By Corina Newsome, Community Engagement Manager
I’ve been thinking about community a lot lately. I, along with many of you, are feeling the effects the extended physical isolation, making us long for closeness with others more than usual. I also recently took the new position of Community Engagement Manager here at Georgia Audubon, a job centered around connecting, building, and enriching communities of people around a common goal: building places where birds and people thrive.
I’m also a scientist. I ask questions about the natural world and go to great lengths to find patterns that shed light on the answers. In those efforts, I’ve gotten a front row seat to witness just how many problems for which nature has created its own solutions. However, those solutions haven’t stopped at providing behavioral or morphological survival adaptations for the species which possess them—humans have started to key-in on nature’s playbook that is millions of years in the making.
Biomimicry, defined by the Biomimicry Institute as the “practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design problems” has brought about some of the very greatest advances in human technology. In the energy sector, the physical shapes of maple seeds and kingfishers provided the blueprint for harnessing wind energy. In the agricultural industry, food production has been maximized by learning from the natural growth pattern of prairies. Termites mounds have helped inform sustainable architecture. Mosquitoes’ adaptations for blood extraction have informed new technologies for medical equipment. There are countless examples of the ways in which nature has directly informed how we optimize our structures and operations across disciplines.
Humans are facing challenges that we have no real precedent for solving. Our solutions must address energy, food, medicine, along with many other dimensions of human survival. But there’s one dimension that encompasses them all: community. Every solution we craft, every plan we implement, is done so by people and for people; by communities and for communities. This necessarily begs the question: What can nature tell us about the best ways we should live, work, and problem solve in community? As you might guess, nature has quite a lot to tell us.
Billy Almon, a friend, incredible science storyteller, and astrobiofuturist, recently shared some of the most profound insights I have ever heard regarding this question, and looked to the birds for the answers. During a presentation earlier this year for the 100Kin10 Summit, Billy dove deep into the science of murmurations, a phenomenon seen in European Starlings. Anywhere between hundreds and tens of thousands of birds will fly together in highly coordinated formation. The problem they are trying to solve? Avoiding predation by a raptor that is threatening the flock. They fly in extremely close proximity with one another, turning on a dime to accomplish this feat.
How do they do it, and what can we learn from them? Billy described two major elements of flock dynamics during a murmuration that were particularly applicable to human communities. First, he explained that there is never a single bird that leads the flock’s direction for the entire duration of the murmuration. Different birds will take the lead depending on a number of factors, such as being the most familiar with the location through which they are flying at any given time. This allows the flock to move dynamically and nearly instantaneously. This element of flock coordination was particularly profound and has direct implications for communities collectively responding to problems. The ability to surrender leadership when another person’s strengths and perspectives are best suited to lead in a given moment gives that community the ability to respond quickly and most efficiently to the needs at hand; such agility can be crucial in times of crisis.
The second murmuration characteristic Billy described is that these large flocks of starlings are made up of individuals who are all responding and paying the most attention to the movement of birds closest to them. This allows for the accumulation of smaller, precise movements that produce the beautiful, fluid progression of the flock as a whole. I have begun to understand now more than ever the importance of knowing and responding to the needs of the communities immediately around me. In a society of stark divides, whether they be socioeconomic, racial, or of other natures, people can live completely unaware of the state of their own neighbors, being most drawn to solving problems far away. I can only imagine the kind of large-scale progress we could achieve by building relationships with and addressing the needs of the people in our own communities.
We have a lot of problems to solve, and a big world to think about. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to seek out and apply the solutions that nature has already crafted. My hope is that in this time of urgent problem solving, we would continue to ask: “What can nature tell us?”