Learning from Nature is not a Design Project

Image by johnnybaker: While it might be a great life statement, when someone's paying the bills it needs to be important to define the destination at some point...

I have had some odd circuitous discussions in the last few months about using a biomimicry process for innovation without understanding why. It highlights to me that there is a real danger in getting overly attached to a process and losing sight of the bigger picture.

In a previous post, here, I raised the idea that some people within innovation are interested in the journey, while others are interested in the destination. At the extreme, journey people care about process and methodology and could happily work in a vacuum for the sake of achieving the nirvana of perfect conceptual methodology. At the other end are the people who only want a win, who care nothing for how the win is achieved and are generally quite impatient about getting to their goal.

Personally, I have the fortunate opportunity to play within both spaces, as an educator we explore the journey deeply and have the freedom within an academic setting to truly experiment and play in this space. But within both education and consulting there becomes a time when the experiments are no longer as important as the conclusions, which allows me the opportunity to shift gears which I thoroughly enjoy.

Getting lost in the methodology

The reason for this post, is a recurring disconnect I’ve seen when people ask for a journey when they really want a destination. I.e. they ask for biomimicry but don’t know why. A student several weeks ago came and pitched her thesis project as; “I’m going to do biomimicry”. My response was obvious and not helpful. “Why?” To which, there was no answer beyond; “Because it is cool.” It took us another hour to really identify what her core interest was (packaging) and why she wanted to learn from nature (reusability, complex deployable structures and packing efficiency).

Here in lies the problem. Alarm bells ring when the methodology becomes the focus due to a cool factor because the project usually lacks direction and never arrives anywhere. That is only possible if you are truly removed from an end result and in most cases that is not true, and in most cases this leads to frustration, or the transition from fanaticism to fatigue.

A Journey Project

I have one research client, Autodesk, who has funded us to do open ended research that is truly at a journey level. I’ll try to post an overview soon, but in a nutshell, they have an excellent research question with a desire to look at it from a different perspective than they would typically explore. As a result it is the journey that is of high importance, and we are deliberately experimenting with methodology in order to shift the conversation within the project space. It is doubly exciting as they are interested in being actively engaged in finding their own conclusions as well as hearing ours. The destination will be research papers and presentations of findings, true deliverables of a journey.

A Destination Project

My other major active project is a partnership with Biomimicry 3.8 and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. This project is the exact opposite to the above as the research partners are very much involved in the journey side of the project, while I am involved with defining the destination portion. Our role is to define the vision of possible outcomes by provoking and challenging the research and contextualizing it through stakeholder analysis. At each stage of the project we are defining the value of the research to possible stakeholders.

These are Design Projects

I raise these because they are not “biomimicry” projects in the sense that the sole focus is to learn from nature within a bubble. The vast majority of the time the purpose is to break free of the bubble, to define the context and understand the key places where inspiration from nature is truly required. The level of biology being discussed in each project is mind blowing, but equally mind blowing are the tough strategic and contextual questions that are driving the investigations.

The point of the post, therefore, is clarity and awareness of the difference between a methodology project for the sake of a methodology, whether that is biomimicry, foresight, or any other particular methodology, as opposed to what I would label a design project, that weaves specific methodologies together as required and in context of one another.



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