Is this Biomimicry?

The classic biomimicry case study. Burrs have hooks, replicate those hooks and bingo = velcro... but is this all that biomimicry offers? Click on the link to see 7 examples of literal biomimicry.

Biomimicry and Abstraction

So… in the scenarios of sustainability I said I was struggling with my vision of a “biomimicry world”. This is not completely true… my struggle is with the sliding vision between literal interpretations and abstraction. I actually think that all the scenarios of sustainability fit in biomimicry, but that is a further conversation.

Biomimicry suffers from literal connections, replicating spider’s silk, mimicking gecko’s feet as tape and the good old burr inspired velcro. But if I suggest that Lego is biomimicry because it “adapts and evolves”by “building from the bottom up” it is hard for many to see that connection. That is just ‘good design’, not biomimicry! People want the literal translation.

The typical example of where this goes wrong is when someone new to biomimicry, floored by the observation in nature, but is then frustrated that they can’t “source” that organism’s shell to layer on the roof of their building. Biomimicry is not that easy, it’s up to you, as the designer/engineer/innovator, to work how to replicate the performance of the organism in your design.

But even that is too limited. If we are only obsessed with performance, we’ll miss the bigger picture.

I’m going to start posting some student work (but I need to chase down some permission first) that gives examples of how Bruce and I have been pushing the students to abstract principles from nature.

We encourage our students to translate their research into their own “design” language. They sketch and visualize their research from a natural organism. This is the important first step, communicating their insight in their own words.

But if they go straight into ideation from here, they are too literal, only capable of replicating the diagrams of the organism into product sketches.

We encourage a specific stage of abstraction, where we encourage the student to sketch what they have learned from the organism(s), without representing the organism in any way. They must use an abstract diagram to communicate a design insight.

The move to design ideation is usual easier now, because they are no longer focussing on replicating an organism, but rather applying a learned principle.

The problem occurs when the student begins to worry about going too far.

How do we know if it is still biomimicry?

My own feeling is that it doesn’t matter. If it “has” to be “biomimicry” in order to be successful then we’re exploring the wrong process. If the final idea is successful, sustainable, provocative, a game changer, whatever the criteria may be, why should we argue if it is still biomimicry? If going through a biomimicry process allowed us to get to an inspiring, incredible end idea that we wouldn’t have arrived at previously, then the tool worked. If the innovation process jammed on a detail, obsessed with whether an option “fit” the meme or not, the tool has failed.

I’ll try to find some examples to share… to be continued.

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One Comment on “Is this Biomimicry?”

  1. I really like your approach to biomimicry as a process rather than a final result. This almost allows biomimicry practitioners to get away from trying to fit the bill and concentrate on the thought process instead. A true design!


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