Nature: No Better Designer

by Paul D'Alessandro on February 2, 2010

 

Happy Fruit Grass
Creative Commons License photo credit: libraryman

Human beings have designed beautiful objects of both form and function.  Throughout history achievement has been marked by art, architecture and literally innumerable dimensions on which design has had its influence.

However, even with our ability to think of new constructs and push the envelope of societal constraints humans have fallen far short of the power of nature as a designer.  Given time, lots of time, nature and evolution have a way of creating beautiful and resourceful things.  Take the example of the banana.  Perfectly encased in its own package, subjected to environmental rigors during its growth and ultimately transportation to our kitchens, it somehow arrives ready to be peeled away to a perfect fruit ready for easy consumption.  Nature and its partner, evolution, arguably far surpass even the greatest achievements of humanity.

So, is there any way to tap into this process of design in nature?  Human design will always be a blend of art and science and by no means would I ever suggest that there is single recipe for design to come out of nature.  Yet I think there is a significant lesson to be learned from nature and with today’s tools maybe even use some of its process to better inform our own attempts at design.

  • One must understand that nature has the benefit of almost perfect information.  DNA strands of programming and outside influences that like a sculptor slowly erode away at the object until it is of the perfect form to meet the demands of the information around it.  In human design we rely upon interview, focus group, ethnographic study and a myriad of tools that build a data set, albeit one far short of that enjoyed by nature.  There is hope though in that today as designers we have more data at our access than ever before.  Consumers willingly share information about themselves, their needs and their wants.  Even survey techniques have grown in sophistication and their ability to gather much more information.  If you no not of techniques like adaptive choice based conjoint, be sure to check it out.
  • Nature also is the beneficiary of the long process of evolution.  Objects evolve into their state of fit to their environment.  This is called genetic evolution and a whole body of science is finally maturing after decades in the labs around genetic algorithms or agent based modeling.  Now as designers we can take these larger data sets, load them into agents (akin to programming their DNA) and let thousands or millions of program agents work against, with and for each other in an evolutionary process.  Not only is this a process into which all this information to include environmental variables can also be loaded but it is also one in which time that is measured by units of millennium in nature can be sped up to hours or even minutes on today’s computers.

In the end, the designer is able to tap into the insights of these modern modeling tools to perform “what-if” scenarios and use the insight to inform other parts of the design process.  We may not be able to do exactly what nature can today, but we surely can begin to learn from it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Amaresh February 5, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Paul,

Very interesting post. There is a new field of science which has developed over the last decade called biomimicry (http://www.asknature.org/article/view/what_is_biomimicry) and recently a taxonomy of natural processes have been developed with interesting examples . You may want to check that out.

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