1.4.1 Biomimicry for economic design

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

The Khasi tribe in northern India imitates nature to build living bridges from tree roots, connecting villages during the monsoon season (Figure 1). These unique bridges take years to grow. They become stronger over time and are able to withstand monsoon floods. They support diverse species of plant and animal life, integrating seamlessly into the ecosystem.

Living bridges spanning a stream

Figure 1. The living bridges of the Khasi tribe

(Credit: Vinayak Hegde CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

These living bridges are an example of biomimicry. Biomimicry is when humans observe nature and imitate its forms, structures and processes to develop human systems and products.

bio = life

 mimicry = imitation

Humans and our economies are part of nature, not separate from it. Our economies must behave like natural systems if we want to survive and thrive in harmony with other humans and with all other life on Earth. Designers around the world take inspiration from nature to make better products and improve human interactions with each other and nature. We can create and renew the conditions that support life, just like the rest of the living world does.

How does nature work?

The Biomimicry Institute has identified a number of overlapping and connected patterns in nature that support its regenerative properties. These Unifying Patterns in Nature can help us think about some principles we can use to redesign our economies to be more regenerative.

Figure 2. Leaves using solar energy to make food

(Credit: Gexydaf CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nature uses only the energy it needs

Nature uses only the energy and matter it needs from freely available renewable resources like sunlight and wind in order to find food, grow, and build shelter (Section 1.2.5)

Likewise, our economies must use renewable energies like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy (Section 1.2.3) and local materials wisely (Section 1.2.4). Sharing resources enables us to use less energy and matter to efficiently meet our needs.

Figure 3. A decomposing log providing nutrients to a forest.

(Credit: Ib Aarmo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nature recycles all materials

Decomposing waste from plants and animals becomes food or materials for others through natural cycles like the carbon cycle (Section 1.2.6). 

Our economies can minimise and recycle waste by designing systems and products that can return to biological cycles and technical cycles at the end of life in the circular economy (Section 1.4.2). 

Figure 4. Predator-prey relationships keep animal populations in balance in ecosystems.

(Credit: B. Crawford CC BY 2.0)

Nature optimises rather than maximises

Nature avoids excess growth of biomass or populations because resources are also needed for survival and reproduction. There are natural limiting factors in ecosystems (Section 1.2.5).

Likewise, human  economies should not grow forever and we must  respect the limits of Earth systems. Meeting the needs of all within planetary boundaries requires that we optimise resource use  for things that really matter (Section 1.3.5).

Figure 5. Many organisms exhibit mutualism

(Credit: Charles J. Sharpe CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nature provides mutual benefits

Organisms in nature often exhibit cooperative behaviour where interactions between organisms benefit all involved. This is called mutualism (Section 1.2.5).

Humans must also engage in mutualism with each other and with ecosystems. If we only take, and rarely give, our social and ecological systems will not be able to support human life long-term (Section 1.3.7).

Figure 6. Organisms provide feedback to each other to meet their needs.

(Credit: Randy Watson CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nature runs on information


is locally attuned and adaptive

Organisms and ecosystems send, receive and respond to information from their local surroundings to adapt and thrive. Reinforcing feedback and balancing feedback are important response mechanisms (Section S.x).

Human economic systems should also be responsive to environmental feedback, adapting to maintain balance and sustainability. Incorporating reinforcing and balancing feedback can help manage resources effectively and ensure resilience in the face of change.

Figure 7. Nature uses water-based chemicals and biodegradable forms.

(Credit: NOAA Photo Library CC BY 2.0)

Nature uses safe chemistry and materials

Organisms use chemical processes within and near their own cells, so must use water-based chemicals and structures that do no harm and are biodegradable.

Human economies should also use eco-friendly materials and processes to ensure economic activities do not damage Earth’s systems and support ecological balance.

Figure 8. Nature uses abundant and local resources for its forms and processes.

(Credit: Kyle Hovey CC BY-ND 2.0)

Nature uses abundant resources

Nature relies on local and plentiful resources. The most common materials used in nature come from the most abundant elements: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen (Section 1.2.6).

Human economic systems should prioritize local, abundant resources and minimise waste (Section 1.2.4), mimicking  nature's efficient use of materials and energy to respect Earth system limits.

Figure 9. Nature’s efficient forms follow function

(Credit: Loury CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nature uses form/shape to achieve function

Nature uses appropriate forms / shapes to achieve needed functions. This minimizes the energy needed to survive and thrive. In almost every case, a form you can identify in an animal or plant has a particular function.

Human product designs can mimic nature’s efficient forms to meet human needs with fewer materials and energy.

Figure 10. Nature can recover after a disturbance.(Credit: Phyllis Cooper CC0)

Nature is resilient

Resilience is the ability to recover after disturbances or significant changes in the local environment like fires or floods.  Natural systems are diverse, redundant, decentralised, and self-renewing. These qualities enable natural systems to function even when disturbed.

Likewise, our economies should offer diverse products and services, from decentralised and redundant sources to ensure human needs can be met even during economic, social, and ecological shocks. We should create conditions that support self-renewal and repair.

Our economies are not separate from nature, but are a part of nature. Understanding Nature’s Unifying Patterns can help us design economic systems that are in balance with and regenerate the ecological and social systems we depend on, building resilience. 

As Janine Beynus says in the video below, “a sustainable world already exists, we are now just beginning to open our eyes and realise that the answers to the questions we've been asking -- how do we live here sustainably? -- are all around us." The next sections will explain regenerative economic design in greater detail.

Activity 1.4.1

Concept: Regeneration

Skills: Research skills (information literacy), communication skills

Time: Varies depending on option

Type: Individual, pairs or larger group

Option 1: Diving deeper into Nature’s Unifying Patterns

40+ minutes, depending on how much sharing there is

Nature uses only the energy it needs and relies on freely available energy

Nature recycles all materials

Nature is resilient to disturbances

Nature tends to optimise rather than maximise

Nature provides mutual benefits

Nature runs on information

Nature is locally attuned and responsive

Nature uses chemicals and materials that are safe for living beings

Nature builds using abundant resources, using rare resources only sparingly

Nature uses shape to determine functionality

If students are working in a class group, and you have more than 40 minutes to spend on it, this activity could be organised as a Jigsaw, with expert groups focusing on one unifying pattern of nature to teach other students in the jigsaw group.

Option 2: Discussion

25 minutes

The text makes the claim near the start that Nature’s Unifying Patterns overlap and are connected. With the list of the patterns in front of you, take 5 minutes to consider connections and overlaps between the patterns. After the 5 minutes, discuss with a partner or as a larger class, documenting ideas as you go.

Why is it important that Nature’s Unifying Patterns are connected and overlapping?

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Biomimicry Institute. (n.d.). Biomimicry Toolbox. https://toolbox.biomimicry.org/

Watson, J., and Davis, W. (2020). Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism. Taschen.

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.4.1 Biomimicry for economic design

monsoon: a seasonal wind in the region of South and South East Asia, bringing heavy rain between May and September

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

biomimicry: when humans observe nature and imitate its forms, structures and processes to develop human systems and products

system: a set of interdependent parts that organise to create a functional whole

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs

regenerate: to restore or strengthen ecosystems or social systems

renewable resource: natural resources that can be regenerated in a human timescale

renewable energy: energy from sources that are continuously available or regenerate quickly

hydropower: a renewable energy source that uses falling or running water

geothermal energy: a renewable energy source that uses the heat produced inside the Earth's crust

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

efficiency: the ratio of resource inputs compared to outputs

decompose: to break something into smaller parts, especially organic materials

carbon cycle: the movement of carbon between Earth's atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere

biological cycle: the part of the circular economy that involves biodegradable materials

technical cycle: the part of the circular economy that involves non-biodegradable materials

circular economy: an economic system where nature is regenerated and materials are kept in circulation through maintenance, reuse, recycling, composting, and other processes

biomass: organic matter

limiting factor: an abiotic or biotic factor that limits the size of a population of organisms

planetary boundaries: the limits of human disturbance to the nine Earth systems that sustain all life

optimise: make the best use of something

mutualism: an interaction between organisms where both organisms benefit

reinforcing feedback: a situation where change in a system causes further changes that amplify the original change which can lead to tipping points in a system

balancing feedback: a situation where feedback produces change in the opposite direction

feedback: when outputs of a system circle back to impact inputs to the same system

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

biodegradable: able of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and returning to Earth's biological systems

redundant: something that is repetitive, not necessary under normal circumstances, but useful in unusual circumstances

decentralised: located away from a center, especially having dispursed powers or functions

sustainable: meeting human needs within planetary limits