Biomimicry & Dynamic Non-equilibrium: Prepare, leverage and bounce back

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons: Crowthorne Forest, Timo Newton-Syms from Helsinki, Finland and Chalfont St Giles, Bucks, UK. CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Dynamic non-equilibrium means things change unpredictably, at times more drastically than others, but change nonetheless. To the non-biomimic, it’s easiest explained by the common phrase we can all relate to – shit happens. You don’t know when, but you know at some point all your best laid plans…yep, gone to hell in a handbasket. Well, not only has shit happened, but it’s hit the fan, so I thought I’d acknowledge it, write about, and hopefully get motivated.

In biomimicry we consider dynamic non-equilibrium a fact of life for any system and it must be taken into consideration in any design (because as we all know, all designs live within a larger context!). Dealing with change is no easy matter. More often than not, the human response in the face of change is to hold on tighter and ignore the increasing warning signals, eventually resulting in huge releases in the system. Fires? Don’t let them burn. Until you’ve built up so much fuel you can’t stop them anymore and the fires kill everything. Floods? Channel them. Until you can’t control the water anymore and entire cities are under water for months. You get my drift.

Image Source: Wikipedia

A current acknowledgement of this phenomena in human systems is the addition of the concept of “resilience” to the sustainability conversation. Resilience is the ability to successfully respond to and recover from acute shocks (think floods, earthquakes, disease outbreaks, spike in oil prices) and chronic stresses (think high unemployment, continuing crime and violence, chronic water shortages, uncertain regulatory climate). The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative is an outgrowth of this conversation for helping cities deal with what we biomimics call dynamic non-equilibrium. Businesses’ increasing attempts to come to grip with system risks is another outgrowth of recognition of the need for “resilience.”

There is also the potential to develop elements within your system to take advantage of disruption, to actually accelerate growth of the system in a new preferred direction. It’s not always the case that the preferred direction is to the benefit of the entire system (think the strategies and outcomes covered in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). What outside events might disrupt your systems? And how do you plan for responding to and recovering from them? And what are the opportunities for new growth that arise out of a disturbance?

And then…boom!

I’ve been experiencing dynamic non-equilibrium lately. Illness, holidays, work deadlines, and a sick babysitter are the elements of chaos (acute shocks) I’ve been grappling with. Hence the lack of posts for several weeks. I’m still figuring out how to make the blog work with the uncertainty that each day/week brings. It’s on my list of 2017 New Year’s resolutions!

I’m also recognizing that I was ill-prepared for the most recent mega disruption in my life and that of pretty much every other life in this country – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States (whether one is happy about it or not is beside the point, it’s still a disruption). I have been inexplicably unable to get myself to do anything beyond what I need to. I feel unmotivated and consumed by something I cannot put a finger on. It’s not just the daily barrage of news about Trump’s latest tweet or cabinet pick and the doom it spells for our country. This feeling started a couple months before November 8 actually, although it’s gotten worse since (a chronic stress as it turns out, and one that is just beginning since we have at least 4 more years of this disaster).

The closest I can come to understanding how I feel is this New York Times opinion piece by Neil Gross, in which the author discusses collective trauma.  “The concept of collective trauma was rooted in the thought of Émile Durkheim, a turn-of-the-20th-century French sociologist and an architect of the field. Durkheim argued that norms, values and rituals were the linchpins of social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.” In the article, Gross suggests that the (chronic stress of) loss of jobs in manufacturing and production resulting from globalization and automation is one trauma a group in our country is experiencing, while Trump’s win is another trauma (acute shock) to a different group of people. Gross concludes that, “If research on other collective traumas is any indication, it may take years, and a great deal of political imagination, for us to figure out where to go from here.”

I don’t know where to go from here. A good friend of mine from Biomimicry Australia, Jane Toner, suggested that perhaps those of us in biomimicry are already on the regeneration path of the adaptive cycle, while the old world is trying to conserve the status quo – a last grasp or gasp. Just like suppressing fire until a spark ignites that kills everything, or a waters that are channeled for so many miles that when the levees break the floods are catastrophic, I think we are in for one hell of a collapse and release stage of the cycle. The way we have been ignoring significant consequences of our current economic and social systems with the thought that future generations will brilliantly and seamlessly somehow figure it out, I’m guessing that Trump’s election and the other rumblings happening around the world (such as Brexit) are just the beginning of the current dynamics of increasing non-equilibrium. Forget the relative steady state. The question is, how will we prepare ourselves now to come out the other side of this cycle? What do we need to do to make sure our efforts at regeneration become the alternative?

How would nature do it?

Life deals with dynamic non-equilibrium all the time in a way that allows species to adapt to changing conditions, rebound from disruptions, and often take advantage of change. One Life’s Principle sums up nature’s overarching design principle (employed at all scales) for achieving resilience in the face of change – “embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization.”

But if we look to life more specifically regarding how to respond to, recover from or actually take advantage of disturbance, we can find numerous strategies at all scales. I’m thinking along the lines of my potential options – the urge to flee or or the reality of staying put. If you think of a fire in an ecosystem like a forest or a prairie, you have two general overarching scenarios that species have to deal with – those that can’t move (plants) and those that can (most everything but plants!).

We could all be animals that flee our homes. Perhaps I should migrate to another country for at least four years and come back when the system has rebounded enough that the resources I need are restored. Or maybe I flee and just don’t come back – make a new home somewhere else. But neither of these is easy, or even that appealing. Starting over somewhere new is really hard – new people, new cultures, new jobs, new systems and the risk that those systems may not be able to support me. And considering that the disruption we are facing will spill over beyond our borders, I’m not sure fleeing will work anyway.

Of course, for animals that can’t go far the reality of a charred landscape presents significant limitations – food gone, home possibly gone, cover vegetation gone. Risk of being picked off by predators? Waaaaaay up. It’s a dangerous world out there. But these animals aren’t the only ones staying put. Plants also can’t get up and run or fly away or hide, so they’ve developed an incredible array of adaptations to deal with and recover from a disturbance. So if we stay put and realize we can’t hide (even though we may want to!), what can plants teach us about dealing with and taking advantage of disruptions? Well, without going too in depth while still providing inspiration to keep keeping on, here are a couple thoughts.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons: A cypress prairie burns during a early spring prescribed fire, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
1 – Protect your roots.

Prairie plants have been dealing with fire for thousands of years. They have massive, deep, interconnected roots that store and share resources with wider communities within a rich soil. Those roots aren’t affected when fire burns off the exposed stalks, leaves and flowers. Thus they have sacrificial parts. But the part where life comes from – their roots – are protected underground where they continue to access stored resources and draw support from their community of plants, fungi, worms, ants and other microorganisms. Thus, it’s not just the individual plant roots that are protected, but their community and the associated life-giving resource flows are safe too. So in the face of this disaster, what can we sacrifice? And what must we as individuals and communities protect at all costs to continue living such that we can rebound from disruption?

2 – Have resources ready to sprout new growth in the sudden opening.

Whether it’s a new light gap in a forest or a fire in a prairie, disruption brings a new abundance of resources. The question is, how do plants prepare to take advantage of sudden new resources made available by disruption?

Some, such as pioneer tree species in the tropics, produce a boatload of small seeds that spread everywhere in the hopes that they will be there when that abundance of light occurs in a light gap – being in the right place at the right time. By increasing the number of seeds, the plant increases the chances of getting lucky…so, not so much leaving it to chance.

Others, like the giant sequoia, produce seeds that are triggered by disruption – in the giant sequoia’s case, fire – so that they initiate growth right away and beat others to the punch. The giant sequoias have fire resistant bark to protect the trees, and the rising heat from the fire causes the tiny cones high up in the canopy to open cones and litter seeds to a freshly cleared ground. Fires clear out underbrush and thus reduce competition for sunlight for the seedlings as well as a nice bed of fertilizer (ash).

And still others, like the aspen, have adapted to changing conditions by developing strategies that allow an aspen stand to actually benefit from disturbances such as fire, mudslides and avalanches. After a disturbance in which trees in an aspen stand die, the root system, which is continuous and protected underground, is untouched and able to immediately send up new suckers for rapid regrowth and recolonization, beating out other trees that may have been encroaching on the aspen stand. In addition, because one organism’s tree stand may cover a large area, portions of the mature tree stand may remain untouched by the disturbance. Lastly, seedlings from fertilized seeds will often germinate and grow after a disturbance.

So what are the opportunities with this disruption? What is our “sunlight”? What is our “ash”? E.g., what are the abundant resource(s) that will come out of the disruption ahead? (This is a tough one to imagine for me at the moment.) What are the low-investment “seeds” we can spread to increase the chance (and not rely on luck) that they will be in the right place to flourish after this disruption devastates our systems? How can we develop “seeds” or “suckers” that are triggered by disruption so they are ready to take advantage of the new opportunities, and how and what do we need to feed them to make sure they succeed?

3 – Finally, support diversity.

Invasive species often have more success in systems that are in decline or are disrupted, but it’s harder to get established in diverse, stable and thriving ecosystems (see Invasion Ecology by Julie L. Lockwood, Martha F. Hoopes, Michael P. Marchetti). Perhaps our institutional bureaucracy, while sometimes maddening because of its…bureaucracy, is perfect for thwarting quick change from sudden invasions like Trump. And perhaps the very diversity of our country’s citizens that Trump and his supporters seem to revile will provide significant enough resistance to make it less likely Trump will succeed in shoving unwanted and uncontested change down our throats. This diversity also forms the basis for something potentially totally new – in ecosystems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts are diverse and connected in myriad ways. In preserving and being grounded in our diversity, not only might we stop the inferno, but perhaps we might come up with something the world has never seen.

Where do we go from here?

Of course the above thoughts are relatively superficial. The next questions to take biomimicry to the next level are, how do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?

Any biologists out there who can help? We need you! Understanding how it’s done by fellow species is where the rubber hits the road and the really interesting learning begins. I’d love to hear your thoughts and have answers at the ready to take advantage of the pending abundance of resources after the crash. Let’s plan for regeneration.


  1. Thank you for this great starting-point, Rachel — such nutritious food for thought!
    For the weedy, pioneer species strategy, I suspect that one of the most important things to think about as ‘seeds’ are small packets of information that are inexpensive and easy to broadcast (things just like your posting). The trick is to produce seeds/memes that can easily reach and germinate in the disturbed ground, then grow and reproduce successfully from there. If the disturbed ground in question is the disrupted and uncomfortable mental spaces that many of us find ourselves in, we need to consider what structure is most likely to reach such a target. What resources are likely to be available when the seed reaches that ground, to nourish and support its growth and reproduction?
    In terms of the prairie’s and aspen’s strategies, thinking deeply (pun mostly intended) about what safe, underground networks we already have in place is an important strategy. We can be grounded (ooh, there’s another) in the community connections we already have; strengthening this existing network, sharing resources, signaling one another about dangers and opportunities we have detected, we do the same work as the rhizosphere in many thriving ecosystems to preserve the resilience and diversity of the community. The idea that this rhizosphere must be protected from the devastating changes at the surface might be an argument in favor of finding ‘underground’ ways to keep these communities strong (be they old-fashioned face-to-face meetings or conscientious privacy measures and enhanced encryption of key electronic communications for more extended communities). I also really appreciate your question about ‘sacrificial parts’ – what can we safely give up to survive the time of crisis, without risking the roots? My inclination here is to think about the parts of our lives that we have normalized, but that on deeper consideration we could get by without (perhaps even do better without).
    (I’ve posted a link and my comments at my blog, too.)
    Happy holidays!

    • Rachel Hahs says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Michelle! I like the idea of our minds as disturbed ground. It would be interesting to draw parallels to understand what the new resources are (such as what is our equivalent of ash from fire or downed trees from a microblast?) to try to suss out opportunities to fuel growth of those memes. What is our fertilizer in a time like this? Is it in a form that’s easily accessible (like ash) or do we need decomposers to break it down (logs)?

      Your thoughts on the “underground” part of community being disconnected or separate from our connected internet lives is also fascinating to me – especially considering fungal networks have been called the “wood wide web”. Of course that’s one of the cool things about biomimicry – one natural model can inspire thinking in many directions. But being true to the science is key, so your point makes me wonder – are there different levels of interactions within ecosystem communities – are there elements of communities that are “offline” to a large degree? We always talk about how everything is connected…but what are the nuances? Would be fascinating to understand and perhaps think differently about our communities given our current messy acceleration into the age of the Internet!

      Understanding community – what is central to the functioning of successful communities, and the role of diversity – has been on my mind. Fodder for another post! Would love to know if anyone is doing a deep dive into any of these topics.

      • I expect the key resource/fertilizer would be work (time, creativity, energy) from people who are unemployed/underemployed in the present system as it is unraveling. I see these currently in two major classes: the overeducated (there is a remarkable overproduction of PhDs in academia relative to jobs available, at least in North America and Europe – perhaps I overestimate this because I’m in this dilemma personally, but see Peter Turchin on “elite overproduction” and the disenfranchised (those who worked in industries that have relocated or declined, such as manufacturing and mining; those millennials and post-millenials who have never had sufficient employment; those who have been through the prison/industrial complex). A third class may join us as the disruption spreads: those whose work depends on an affluent middle- and upper-middle class (many arts, non-profits, advertising, consulting, some legal professionals and some finance). If I tried to map these onto a metaphoric tree that represents the current culture, the overeducated are the flowers and seeds: their production was focused on the reproduction of the culture itself. The previously-employed disenfranchised are mostly the leaves: they were the closest to directly converting energy into the materials of the culture itself (I haven’t quite worked out how the incarcerated fit into this metaphor).The never-adequately-employed and/or formerly/currently-incarcerated are buds: their potential productivity has yet to be fully realized. The third group that depends on (and supports) the systems productivity and complexity… perhaps these are the living sap, redistributing the productivity of the leaves. In my metaphor, I think that the culture’s infrastructure includes both the functional-but-non-living durable structures of the tree’s woody parts (buildings, roads), and the living transportation network of xylem and phloem (communications channels, supply chains and transportation, markets and exchanges).
        How much effort by ‘decomposers’ would be needed for these different resources to break down and be available as nutrients to a new system? Leaves, buds and flowers are relatively easy to break down. That which is embodied in the woody parts of the tree, take much more specialized effort and energy to break down. Seeds in particular are designed to resist decomposition.
        I’m intrigued by your line of thinking about “elements of communities that are ‘offline'” – the first thing this made me think of was the idea of carbon and other nutrients that wait in soils for long stretches before being cycled back into the above-ground ecosystem (I’m afraid I don’t know all that much about soil ecosystems, however, so possibly even these are not so much ‘offline,’ as they are being actively swapped by microbial soil life).
        I’m looking forward to more development on these ideas by you, me and any/many others – this is definitely part of the “Great Work” ahead.

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