Forbes | This Entrepreneur Is Learning From Nature How To Design A City

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Melissa Sterry (Courtesy Interface “Beautiful Thinkers”.)

Melissa Sterry is a Design Scientist and founder of Bionic City, a creative platform connecting those who research and practice biodesign, which seeks to better adapt human life and solve problems through the application of patterns and strategies observable in nature. Sterry’s passion for the preservation of biodiversity, informs her quest to learn “how nature would design a city”.  Currently completing a PhD at the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research group at the University of Greenwich in London, Sterry has shared her research insights in over sixty talks and workshops worldwide.

Pivotal Moment of Reinvention

2009 was a pivotal year for me. Clocking in an average 100-110 hour working week, leading or co-leading several projects, juggling various committee roles both in the UK and overseas, having not taken a holiday in several years, something had to give. I was busy, very, but felt unfulfilled. I wanted new opportunities to learn and evolve my thinking and perspective.

Simultaneously, several conversations I had around that time led me to feel that the imperative to tackle sustainability issues, and in particular biodiversity loss, which was greater than I had previously conceived. I edited my roles and responsibilities, drew up an R&D program to inform my vision, and enlisted a mentor. Less is more—having focused my efforts my productivity level is higher.

Moonshot Goal

The past several years I’ve undertaken a colossal study spanning several hundred papers, books, reports, and articles, together with field trips, workshops, and more, to ask the question how we can build urban resilience to major natural hazards. More specifically, the study has focused on how flora and fauna species have evolved to not merely survive, but to thrive in conditions perceived as inhospitable to humanity. What amazes me as I do my research is the talent, the generosity, and the spirit of my peers near and far. In, and of themselves, the challenges humanity faces may be truly colossal, but never before have we had such ample means to bring us together to meet those challenges.

Cause that Matters

Biodiversity is more or less universally taken for granted, but our beautiful ‘blue dot’ is losing that which took many millions of years to evolve. Sir David Attenborough observed that each of the species on Earth is a different solution to the “problem of staying alive”– born of a global R&D process that’s been underway for some 3.8 million years or more. In biodiversity we have a database of evolving prototypes that can illustrate possible, sometimes very exotic and extraordinary, solutions to the many difficult challenges we now face. My dearest hope is that humanity comes to realize how lucky we are and how the various species about this world ALL deserve our whole-hearted effort to ensure that in the event they do become extinct, we – humanity – are not to blame.


Microscopic study of the material of a natural sponge (Melissa Sterry)

First Job

Since my mid-teens I’ve more or less juggled three to four jobs at a time. At 15, I was holding down a handful of jobs outside of school, including my first freelance branding and design commission, which I landed when the editor of a consumer magazine saw my portfolio and recommended me to the client. Other jobs that same year included waitress, office admin assistant, shop assistant and fruit picker. Then, as now, it wasn’t so much a case of jumping from one job to another, as continually nurturing my skills folio and network by means of opening up new opportunities.

Best Advice

My school Head of House, Mr. Williams, a wise, observant and good-humored man, said that one should never forget that the higher you aim, the greater the distance that you may fall, and that if that time comes you really mustn’t be too hard on yourself. Aged 14, the notion of failure was alien to me. When that moment did arrive, Mr. Williams’ advice spurred me to pick myself up, dust myself down and start over, and over and over again.

Influential Business Book

When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures, by Richard D. Lewis. My fascination with different belief systems and cultures goes back a long way, but the older I've become, the more I’ve realized the value in diversity, and have come to appreciate different cultural perspectives. When Cultures Collide provides unique and invaluable insights that help to make sense of the complex global society we now find ourselves amidst.

Another book I’d recommend is Building the Future by Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds, which gives a no punches pulled insight into the challenging reality of launching a first-to-market start up at the edge of innovation. However, peruse the shelves of my bookcase and you’ll find very few business books. What you will instead find is umpteen books on the sciences, arts, and humanities, from natural history to anthropology, philosophy to architecture. Business is something that, for better or worse, as a rule, I’ve learned on the job.

Valuable Mentor

My mother has ceaselessly supported me in achieving my hopes and dreams. She is smart, good humored, humble and kind. An outstanding role model she has overcome every adversity with intelligence and integrity and she acts with compassion and generosity.

My late Uncle Mike was also influential. His knowledge was wide-ranging and profound. A passionate environmentalist, with a deep interest in philosophy and culture, he cared not for material goods, nor for status, nor power, but for people and planet and he cared for them greatly.


I try to have at least some down time every day. Most days I’ll set aside around 20 minutes to engage in some kind of informal study of nature. On a clear night there’s nothing I love more than stargazing. I like to dip my toes in a variety of creative activities, and together with various papers and books on my desk, you’ll invariably find a selection of micro-experiments, which today comes in the form of an investigation into the process of crystallization inspired by a recent trip to the extraordinary Salina Turda salt mine in Romania.

This post originally published at Forbes

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