In India, people built bridges from living tree roots – letting the plant do the difficult job of crossing the river. Credit

+ It's time to re-evaluate traditional, naive views of nature as being static, balanced and harmonic.

Although many people have tried to improve our relationship with nature, few have asked the elementary question: What is nature?

Our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonic is naive and up for reconsideration. In the Netherlands, for example, every square metre of ground is a man-made landscape: original nature is nowhere to be found. Even the ‘Green Heart’ at the centre of the most densely populated part of The Netherlands is actually a medieval industrial area, which was originally reclaimed for turf cutting. Our ‘nature reserves’ are thus in fact ‘culture reserves’ that have been shaped by human activity.

Although technology and nature are traditionally seen as in opposition, they now appear to be merging or even trading places. Genetically manipulated tomatoes are redder, rounder, larger, and could even be healthier than those from our gardens. There are hypoallergenic cats, and nature reserves are laid out with beautiful variety.

Everyone knows that old nature is being more and more radically cultivated. However, the question is whether the opposite is also possible. I think it is. In contrast to optimistic progress, thinkers who believe human beings’ control of nature will steadily increase until we are ultimately able to live without it, I believe that the idea that we can completely dominate nature is an illusion. Nature is changing along with us.

So we must no longer see ourselves as the anti-natural species that threatens and eliminates nature, but rather as catalysts of evolution. With our urge to design our environment we create a ‘next nature’ that is as unpredictable as ever: wild software, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers.

From this new way of looking at things stems the design methodology of guided growth. If you understand that the technologies you create will ultimately grow beyond your control, then you set about designing them in new ways – rejecting the modernist idea that we can understand something and create a blueprint to master it.

Instead it’s time to take a hint from old nature and teach our buildings and products how to grow, adapt, and repair themselves. Using the principle of guided growth, fruits manufacture their own packaging, and chairs are designed to mimic bones. Even our buildings may eventually have the same urge to eat and breathe as the residents inside.

Some ideas will remain the domain of visionary technology – for example, I doubt whether we’ll ever sit on crystal chairs like those grown by Japanese artist Tokujin Yoshioka. But the principles of guided growth were understood by previous generations, who embraced and used complexity. In India, people built bridges from living tree roots – letting the plant do the difficult job of crossing the river. And in Europe, traditional laid hedges saw people bending the will of plants to form livestock-proof barriers.

After a modernist age rejected such ideas in favour of steel and concrete, we’re once again recognising the potential of learning from old nature to grow solutions to our problems. Surgeons in Sweden have already successfully transplanted a fully synthetic, tissue-engineered organ – a trachea– into a man with late-stage tracheal cancer. And a ‘sand engine’ is being used to protect the Dutch coastline. Using the natural motion of wind, waves and currents, it spreads 21.5 million cubic metres of sand along the coastline, making it broader and safer.

Given the potential of ideas like these, isn’t it time we embraced guided growth so that the ‘built’ becomes the ‘born’?