Bridging Science and Design

A personal sketch bridging science research to design applications.

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?

Personal photo, by Caroline Jamieson, of a dragonfly in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

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… 

7 Comments on “Bridging Science and Design”

  1. scelop says:

    I’m in for option one and two. seriously. i’m in….and i think i could get a few others. we might even be able to do this as a class project or some variation on that. Also, for a more persistent version of this that I hope is not too far off, I would like to build graduate research lab groups that look like this:

    i am looking to invite them to give a couple of seminars here in the spring of 2012.

  2. Carl Hastrich says:

    I think Sabin Jones came to OCAD U last year… I remember seeing a poster of their work around the school. Not sure who to follow up that may have worked directly with them.

    Both options? Fantastic Mr Scelop, let’s work something out next week.

  3. Tim McGee says:

    I’m really liking the idea of reviewing emerging scientific papers, and creating a new section within the results: Relevance

    Typically you have. Abstract, Methodology, Results, Discussion- but the Relevance of scientific findings are only hesitantly discussed, if at all. This is appropriate for scientists- but it is a glaring gap for humanity.

    In a collaborative world where we bridge science to design, we need to add a Relevance section- where designers, engineers, and business professionals get creative, and …wait for it… IMAGINE.

    I think a regular ‘RELEVANCE’ addition to papers is in order- A bit like an academic journal club except it produces something that we can publish (freely on-line in my opinion). We would simply link to the ‘inspiring or offending’ article, and have a Relevance section that is a blog, or paper… The goal of which would be for a RELEVANCE section to be included in Journals…or have scientists wishing to publish in RELEVANCE.


    • Carl Hastrich says:

      This is very intriguing. Two things to discuss:
      The medium: I see the goal being a layer of discussion over the top of the scientific paper. This could be done a range of ways, and agree that an online forum/journal seems to be the best place to start. Need to think of the sexiest way of encouraging collaboration and communication of complex discussions. Will dive in for a bit of research in this area – the world of scientific journals is foreign to me, perhaps that will help in the rethink.
      The perspectives: who do we want to be part of the discussion, how many would be critical mass? Blend of academic and industry? Design, Science, Engineering, Business are huge labels, how do we deep dive? What about philosophy?
      I like the suggesting above that this discussion is a little “separate” from the original work, we just need to make sure there is motivation in place for the researcher to want to submit their work for dialogue.
      Maybe the Sensational Mr. Scelop has an access to these willing researchers…

      • scelop says:

        i think this is cool and i definitely want to participate. I think i can get other scientists to join as well. One thing to think more about is how to create a space that insures dialogue that can flow both ways, driven organically as the ideas emerge. Another term, like relevance, might be intersection, or application, or integration? Maybe there is a word that designers use (e.g., ideation?) that could be applied which would not mislead designers or scientists…maybe we need a new word? Relevance, doesn’t bother me, personally, but I could see it turning some scientists off, implying less about extension of work than having to explain why it is important

      • Tim McGee says:

        I’m with Scelop-> relevance is a bit cheeky as a word to use in this way- it really is more about connecting, integration, and building on ideas. I guess I was feeling provocative!

        Having a place to dive deep is great- In grad school we would have ‘journal clubs’ where every week one member of the club sent out a scientific article to everyone in the group- then we all got together and had a good think on it. It tended to deepen my understanding of any one scientific paper, and overall expanded my thinking as these groups were often ‘multi-disciplinary’.

        I’m imagining something similar – but taken to an extreme. Ideally everyone would be in the same place, and it would be a meeting.

        But a distance model might be:

        1. A Skype call with a group.
        2. A DropBox folder for the group.
        3. A Place to publish thoughts, sketches, comments (Blog)

      • Carl Hastrich says:

        I think the word that might work is OPPORTUNITY. I was thinking of CONTEXT, which might be an element, but OPPORTUNITY puts the research in the positive discussion of where to next, why and for who?

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