How Nature Can Make Us Better Product Builders

employee working on laptop surrounded by plants

If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke

It is no coincidence that some of the world’s best product thinkers, designers, and builders share a non-traditional connection — a deep respect for nature. At Connected, we believe that nature provides much more than inspiration for beautiful designs — it transforms the way we think and work. In order to innovate in the age of AI and rapid advances in technology, we will need our most creative selves and that means reconnecting with nature. 

In this article, we hope to show you why humans are very much a part of the natural environment, and that through an understanding of nature we can arrive at better designs, products, and even a better understanding of ourselves. 

Although the increase in remote work and the worldwide restrictions due to the pandemic have limited our access to nature, there are still ways to build out a practice of paying tribute to nature – and reap the benefits.


Two Key Benefits of Exposure to Nature

Building innovative products requires creativity and the ability to think long term. Exposure to nature provides us with two key benefits:

  • One study showed that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by 50%. [ref]
  • Exposure to nature also makes us less impulsive and helps us make better long-term decisions. [ref]

The Connection Between Cognitive Overload and Nature

Let’s do a quick experiment. Take a second to answer the following question:

“If I were to offer you $100 now, or $150 in 90 days, what would you choose?”

In one study, participants who had either been in a natural environment (or simply looked at photos of a natural environment) were more likely to make the more rational and beneficial decision: wait for the $150. 

Why? One reason is that cognitive overload tends to bias us in favour of short-term rewards, and exposure to natural environments reduces cognitive overload. 

Some other benefits of exposure to nature include improved mood, memory, and attention, and lower stress. 

But the best part? Nature doesn’t even have to be real for us to benefit from it (though the effects are greater if it is). We can thank technology for bringing us closer to the sounds of birds, views of a jungle, and experiencing synesthesia through wearable technology and screen.

From Inspiration to Creation

Looking to nature for inspiration has produced some of the most innovative products, blurring the line between technology and nature. At the same time, our connection with the natural world has become tenuous. As cities sprawl and lives become busier, opportunities to explore nature are becoming few and far between — but we are all finding new ways to do it.

People have been inspired by what surrounds us for centuries, so let’s look at some of the best innovations that are leveraging nature and technology together:

From left to right: Natural spaces, natural materials, and natural products.
  1. Natural spaces — Bat-friendly city: A Dutch town’s Zuidhoek-Nieuwkoop new red street lights are designed to make sure they don’t bother bats – and are just as helpful to humans as regular white lights. Read more

Challenge: How might the future of integrating nature into city planning look? 

  1. Natural materials  — Bio mask: Created by Garrett Benisch and Elizabeth Bridges of Sum Studio, Xylinum mask, is made of bacterial cellulose – a by-product of a common bacterium xylinum acetobacter. It is reusable — it will break down as easily as household vegetables. The translucent material is more social-friendly as people can see the smile and read the lips of the wearer. 

Challenge: As technology is progressing and our collective abilities grow, how might we use existing natural byproducts to solve modern problems?

  1. Natural products — Your DNA gets materialized: Called Dot One (a reference to the .1 percent of our genetic code that’s unique), the company takes information from a cheek swab and turns it into glitchy representations of a human’s DNA on scarves, posters, and family trees. 

Challenge: As we learn more about our real selves, down to the actual chromosome, how can we use that wisdom to empower people to live fuller, healthier lives? 


Closing Thoughts

Knowing the benefits or nature and understanding the importance of blending how we build with a respect for the natural world is an important first step in designing the next generation of products. We see nature as an inspiration but nature also needs our support. As we discover just how powerful our product solutions can be, the next step is building them with, for, and inspired by nature. 

This article is a summary of a presentation delivered at a Creative Mornings workshop earlier this year.

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