Nature knows better? Nature as exemplar and/or inspiration?

Thumbnail Image
Stevens, Laura L.
Mulder, Karel F.
Kopnina, Helen N.
De Vries, Marc J.
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University College Cork
Published Version
Research Projects
Organizational Units
Journal Issue
The arising of the industrial society and the growth of human population have been main causes of resource depletion, climate change and the decline of ecosystems. Industrial systems and technologies have brought economic and public health progress, leading to an unprecedented population in relatively good conditions. But often, the new technologies that enabled this development turned out not to be the miracle solutions that they had been claimed to be: plastics contained toxics and caused world-wide litter, industrially processed food turned out to be a threat to public health, information and communication technologies provided a wealth of information but also threatened democratic society, and military technologies to secure freedom threatened humanity’s very existence. In reaction, there was a tendency to return to natural products and production processes. ‘Industry’ and ‘Modern Technology’ became suspect. Slogans emerged that emphasized the value of nature: ‘Nature knows better’ emphasizing healthier products without synthetic chemicals and “Nature does not produce any waste” criticizing the whole industrial society. Many of these slogans are in fact not verifiable empirical statements, and some of them are erroneous. Hence, ‘natural’ and ‘nature derived’ products and production processes are not a priori to be preferred above man-made products as the sustainable solution. Why are man-made products and processes not considered to be natural like the ones made by other animals? The first question that this paper addresses is how to assess ‘natural’-, ‘nature derived’- and ‘classic’ solutions to design challenges. In the first part of the paper, it is shown by various short case studies that design solutions from nature have survived long periods of selection pressure, which implies that they are in balance with their natural environment. The vast number of specific niches that ecosystems provide has created an abundance of natural design solutions. Hence, in the second part, the question will be addressed if the study of ‘natural principles’ can help industrial designers to think outside the box. Understanding biological analogies remains difficult for design students. Preliminary empirical research showed students using these, intentionally or unintentionally, copied aspects which are often misinterpreted into their design, i.e. blindly copying form while leaving out process or system. Biomimicry education offers new and compelling insights to measure and evaluate products, aiming to improve the sustainability score. This study reviews basic steps on how biomimicry could improve design education.
Biomimicry , Natural principles , Technology assessment , Technological hazards , BioBrainstorm , Distant analogies , Design thinking , Design education
Stevens, L. L., Mulder, K. F., Kopnina, H. N. and De Vries, M. J. (2021) ‘Nature knows better? Nature as exemplar and/or inspiration?’, EESD2021: Proceedings of the 10th Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference, 'Building Flourishing Communities', University College Cork, Ireland, 14-16 June.