Monday, December 30, 2013

A Home That Is Ours, But Not Ours Alone: Biomimicry in Education

Recently I’ve been visiting my brother in Bellingham, Washington, and in the process of adventuring here I’ve been graced with a few unforgettable experiences. Riding mountain bikes over steep, precariously mud-drenched trails (and living) was remarkable; equally so was the view from a recent hike we took.

An hour or so into an uphill climbing through acres of lush (cold, dripping, unrelentingly beautiful) forest, our path opened to reveal a clearing at the top of the ridge. From the vantage point of this particularly high mountain peak, I found myself greeted with a reality check in the form of a 360° view of sprawling human metropolises webbing their way across wide swaths of the coastal and forested landscape. Wow! I was at once fascinated, astounded by this visceral reminder of what human ingenuity is capable of – and slightly terrified, as the design of these human colonies reflected a relationship with the land based more upon dominion and control than reverence and partnership. Hmm. Indeed, it was not unlike observing an ant colony on steroids – with cars buzzing along in trails like ants foraging for food – except I know full well what fundamentally distinguishes us from ants. It isn't our size or scale; it's our design.

Everything ants produce, including venom, is biodegradable and contained in a 'cradle to cradle' system that replenishes rather than depletes. These creatures have been around for millions of years, exist all across the planet, and their activity nourishes the surrounding plants, animals, and soil where they live. [1] By contrast, human societies tend to end up in positions of ecological overshoot. [2]  "Tend to" does not mean "will", and at this moment in time we have the opportunity to design a different future: one modeled after the "best practices" that ant colonies and other natural systems have revealed to us.

If drawing our inspiration from ants seems a tad irrelevant, or besides the point, think again; we have everything to learn from them! As Chemist Michael Braungart has put it:

"We are not too many people on this planet. If you take the total weight of the planet's ants on one hand and the total weight of human beings on the other, you'll see that the ants' weight is four times higher. It is not only the number, but ants outweigh human beings. Further they have a much shorter life span than we have. And because they work much harder physically than we do, the calorie consumption of ants equals about 30 billion people. It is clearly not about the fact that we are too many. Ants don't produce waste. They don't need to minimize waste. They produce nutrients. Again, it is a design question.” [3]
Designing instead for regenerative human communities that are entwined in mutually beneficial relationships with their surrounding ecosystems will require that we reimagine our models for education. This post presents a glimpse at what the emerging field of biomimicry has to offer us, with regard to creating new models for education that are truly relevant to the world today's children/youth are inheriting. The first part, "Setting the Scene", summarizes the evolutionary context that underpins the second section, “Our Extended Family", within which I've taken the liberty of exploring some already-existing and soon-to-exist intersections between biomimicry and education. "From Inspiration to Action" is my attempt to conclude this exceptionally long post. Future posts will be shorter, I promise.

Setting the Scene

It was recently brought to my attention that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. While that may sound rather grim, I invite you to consider seeing it differently.

Try this: in a moment, I'd like you to throw your hands up while saying in a celebratory manner, "How FASCINATING! We've made it this far!". I guarantee you, you'll experience elation if you commit to doing this right now. Just go for it!

As I see it, just being here deserves celebration. Nature has rather high standards for quality control — and it's a downright miracle that we humans are one of the nearly 9 million “best of” candidates that get to continue dancing through the journey of life a blue planet somewhere in a great big universe.

Equally miraculous is the rate at which we've been changing — for better or worse. If you were to condense this planet’s history into a single calendar year — starting January 1st, and ‘ending’ today at around 11:59pm on December 31st — homo sapiens arrived just fifteen minutes ago. All of recorded history occurred within the last 60 seconds. [4]

This infographic from Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone's Active Hope puts it in perspective: 

...and now let's put just those final 5 seconds into perspective:

The information compiled within these two infographics comes from a multitude of sources; if you wish to do further research the sources you'll get referred to through this page might be a good place to start.

What do you notice? What stands out? For me, what feels overwhelmingly clear is that as a species, we're incredibly young.

Right alongside this condition of relative youth, however, there's a very real sense in which "every particle in your body goes back to the first flaring forth of space and time", in the words of Joanna Macy — and as Paul Hawken observes, "one quadrillion cells make up a human being, and 90 percent of them are bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and other microbes, without which we could not survive. Therein lies a paradox: what makes us fully human is, well, not human." [5]

We're every bit as "old" as we are "young" — yet, as indicated by the last 20 seconds of the second infographic, we are (with the exception of our indigenous brothers and sisters across this planet) collectively behaving like shortsighted teenagers who've yet to realize that a lifestyle based on infinitely expanding, increasingly decadent parties cannot continue for very long on a finite planet.

In this special holiday season of doomsday scenarios and "end of days" predictions, it seems as important as ever to remember that escalating crises (of which we have so many right now it's hard to choose a single one and assign a hyperlink to it as if to say "Believe me now?"... but, if you insist, here's a good starting point) have, from an evolutionary standpoint, frequently served as the catalysts for both breakdowns and breakthroughs (aka evolutionary leaps). The conditions of our world right now do not represent a closing-of-the-book on humanity; they're an open invitation to create a better one.


Greeting The Extended Family

Taking up this invitation will require us to expand the reaches of our empathy and our curiosity toward the wider web of life itself, the extended family of ours that David Abrams calls the "more-than-human world". Over the course of 3.8 billion years, life has "has learned to do some amazing things: to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live at the top of mountains and the bottom of the ocean, lasso solar energy, light up the night, and make miracle materials like skin, horns, hair, and brains. In fact, organisms have done everything we humans want to do but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future. So, yes, we are part of nature, but we're a very young species still trying to get it right”. [6]

"Trying to get it right", indeed. As of late — and right alongside all the doom-and-gloom news, but without the same media coverage — there's mounting evidence that this young species of ours is entering a new phase of maturity: one focused less upon ourselves, and more upon learning from and living in partnership with our extended family.

This "extended family" I speak of is the 9 billion elders that surround you right now, and the "learning" is taking place in the form of buildings inspired by termite mounds that use a tenth of the energy of comparable buildings (and save themselves millions of dollars in the process); a carbon-neutral replacement for portland cement inspired by coral reefs; woodpecker-inspired bike helmets made of cardboard with three times the strength of standard standard helmets; a catalyst that converts CO2 into biodegradable polymers (mimicking the processes by which plants convert CO2 into starches, sugars, and cellulose); oil-repellent coating inspired by water bugs; digital screens inspired by butterfly wings that use only a tenth of the energy that LCD screens use; and self-cleaning building paints inspired by the structure of leaves. These represent a mere handful of the ways in which biomimicry is re-wilding our anthropocentric imaginations. 

"Biomimicry", as Janine Benyus describes it, "is innovation inspired by nature, looking to nature as a teacher". As an emerging design methodology, it is yielding cutting-edge breakthroughs in everything from shoes to cities — but it also represents far more than an avenue for product and building design. In Benyus’ words: 

“Seeing nature as model, measure, and mentor changes the very way you view and value the natural world. Instead of seeing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher. Instead of valuing what you can extract from her, you value what you can learn from her. And this changes everything.

It requires us to visit wild places and keep asking, How does nature teach? How does nature learn? How does nature heal? How does nature communicate? Quieting human cleverness is the first step in biomimicry. Next comes listening, then trying to echo what we hear.  

When we finally realise that unencumbered evolution is precious, the rationale for protecting wild places will become self-evident . . . After all, it's not a new gadget that's going to make us more sustainable as a culture; it's a change of heart and a new set of eyes, a new way of viewing and valuing the world in which we are embedded and on which we depend. We're a young species, but we're very adaptable, and we're uncanny mimics. With the help of our ten to thirty million planet-mates, I believe we can learn to do what other organisms have done, which is to make of this place an Eden, a home that is ours but not ours alone.”

It wasn't long after I began encountering example-after-example of biomimic design leading to remarkable innovations that I began to wonder: what might it look like, if we took the same 'design principles' that led to these breakthroughs — that is, the underlying patterns/principles revealed to us by nature's 3.8 million years of R&D — and applied them toward our social systems and our economics? Toward our models for leadership? Toward education?

I'd be happy to highlight existing examples of all the above in action, and to outline new biomimic possibilities for each. However, my intention is to focus specifically on education in this post — and for good reason: comprehensively incorporating biomimicry in schools and amongst this emerging generation of youth would more likely than not generate biomimic design solutions within all the other realms of human society.

If indeed we want a humanity that relates to nature as its "model, measure, and mentor" — one with such a depth of connection to the wider web of life that our politics, economics, buildings, city planning, food systems, art, culture, etc. are inspired by and designed to mirror the core patterns and principles of life itself — then we need to be designing educational environments that are alive with this spirit.

What might this look like? For starters, it could mean having "centers of learning" (a diverse range of schools, online education systems, decentralized homeschooling networks, etc.) that incorporate all the following...

Expanded upon below...

These fancy graphics comes from Biomimicry 3.8, who apparently has been studying, compiling, and trekking through mountains of scientific research to identify the underlying patterns and principles that we find amongst "successful" creatures (the ones that have evolving for 3.85 billion years). If there were a "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" for living on this planet, period, it would look something like this.

Conveniently enough, the same group that created the above diagram is the one that's pioneering new ways to integrate biomimicry into education. Their numerous education initiatives use workshops, online courses, certificate programs, hands-on K-12 lesson plans, children's music CDs, and more to empower youth and educators alike to inject biomimcry-everything into our culture.

All in all, I am thrilled by what they're doing. The larger intention — to "teach, connect, and nurture a community of biomimics who will amplify this work and spread it throughout the world" — is great, and I can understand why they are mostly focused right now on creating/compiling K-12 lesson plans and training educators at every level to bring biomimicry into (and beyond) the classroom.

At the same time however, I don't think we're going far enough. What would it look like, if we were to apply Life's Principles toward (1) the physical design of schools and schoolyards, and (2) toward larger systems... such as the US education system as a whole?

Comprehensively answering these questions in succinct, engaging prose requires a bit more experience with systems thinking and writing skills than I currently possess, but hey — I will give it a try. What shows up here on this blog is my firm commitment to speak from the heart and put ideas out there, even when they're primitive and/or messy.

The first (the physical design of schools/schoolyards) has been detailed elsewhere (see the Center for Ecoliteracy's "Smart By Nature" principles, as well as the section on Buildings that Teach, and for case studies of actual schools check out Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability), so in the interest of time I'll focus on the less-explored latter topic.

Being the systems thinking advocate that I am, I tend to view the US education system itself as a gigantic, highly complex organism. Every single individual who's involved with educating our youth, in some way or another, is a part of this organism. It exists in nodes upon nodes upon nodes of nested structures — families/parents, classrooms, schools, school districts, coalitions, conferences, education-related research/consulting organizations, etc. — who, in concert, shape the children and youth that shape tomorrow.

From this perspective, the question that's most alive for me is this: 

What does a resilient, diverse, locally attuned, highly adaptive, resource-efficient "education organism" LOOK like?

I don't know... but let's find out! Let's create it. I may not have answers today, but I have a starting point for finding them. It is outdoors, in your body, in every living system you see around you; it is called LIFE. It also happens to be getting cataloged at, where you'll find specific examples of how the rest of nature does the whole gambit of things that we humans also need to do to survive — but without burning fossil fuels or spewing toxins into our bodies and surrounding environment. Have you ever wondered how the rest of nature builds resilient systems, or what strategies nature uses to build diversity, to cooperate, to manage complexity? Well, I certainly have — and I’m stoked to now have an abundance of researched examples to turn to for guidance.

No better time to start that learning process than now, so here's a relevant point to close on. Given the complexity and messiness of our current education system in the US, we can do ourselves a favor by looking at how "complex social insects" (e.g. ants, bees) manage complexity. According to research, the success of their swarms (they are almost everywhere in the ecosphere) can be attributed to three main characteristics:

  • FLEXIBILITY (the colony can adapt to a changing environment);
  • ROBUSTNESS (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks); and
  • SELF-ORGANIZATION (activities are neither centrally controlled nor locally supervised).

This was interesting, too:

"Business executives relate readily to the first two attributes, but they often balk at the third, which is perhaps the most intriguing. Through self-organization, the behavior of the group emerges from the collective interactions of all the individuals. In fact, a major recurring theme in swarm intelligence (and of complexity science in general) is that even if individuals follow simple rules, the resulting group behavior can be surprisingly complex--and remarkably effective. And, to a large extent, flexibility and robustness result from self-organization." (Bonabeau and Meyer 2001:108)"
One of the most exciting political/social/economic analogs I see for integrating that last aspect can be found in the work of Tom Atlee, by the way. Check that article out! 

Anyway: what I took away from the above is that designing systems which encourage self-organization is of critical importance. But what migt that look like, in the context of education in the US? I don't have fleshed out answers right now, but here's a start: we need to (re)learn how to listen empathetically and communicate clearly with one another across lines of difference. For this, we can begin by fully integrating “social innovations” like circle councils into schools (both within classrooms and at staff, committee, teacher/parent, and/or community meetings) and designing infrastructure (e.g. organizations like the The Ojai Foundation) that facilitate the spread of this practice. If you can think of a sexier word for this than “social innovations”, I’d love to hear it.

While I think technological/web-based innovations in the realm of education (14 of which you can learn about in Forbes list of “30 under 30” for Education) can be great, what to me seems of equal or greater importance for creating a resilient, highly adaptive, self-organizing education system in the US is the development of social innovations that build our collective capacity to witness each other, speak vulnerably, and listen deeply.


Moving Forward: From Inspiration to Action

Inspiration without action is ultimately of minimal value; action, grounded in a bold, passionate vision, is needed to create the transformations I’ve outlined above. In that spirit, I hope that reading this has moved you, challenged you, and amused you; most of all, however, I hope it inspires you to act toward creating the world you want to live in. Whether you identify as an artist, teacher, politician, economist, farmer, entrepreneur, or something else entirely, we all have a biomimic designer within us who is innately capable of problem-solving by asking first and foremost, “How would 'nature' do it?”.

Most likely, you also interact with kids at some point or another. To bring this capacity out in children, all of us can and must share with them our fascination with this more-than-human world. Rachel Carson’s famous words — that “if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder . . . she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in” — take on new meaning in the context of biomimicry. This begs this question: What opportunities will create the conditions for children to experience a sense of wonder/awe/reverence AND a clear recognition that “nature” – the dynamic force of which they are a part – happens to be an ingenious teacher?

Anyway. This has to end sooner or later, and frankly I'm having a really hard time "concluding" a post on such a generative, open-ended topic. It has become the unexpectedly large outpouring of enthusiasm that it is because, l
ike Benyus, I share the conviction that with the help of our roughly 9 million planet-mates, “we can learn to do what other organisms have done, which is to make of this place an Eden, a home that is ours but not ours alone.” 

Here's to taking bold action to create that home...