The power of observation is the first rule for many things: 1) Doing science, 2) Social manners, 3) Religious practices, and yes, innovation.
Observe? OK, but observe what? Start by observing what is around you. That observation has a biology is a reflection of the role the senses play. In some respect, it is a form of self-reflection – biological organisms reflecting on all the biology around us. I am thinking of how Henry David Thoreau wrote about his experiences in Nature. He used all his senses – hearing, vision, smell, taste and touch. So, in one sense, he was observing the obvious. But was he? Think also of the overwhelming complexity of Nature. I once had an arborist come to my house to check out some trees. There was an old, deformed, plum tree in the backyard. To keep or cut was a question. He proceeded to point out things on the tree I had never noticed before: A white cotton-like mold, and a moth of similar appearance, some other things growing on the bark. OK, I had noticed the lichens, but not these things. As a graduate of Cornell, he could only smile and suggest the combination of education and experience was necessary to be able to see what others miss.

Well, it was obvious to him, but it wasn’t obvious to me. This then becomes an observation on innovation. Nature offers an uncountable number of lessons to us, if we could only see them. So, the arborist adds the other dimensions, knowledge, and awareness. He was primed to look for these life forms. I was not. So, cognition is another tool for seeing the obvious.

However, there is another, more interesting, tool to consider: The capacity for surprise. We won’t know, but the fair question is: What did he miss? While he was busy identifying what he already knew, did he overlook something he did not know? Or, what if the mold was a slightly different species? He really did not question what he saw. However, if you have a capacity for surprise, you will question what you see. That is the more important observation. That is the observation that can start a new process of innovation. I say this in spite of the warnings about predicate logic as a form of fallacious thinking. Yes, just because two things look similar, they are not necessarily related either to each other or something seemingly in common.

This point is also a comment on biomimetics. There is the classic story of how Velcro was discovered. The story starts with a person annoyed with getting fox burrs on his clothing every autumn. In the 1940s, this person, George de Mestral who was Swiss engineer, decided to take a closer look. Under a microscope, Nature’s diabolical design became obvious. Incredibly tough little hooks on the end of stems making up the seed head of the plant.

So, being an engineer, he sought to imitate and improve on what Nature had created so long ago. That, we can say, is how the story of Velcro began. Notice that the process of discovery started with an observation, which then gave way to surprise which then sent him on a journey to make something practical and useful for other people.

Nature is often thought of as a source for inspired design. Will you open your eyes and observe things in Nature that take you by surprise?

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