Can we learn from nature to improve our urban environments?

December 3, 2019

A dandelion pokes out of a pile of fallen leaves. Ukrainians have an annual problem of what to do with the tonnes of dead leaves that accumulate in autumn. Traditionally, the leaves are burned, but this causes a smog problem that was particularly bad in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv this year. But a new process developed by a Ukrainian inventor seeks to turn over a profit from old leaves by converting them into “leaf paper.” Photo: Yuliia Samus / UNDP Ukraine

Across the world, cities are growing bigger. By 2050, according to UN estimates, approximately 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The general migration from rural to urban areas, combined with overall population growth and the increasing impact of climate change are putting stresses on our cities that they were never built to handle.

In Ukraine, there are additional pressures from armed conflict, the displacement of 1.4 million people, and old Soviet infrastructure crumbling after years of underinvestment.

Solving these problems – making our cities sustainable and liveable – will require curiosity, and a willingness to embrace change and innovations!

Natural tech

Usually, when people talk about innovations, they mean technologies: artificial intelligence, IT, hi-tech and more. They rarely mention social innovations (e.g. inclusive design solutions for people with visual impairments). And there is another less well-known but very promising sphere – looking for innovation in nature.

The basic idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems and global challenges we face. Animals, plants, and germs are remarkable engineers. After billions of years of "research and development," nature has found the secrets of survival, sometimes in the most difficult conditions.

So, biomimicry, bio-design, and nature-based solutions are approaches that could help us find sustainable solutions to today’s challenges. That is why UNDP Accelerator Lab in Ukraine is launching a new area – Innovation by Nature.

Read more about what cities can learn from nature here.

Inspired by nature

Many Ukrainians are already actively working with this idea, in a variety of ways. For example, “re-leaf paper” is a solution by a young Ukrainian entrepreneur, who has worked out a way to turn fallen leaves into paper, closing the loop as natural ecosystems do. There is no “waste” in an ecosystem – it is always a resource for some organism.

The “leaf paper” is of comparable quality to traditional wood-pulp paper, it solves the problem of what to do with piles of dead autumn leaves in cities that are currently being burned. The notion of burning leaves and other organic garden matter is deeply engraved into the daily lives of Ukrainian people. However, the practice of open burning creates serious public health and environmental consequences. The Accelerator Lab team is aware of this issue and is currently working towards mapping solutions. In the following months, UNDP Accelerator Lab in Ukraine plans to partner with a variety of stakeholders including the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, UNDP India AccLab,, and Internews to design and organize experiments in various communities in Ukraine. The experiments will showcase the most efficient and effective solutions to end open burning practices in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Semen Polomanyi, the founder of the Zemlia architectural agency, is working on ways to protect Ukrainian cities from the effects of climate change, including flooding, creating so called “city-sponge” solutions.

That later problem is also of interest to a group of urbanists called Agents of Change (A3), who are looking at ways to release and open up small rivers and streams in cities, long concreted over and channelled into pipes and tunnels, so as to provide more natural drainage and protect cities from flash flooding, drain away storm water, and increase city liveability.

Read about some of Ukraine’s nature-inspired inventors here.

Partnership for sustainable cities

Cooperation is better than competition. In nature, symbiosis, co-evolution and synergies are the main mechanisms that bring success to ecosystems.

We believe the same holds for human societies, so we also aim to bring established enthusiasts and newcomers together in the search for nature-based solutions, creating a community in the field to explore how city problems in Ukraine can be solved by using nature.

We started building this community at the Urbanyna Festival, were we shared the ideas behind “Innovation by Nature” with 600 festival participants.

Next, UNDP teamed up with the embassies of four Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark) to hold the Nordic Sustainable City Exhibition, showcasing some of the nature-based solutions.

As part of the exhibition, we (together with A3, and GreenWave) organized a two-day City Safari, attracting some 200 participants. On the first day, participants learned about biomimicry and nature-based solutions. On the second day, groups went on safari in Kyiv, “catching” its main problems, including flooding wet-spots, air pollution, and limited access to clean water and green spaces. City Safari participants presented possible nature-based solutions to these problems and will now improve their ideas and convert them into community-based practical experiments, the results of which we will see soon! Watch this space!

Meanwhile, we are joining efforts with a number of enthusiastic national and international  activists, organizations, companies, and institutions working on city sustainability ideas and many other initiatives. They include, to name just a few, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, organizations such as A3, GreenWave, Zemlia, KyivSmartCity, Synchro-Prostir, the Center for Blended Value Studies, eco-village network, EcodiaPromprylad, “Building Ukraine Together” (BUR), and Nordic embassies.  Soon we will tell you more about the results. Meanwhile, check out this joint initiative with KyivSmartCity.

If you would like to take part in finding nature-based solutions to social, economic and environmental problems, contact us at and join this wonderful innovation ecosystem!

To find out more about Innovation by Nature,  join our Facebook group.