The bottom-up fabrication of nano- and microscale structures from primary building blocks (molecules, colloidal particles) has made remarkable progress over the past two decades, but most research has focused on structural aspects, leaving our understanding of the dynamic and spatiotemporal aspects at a relatively primitive stage. In this Review, we draw inspiration from living cells to argue that it is now time to move beyond the generation of structures and explore dynamic processes at the nanoscale. We first introduce nanoscale self-assembly, self-organization and reaction-diffusion processes as essential features of cells. Then, we highlight recent progress towards designing and controlling these fundamental features of life in abiological systems. Specifically, we discuss examples of reaction-diffusion processes that lead to such outcomes as self-assembly, self-organization, unique nanostructures, chemical waves and dynamic order to illustrate their ubiquity within a unifying context of dynamic oscillations and energy dissipation. Finally, we suggest future directions for research on reaction-diffusion processes at the nano- and microscales that we find hold particular promise for a new understanding of science at the nanoscale and the development of new kinds of nanotechnologies for chemical transport, chemical communication and integration with living systems.