thing you observed to your subject.


  • Make as many metaphors as you can between your list and your subject (problem).  Look for similarities and similar circumstances.

(Metaphor: The application of a word or phrase to an object or concept that it doesn’t literally denote.  Connections between two ideas/things through some similarity they share.)

  • Ask yourself what new insights the principles from nature or metaphors provide as to how to solve the problem.

Step Four:

Share your problems and insights with other people and begin a group discussion/dialogue.

My Personal Observations/Insights:

I am currently in a personal and professional transition and, thus, the issue I identified for myself related to how to deal with deep transitions in general.  I decided to take the walk on the tideflats in front of Caswell’s residence.  The observations I made were metaphorical with some identification of principles from nature.

The first thing I noticed was oysters shell decomposing.  While static in appearance, the process of decomposition is a process of change and of transition between life and death.  This process is mostly invisible, yet it is very real.  Only the result of the process can be observed as small pieces of shell become detached from the main oyster shell.   Those small pieces will eventually become dust and be re-incorporated into the soil as nutrients.   I thought of a process of re-organization of atoms, where nothing is lost but what makes the identity of the shell at a given time evolves into something different, perhaps a new life, over the long term.

My second observation was of a spider at the center of her net.  It was quite windy that day, and the net was moving back and forth with strength. There was an interesting contrast between the movement of the net from the wind and the seemingly static position of the spider.  It felt to me like if the spider had to really hold on to her spot, as she seemed fragile under the influence of the elements.  She did not seem to be able to do anything else besides hold on.  Yet, as I looked more closely, she was, in fact, working on her thread as though nothing could disturb her process.

Finally, I walked further out on the tideflats, where the terrain started to become quite treacherous.  Under my feet, I felt the instability of the ground and the further I ventured, the clumsier I felt.   At the same time, my body reacted with increased alertness while I paid more and more attention to where I was laying my feet.  My body started to react and interact with the environment, my feet hesitating and testing out the ground in front of me before making the next step.  Now, I was truly paying attention as I could have twisted my foot or ended up in mud up to my ankles.  As my awareness increased, I became interconnected with the ground as it sent information to me about its condition, which influenced my decision on where to make the next step (a typical feedback loop).

Perhaps not new insights per se, my observations reminded me of the impermanence of everything.  One cannot always see (with the eyes or with the mind) the destination of our journey.  The process is what matters.  Strength can sometimes takes the appearance of fragility and does not need to be forceful – strength can be light and seemingly passive to the uneducated eyes.  While external conditions influence us, how we respond is up to us.  Information and feedback loops are critical to adaptation.  And when the body and the mind are connected, increased awareness arises.

*The Biomimicry Walk exercise was created by my friend and colleague Kyle Davy, Consultant, Berkeley, CA.  Kyle’s website:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2009 6:35 pm

    This post comes at an appropriate time for me — I’m feeling a lot of physical pain from what appears to be back pain radiating through my lower body. At the same time, my work has been giving me mental pains as I try to make difficult decisions about technology choices. I was just about to step outside and get some air, and hopefully a new perspective, but first I decided to check the twitter feed and saw your tweet about this post.

    I’m still planning on getting some air, in fact I’m more energized to apply the biomimicry technique against my current issues. Thanks for sharing this personal, and useful, information!

    • November 6, 2009 6:34 am

      Hi Bob,

      I am glad you felt inspired by my post. I hope your nature walk provided some insights. I trust you will be able to find clarity and make the appropriate decisions and that you can find a solutions to your back pain.

      All my best,

  2. November 5, 2009 11:27 pm

    Hey B,
    Very interesting piece you have contributed. It inspires me in several ways. As I walk through life, the ability to observe clearly becomes more and more desirable. I notice that there are times when my observations are clouded by opinions, and I ws reminded of how I do that when you were describing the changing of your walk deeper into the tidal zone. It appears that treacherous and instability were interpretations of the transition from relatively solid to more fluid.

    In relation to your personal and professional transitions mentioned, how that transition goes may be influenced by how nature transitions from solid to fluid more than safe to treacherous / stable to instability.

    I’m curious about how this might seem to you. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to view walking in nature this way.

    Another exploration into being in nature is found at this link. You might enjoy it.

    • November 6, 2009 6:30 am

      Hi John,

      I truly appreciate your comment: you are right that treacherous and instability are interpretations of what I experienced while walking on the tideflats and I thank you for allowing me to see this more clearly. It is indeed very difficult to observe with no judgement – an art that we learn from practicing meditation. In fact, the nature walk is a kind of meditation or, perhaps more exactly, a contemplation of nature. What is interesting about my walk is that it not only allowed me to observe the constitution of the tideflats but, also, the way my body interacted with the ground. So, while treacherous and instability may not have been the characteristics of the tideflats, there were an interpretation of my feelings: fear of twisting my ankle and feeling of uncertainty as I wasn’t sure where to take the next step.

      As for my personal and professional transitions, while there are still much uncertainties in my life, at this moment, I do feel I am moving through the process with fluidity and ease. I may not have said this a few weeks ago, though. As you and I know, transitions are great at teaching us to let go, accept what is, and believe in the process. I’m learning and it is exciting!


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