Bridging Science and DesignPosted: June 23, 2011
How can we make play spaces for scientists and “designers”?
Thanks to everyone who has been posting comments, the feedback and dialogue is incredibly rewarding, and gets the ideas bouncing back in different ways, which is fantastic.
Peter Neiwiarowski, friend and Director of the Integrated Bioscience program at University of Akron, has been posting some particularly good feedback that has me thinking. In a recent comment he said:
I like to imagine that maybe the next great biological insight in some system will come from a designer doing biomimicry, or maybe a great design insight will come from a biologist doing biomimicry.
I love this goal, how might we make this happen?
I have agonized recently about the idea of enrolling in Peter’s PhD program, and fully immersing into the world of biology, and am still trying to work out what future studies/avenues might make the most sense personally. It is Peter’s hunger for non-biologists to take part in basic and applied science research, establishing collaborative interdisciplinary research projects that really intrigues me. This is fairly unique as science programs with heavy basic and applied research are for the most part fuelled by peer review from the science community. The doors are closed to the outside world. Curious about knowing more, I’ve started researching science programs that would allow a designer into their classes and labs.
But that is only one path. A fully committed designer diving into the deep end of science is one potential scenario, but perhaps there are others.
Biology show and tell charettes
In a recent conversation with a researcher at the University of Guelph, Dr. Douglas Fudge, we discussed the possibility of ideation sessions held in his labs. It would start with a show and tell of basic science to an audience of design, engineering and business. He could give an overview of his findings, set up some experiments for participants to experience, and then let everyone loose to go wild with ideas for applications and further explorations.
At the end of the day, after a variety of different charettes, there would be a good old design pin up, to present an array of emergent ideas that grow from the research.
It strikes me as weird that this doesn’t happen already, and I’m sure there’s something fundamental I’m missing. Issues of time and budget are the obvious ones, but I also think that the peer review culture leads to metrics of success that simply wouldn’t recognize the value of these ideation sessions. I hope the reality would be a range of obvious and not-so-obvious possibilities that emerge that would have enormous broad value.
The clear first goal would be to move from basic to applied research and all the way to a monetized outcome, if the right ideas and partners are involved. But cross pollination of knowledge, and shared enthusiasm for new and intriguing conversations, could well be enough to forge relationships that have an incalculable long term effect.
If the science peer review is truly the barrier, why not embrace the model for our own purposes?
Earlier this year I peer reviewed my first ever paper. Like the passionate geek I am, I downloaded every peripheral paper, traced all the sources and dived in. The science discovery was around the simulation of a dragonfly wing and the science was fantastic. The paper needed some work (yes, I am that cheeky that I would offer criticism on a paper I couldn’t write), but the really glaring issue for me was the final conclusion to justify the research. The paper ends with a couple of sentences outlining the value in aerospace engineering and broad architecture applications.
While I was reading the paper my brain had been bouncing ideas back and forth like a hyperactive pinball machine. The dragonfly wing has a cellular structure that makes it stiff or flexible, according to the shape of the cells. These are the little polygons we admire on the wing membrane. The wing then has veins pumping through them that can adjust some of these properties. More or less blood, combined with the cellular structure, allows the wing to warp into complex forms that create the incredibly sharp movements in the air that the dragonfly needs to capture it’s prey.
Wow… think of surfaces with these structural cells, so that you can embed these properties into thin films. We’re talking deployable structures in building envelopes, shape dynamics that could be embedded into cars for altered aerodynamics, or wind turbines to increase the efficiency of air capture. Imagine surfaces that adjust seasonally, creating or avoiding wind tunnels according to the changing wind pattern. The whole structure would need to change, just an adjustment at one level that would then trickle onto all the all levels due to the built in structure. Or what would it do for the resonance chambers in musical instruments; a guitar being played in three dimensions? A second set strings that are squeezed to modify the overall shape. The liquid veins also begin to hint at a future of structure being modified by touch; binoculars that zoom as you squeeze them, or medical instruments that are an extension of the hand, pulsing with the fine movements of the hand.
And I could go on.
What if “designers” peer reviewed science?
The science papers as they stand currently are reviewed for their scientific accuracy. I’m not sure there are many designers or business people that would be able to contribute to that discussion. But, we could contribute to the paper’s relevancy. What about a peer reviewed phase where papers are put up for debate by a range of different people who open a dialogue about the value, potential and need for that element of research?
Another friend, Tim McGee suggested that it would be:
A whole journal of communicating science that no one has done yet.
It would break down barriers between the science and non-science community. Might help validate and contextualize research to those who don’t understand the output from a lab, and may drum up extra support and awareness for those researchers always in need for further funding. Perhaps it would also become a go-to list of intriguing research questions for labs to dive into.
It might even solve world hunger and create global harmony.
I’m getting a little over excited. But perhaps the above piece is one of the elements that a biomimicry journal might contain. Anyone interested in giving it a go?
Option 1: Biology Lab Open Day
You have a lab, I’ll grab a team of non-scientists who would love to explore your research and dream of future opportunities. We’ll run a few different ideation charettes and present back a slew of ideas.
Option 2: Biomimicry Paper Review
You have basic science research, I’ll grab a broad team of inquisitive minds who can dive into the research and articulate opportunities and context for the research. We’ll add a new layer, a different perspective and discussion to your paper, and find a may to present it to create even more dialogue.
I’m making this all up as I go along, and have no idea what kind of format and outcomes could grow from these discussions, but I think they’d be a LOT of fun. Let me know if there’s anyone out there who’d like to play on a project like this…