Evaluating Life’s Principles

Life’s Principles is a creative commons tool developed by Biomimicry 3.8.  It summarizes repeated patterns and principles followed by >99% of organisms and ecosystems on earth.  In total, the tool outlines six major principles and 20 sub-principles. According to Biomimicry 3.8, if our products, processes, and policies embody Life’s Principles, they will fit seamlessly within the larger natural system.


Photo Credit: Biomimicry 3.8

Life’s Principles has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool for facilitating biomimetic design.  How can we improve this evolving tool’s accessibility and thereby its utility?  This question encouraged us to critically evaluate Life’s Principles, starting arbitrarily with the principle “integrate development with growth.”  We chose a single principle for focused evaluation, but our methods of analysis could be successfully applied to each of the other five principles.  Through our evaluation we hoped to identify ambiguities with the tool in its present form and suggest modifications.  The group undertaking the evaluation was a diverse mix of people with different cultural and academic backgrounds.

Biomimicry 3.8 defines “integrate development with growth,” and its three sub-principles as follows:

Integrate development with growth – balance invests in supporting systems and structures with investments in size increases

i) Combine modular and nested components – fit multiple units within each other progressively from simple to complex

ii) Build from the bottom up – assemble components one unit at a time

iii) Self-organize – Create conditions to allow the components to interact in concert to move towards an enriched system

These definitions are a good starting point, but do not provide enough detail or clarity for easy application.  The tool should reference expanded definitions.  If our interpretation of “integrate development with growth” and its sub principles is correct, expanded definitions might read:

Integrate Development with Growth – Adapt strategy to environmental conditions by balancing resource investments in increasing size, constructing associated support systems, and differentiating function.  Strategy may be optimized through more than one combination of resource investments, as success is not a single state, but rather a measurement relative to environmental conditions

i) Combine Modular and Nested Components – Organize functional units of graduated size into a whole comprised of sets and subsets.  The form of the whole will be capable of adapting readily to changing conditions. Removing a small quantity of units will not compromise overall function.

ii) Build from the Bottom Up – Establish a physical and/or social environment in which component parts may self-organize to form a cooperative system of indeterminate form.

iii) Self-Organize – Allow internally driven assembly of component parts into a cooperative system.  A self-organized system assumes form based on the properties of the space in which it forms, and exhibits emergence (the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system)

[We see a clear overlap between “build from the bottom up” and “self-organize.”  Self-organization is the action which occurs in the physical or social environment which is built from the bottom up.]

We also think Life’s Principles should reference freely available biological and built examples of each principle and sub-principle. Again assuming our interpretation of “integrate development with growth” and its sub-principles is correct, illustrative examples could include:

Integrate Development with Growth

Biological Example: A caterpillar in the larval stage eats many times its own body weight to get the nutrition required for rapid growth.  Release of the PTTH hormone triggers the caterpillar to quit eating and growing and find a place to pupate.  In the pupa stage, development is prioritized over growth.  The cocooned caterpillar’s body is liquefied by digestive fluids and the body is restructured to form a winged butterfly.

Built Example: The HUB provides sustainable business people with physical, virtual, and social spaces for collaboration. The HUB also organizes networking events and training opportunities, to encourage development of synergies between groups.  Headquarters invests money in developing the infrastructure required to support local initiators who want to open a sustainable business HUB in their area.  Every HUB has to be self-sufficient after a year or two, and be ran, managed, and financially controlled entirely by the local initiators. Growth is organic.  If a new hub opens and is not successful, it closes, without major resistance or strategic attempts to keep it at float.  If it opens and is successful it remains open.

science daily

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Cathy Keifer

i) Combine modular and nested components

Biological Example: Hexagonal cells in a honeycomb can be joined together in any number of ways to form a hive.

Human Example: BUILD is a lightweight modular shelving system based on a single geometric unit. The versatile blocks can be stacked up to suit a wide range of functions – from shelves to partitions, depending on user needs.

built shelves

ii) Build from the bottom up

Biological Example: Sensory receptors transform environmental stimuli into neural messages.  The brain links together individual neural messages to create larger systems of information until top-level understanding is built.

Human Example: A Lego toy set is a collection of colorful interlocking plastic bricks, gears, connectors, and axles that can be assembled and connected in many ways to construct vehicles, buildings, and robots.  Vehicles, buildings, and robots can be assembled to form Lego cities, etc.

lego city

iii) Self-organize

Biological Example:  Fish school to avoid predators.  Schooling tricks some predators into thinking the school of fish is one larger organism, and it also makes it harder for predators to focus on and target a single individual.  Schooling is not a choreographed behavior.  Each fish is merely responding to small changes in their position relevant to their immediate neighbor.  The collective whole is emergent.

Built Example: Text messaging language, enabled by cell phone programming, is a self-organized phenomenon.  Text messaging applications provided a venue for the self-organization of a new dialect, characterized as “writing like you speak.”

nat geo

Photo Credit: National Geographic

How else could we improve the overall utility of Life’s Principles as a tool for facilitating biomimetic design?  How could this tool be improved for your specific needs? Are there common problems, such as difficulties with the terminology?  Do you think  freely available examples of each principle and sub-principle with accompanying images would help the tool reach a broader audience? Or perhaps the ambiguity that the tool possesses in its current form is beneficial in that it encourages serious biomimicry practitioners to do independent research that will support a more personal understanding?


  1. rmaccowan

    Emily – a bit late, but I do think that having the tool as ambiguous as possible lets the user be more creative. It can then be adapted to suit the needs of the individual / field. I am currently working on my PHD on nature-inspired design by developing my own model.

    • Emily Kennedy

      You make a good point. There are definitely some advantages to the tool’s open-endedness. However, I think too much flexibility can be a bad thing (if it’s everything, it might be nothing). I certainly don’t think biomimicry is in need of a hard-and-fast, regimented methodology, but I don’t think current, ad hoc approaches unlock biomimicry’s full value. It’s my belief that a little more structure will help biomimicry more consistently produce innovative solutions. I’d love to learn more about your doctoral research!

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