Does Biomimicry as a Tool = Sustainability?Posted: May 31, 2011
Recently I have begun to learn the difference between vision, strategy and tactic. These are not new concepts for me, personally, but until now I had never understood why the specifics necessarily mattered. To help explain this let me summarize these concepts as best I can.
Strategy = What. Tactic = How. Vision = Why.
(Note: enormous thanks to Alex Manu, and apologies for enormous over simplification).
What problem needs to be solved? What need must be met? What opportunity must be taken? These are questions of strategy, that guide the success of an individual, organization or business. The tactical challenge is to resolve those problems, meet the needs, or seize the opportunities. The vision is the driving force behind why anyone would commit to undertaking those challenges.
This has become important to me recently as I realized I was focusing on a tactical tool, while overlooking any strategic vision. If it sounds as though I am speaking in riddles, then you get a small glimpse into the circling chaos inside my mind as these ideas collide painfully together. Let me explain.
Biomimicry for me personally, is a process where humans take discoveries from any number of the millions of other species that we share the planet with and apply it to our own purposes. These lessons and applications can be functional or beautiful, micro or macro, literal or abstract.
I have personally been intrigued by the challenge of finding those discoveries that are of value to human needs, unlocking the principles and attempting to replicate them through human creativity. As a designer, this has been an exploration of visual thinking to break down barriers between the disciplines of natural science, design and engineering, while navigating the values and needs of business and clients.
I have been focusing on biomimicry as a tool. I have been working on the tactical process of how to solve challenges using this exciting, complex and surprising new tool. It has been rewarding and surprising, but I have recently begun to comprehend the limitations of focusing solely on biomimicry as a tool.
When used as an innovation tool, biomimicry offers wildly creative methods to solve problems. Enormous thought, work and contemplation has been spent exploring how this tool can work, what the benefits of using this tool are, and why it should be done. Benefits that have been widely discussed are;
- biology as a unique source of inspiration for many creative disciplines,
- ambitious challenges for human technology and
- broad, holistic sustainability
There is no doubt that biological inspiration is a novelty for many creative disciplines. It is not a required subject for most fields of design, business or engineering, and the discovery that biology can be of value in their daily life is an addictive idea. There are many theories around why this might be the case, biophilia and gaia theory among them. I like to think simply that the 5 year old inside us that collected bugs still gets a thrill from nature documentaries and loves being surprised and amazed by the beauty and complexity of life around them. Finding a way to channel this into their serious, adult selves, is a gentle nurturing of that 5 year old within that is richly rewarding.
Nature has always been a challenging driver of technology. The bird was an early inspiration for humans to leap into the sky. We now soar at heights and speeds that no other organism is capable of, but still marvel at the silent flight of owls, intricate movements of dragonflies and hovering motion of hummingbirds. That these technologies exist as living proof around us, fuels human curiosity and invention. We feel compelled to learn these secrets and harness them for our own purpose. Perhaps this is the 5 year old still working hard from within.
But biomimicry as a path to sustainability has not been as clear. The natural world around is the definition of sustainability. Life thrives, multiplies, increases in complexity and contradicts every wasteful destructive human action. The logic is obvious. Take principles from nature, and apply them to our challenges, and all problems will be solved. But as I’m learning, it is not as straightforward as this. Biomimicry as a tactical tool, is limited by the strategic question that leads the process, and ultimately by the vision that drives the process.
“How can we move more efficiently through the air?”
An avid birdwatcher made the connection between the high speed train entering a tunnel, and the kingfisher piercing the water to snatch it’s prey. The result is an innovation that increases fuel efficiency, speed and prevents the mass deafness of passengers at the subway platform being crushed by a small sonic boom. It can be said to be a step towards a more sustainable mode of transportation, but until we ask questions at every level true change will not occur. Hard questions must be asked at all levels. From small; the fabrication of materials, components and assemblies, to complex; the information and energy powering and driving the system, to philosophical; the need for mass transportation. Perhaps biomimicry may have insights to answer these questions in inspiring, life changing ways, but until the questions are asked, biomimicry will not have this opportunity.
On the other hand it is very easy to use biomimicry in an unsustainable way. Organism inspired robotics have nothing to do with ecological sustainability, or reducing human impact on the earth. A bionic salmon may one day provide the future mode of high efficient transport, but is likely to be the next high tech military toy for a long tie before that occurs. Here is another link to an amazing array of bionic robots. Jeremy Faludi summarizes it neatly here:
So far, most of the biomimetic research has actually been in robotics and software, and have nothing to do with green building. The US Military has more biomimetic inventions than the building world.
Link to source here.
The development of high impact resistant materials in the creation of protective armour can be argued to save lives. It may lead to protection on multiple layers. But there is nothing indicating that there are not researchers out there investigating methods for piercing and destroying, perhaps fuelled by a successful team of biomimicry researchers.
Arguments can be made on many levels. If the new armour is made using self assembling green technologies that are non toxic and biodegradable, all the energy, pollution and damage caused in the manufacture of kevlar will be mitigated. It could translate to non-military applications, but this is a different strategic question. It is fuelled by a different strategic need than preventing someone’s child or loved one, trained at large expense by their country, from being killed in battle. Or the strategic need for a more efficient method to dispose of an enemy.
This amazing paper outlines threat-protection mechanics of armoured fish, and has some incredible content. But I can’t help but think that the paper is also about how these fish eat their prey. You could lean either way, threat prevention or the arms race for becoming the best predator. It all depends on the strategic question guiding the investigation.
Here I begin to expose my personal discovery. If the question driving the use of biomimicry does not focus on sustainability, it will not occur. If the change desired is not embedded in the use of any tool, the operator of that tool will never achieve the change they hoped for.
I was once told a story by a business professor of a university that went on a wild splurge to develop green design programs for their students. They pumped out leading edge thinkers, designers who thought of materials in new ways, who understood the issues of obsolescence, wasteful consumerism, life cycle analysis and every tool they could come across. But it wasn’t until tracking those students after several years that they realized what they had done. They had trained the most frustrated and disillusioned students in the history of those programs. None of them could find work in which they were not frustrated by the demands that was placed on them. No clients understood what they could offer, and no one asked for them to execute life cycle analyses or any other sustainable tool they could offer.
The university removed the label of green design, toned down the rhetoric and switched gears. Instead, they began to teach green business. They realized that the clients that would ultimately hire those designers needed to be trained to ask the right questions. The shift was to the business need and benefits of green practice and has since become a leading program for bottom of the pyramid thinking and other innovative ideas.
The purpose of this little story highlights the contradiction between the possibility of a tool and the reality of its use. The operator of the tool, if asked to do a poor job, is often forced to execute those orders. If the focus of biomimicry is solely on the practice and execution of innovative process, there is too much relying on the wishful thinking that those processes will be called on. Biomimicry must work its way further into the strategic vision in order to have the impact it needs.
Biomimicry does not guarantee sustainability, but holistic questions that drive biomimicry might.
To be continued… next exploration about Biomimicry as vision, and/or the difference between criteria and tool.