Learning Innovation from Nature – Guest Post by Sophia Sanchez

When John Dewey, the philosopher and educational reformer said, education is not preparation for life; education is life itself, it emphasized in a way, the underlying fact that education is lifelong. As we spend a predominant part of adult life working to make a living, understanding the difference between plain vanilla work, and purposeful work is very important.

What can be more purposeful than understanding the world we live in, and solving the problems we have in a sustainable way? This can span from being a small part of our life to our whole purpose of life.

Nature provides for all its creatures, and has existed for millions of years, whereas with our thoughtless fiddling we seem to be rapidly creating ecological problems which eventually puts at risk our very existence. Air and water, two very basic and free elements intrinsic to human existence, are extensively polluted. Water has a price today, and air might be bottled in some decades. Maybe it’s time to give more purpose to our lives, by first understanding how nature does things, and then following in her wake?

Human innovations – big and small

Humankind has been evolving for thousands of years. From bipedalism to sending humans to outer space, our journey has been remarkable. From simple twigs and stones as tools, we have learnt forging, manufacturing with high heat and pressure, setting up factories, automating them, and now we are int0 additive manufacturing, where we can digitally print things.

To equip people to support these endeavors, we created an education system over the last few centuries. This too is changing as the demands of students and business have morphed. Technology has evolved to give the teaching community a great reach via radio, TV, and the Internet. Students get to have virtual homework help, hear wonderful professors via MOOCs,  listen to podcasts as they drive, and even complete Ivy League college certificate courses from the affordable comfort of their homes.

As we urbanized and started living in dense clusters, we solved many of our medical problems with breakthroughs in antibiotics, vaccines, and now we speak of cutting-edge prenatal gene therapy for foetuses before they are born!

Settling and farming for food was a big step for homo sapiens who were nomadic. Farming led to storage of produce, managing water and domestication, keeping animals and pests out, creating seed banks and sacred groves, and understanding climate. This created time for leisure and thinking. Over decades, we used this to get more out of everything. We lived healthy lives in sync with nature but with our innovations and packaging for convenience, our young have lost touch with nature. Food is a basic need and this ties in with everything important on the planet in one way or the other. By creating a moat between our young and nature, we are doing them a disservice.

Nature’s innovations – big and small

There’s a lot of manufacturing in nature. We need to get the kids to see it. Hard clam shells are created with low pressure and easily available materials. Darwin’s bark spider from Madagascar spews out one of the strongest biological materials ever documented by humans, and it can span a river. How do creatures at the bottom of the ocean bear the immense weight of water? What are they made of? We need to get children to wonder at how nature can do all this without any pollution.

Does nature have an education system? We are just exploring the tip of the iceberg – ants running in tandem with other ants, birds being taught to fly by parent birds, chimp mothers teaching how to use tools, cheetahs teaching their young to hunt, meerkats improving their food foraging time by teaching their young to handle scorpions, elephant matriarchs teaching younger elephants about paths to water, etc. That’s education. In fact, human beings are just getting educated about our fellow species and the in-built sophistication of their interaction with their environment.

Animals, birds and other creatures don’t go to a doctor, but eat differently to solve their medical problems. They eat something special or just stay hungry until their body heals on its own. Dogs routinely eat specific plant matter, and we now believe it’s to help with their digestion. Mountain gorillas and chimpanzees regularly eat clay which helps bind pathogens, curbing diarrhea and working like an antacid. Elephants in Kenya will go on a trip to mine and eat the natural salt inside Mount Elgon, to shore up on their sodium needs.

Food is a basic need for all living creatures to fulfill their energy needs. Plants bask in the sun and some creatures kill, while others forage. Ants farm fungus, while fungus absorb nutrients from their surrounding tissue (dead or alive). Birds go fishing, while fish eat plankton. We see symbiosis and we see brutality. But there is always a harmonious balance in nature built on a bedrock of innovation. We might think a predator will wipe out and destroy the defenceless grazers, but in Yellowstone, reintroduction of the wolves did reduce the grazers, but a balance was achieved, and it brought back rich diversity in many unimagined ways.

Innovate to stay relevant

As said earlier, humans have been wonderful innovators, and we have learnt a great deal from nature. We did not hesitate to use poop pills to repopulate good gut bacteria in cases of severe intestinal tract infections, when other treatments failed. But, we need more. Much more.

Education has to become real and relevant. We need to understand our problems and what causes them. Then we should look for solutions which do not by themselves create problems for our existence. A manufacturing process is not fantastic just because it efficiently and cost-effectively manufactures; it’s effluent treatment itself might cost us an arm and a leg. The Cuyahoga river had to burn for an environmental revolution to start and for us to understand that it was imperative to keep our waters clean. If sustainable living is the goal, we need to look for innovations inspired by nature. For this, parents, caretakers, and teachers, must lead children to explore our planet with fresh eyes.


Change is inevitable. To protect the planet for future generations while building a sustainable life, we will need to make the right changes. Here are the basic three:

  • A new generation of sustainable innovators have to lead the planet to learn from nature and live sustainably.
  • We need to change the way we eat to protect our only home in the vast coldness of space.
  • Human beings need to understand that the way forward is to live in harmony with nature by building a bioeconomy which will help us solve challenges like unsustainable industry, unequal distribution of food, dependence on fossil-fuels etc.

Think out of the box – just get outdoors and learn from nature’s blueprint. It is the future.


About Sophia:

Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor. She is a passionate educator and blogs about education on her personal blog. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When Sophia is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking.

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