Biomimicry is Not “Just” Biology ResearchPosted: August 31, 2011 | |
Having taught biomimicry for 6 years now, you’d think preparing for another wave of students would be relatively straight forward. In fact, it is probably more complex now that it ever has been before. Bruce Hinds (my co-teacher) and I have taught this enough times to be confident with the material, so much so that we are growing increasingly ambitious for meaningful projects to emerge from the class. Consequently, the question that drives the class has evolved from “how can we do biomimicry” to “where should we do biomimicry”. In other words;
What design topics should we tackle?
Why is this a challenge?
Biomimicry is not “just” biology research. It also includes design research. While this might be obvious for some, there are many more who think the design insights should magically appear from thin air, with no need for context from the area of research. The reality suggests otherwise, and requires that in the limited time we have in the class room, our students need to cover twice as much ground. On one hand you think sounds straightforward, the students are in their higher years, and therefore have been exposed to a lot of design process already, but the reality is, introducing biology research adds a layer of healthy complexity to the design research and makes the whole process more time consuming (also pronounced “rewarding”).
And guess what, this is also the reason why businesses and design practices are not jumping vigorously on the biomimicry bandwagon; it’s hard work.
The good news about biology research
Designers getting comfortable with biology is not as hard as it sounds. Last week I taught a course at the graduate level with a bunch of advertising students. I was a little nervous throwing biomimicry at them, but they ate it up. Instead of telling them that learning from biology is hard and requires a whole new way of thinking, I put a barrel cactus in front of them and said; “Why has it evolved that way? What could you learn from that?” No problem! We had everything from new products, architecture, materials and flip flops. I’ve also done the same project with high school students, with superb results.
Getting them equipped to play with biology turns out to be as straight forward as organizing a Skype call with the infatigable Timothy McGee, introducing them to Ask Nature and then asking them a good design question. The rest flowed from there. (A deeper case study to come).
The real challenge was the design research
To identify what design challenges truly need to be resolved and how the biology may shape that exploration is the hardest stage of the biomimicry process over and over again. The issue isn’t collecting biological information, the complexity lies in putting it to good use.
Good design research fundamentally involves the question; “what are you really trying to achieve?” with a few follow up “why’s” thrown in for good measure. Practice this enough times and you get what is called a “design education”. Sounds easy, but these are actually very hard questions that involve rigorous investigation, navigation of complex and contradictory information, and requires deep reflection. This is why most businesses are not employing deep design thinking, not to overlook the fact that it is often quite painful.
The answer is a parallel process
The design research has to occur at the same time as the biology research, and both processes must inform one another. This sounds like common sense, but is in practice rare. The biologists wish to generate an exhaustive report of deep, rigorous science around clearly defined functional questions, while the designers either wish to remain in the design research phase for so long that they never get around to looking at the biology, or want to jump straight into the biology and “play” without really knowing what they are trying to achieve.
Each process must be iterative, and interconnected
The image included in this blog is a diagram from Carla Gould and Jessica Ching when they reflected on a major biomimicry research project with an industry partner that continued over the course of a year and a half. The project was enormous, convoluted, complicated and richly rewarding. What the diagram highlights, are the healthy, parallel processes that the group had to juggle throughout the project. With this knowledge it becomes clearer how we might approach a similar project in the future, but in the thick of the process we had no idea how confused we had been.
In fact, we did not realize until five or six weeks into the project, that we were clueless about what we were actually trying to design. Empowered by the biological knowledge, our design students were happily generating ideas and content, but without an understanding of the context of the project it was meaningless. Only after we returned to the basics of design research; ethnography, user interviews, etc, did our project make sense.
Importantly, because we had already begun the biology research, the investigation into the design context evolved. We were immediately able to see similarities and conflicts between natural models and current practices, that highlighted where the design opportunities would ultimately lie and reinforced the need for the process to occur in parallel.
Practicing biomimicry and the dream project
Today’s discussion comes from repeatedly working with design students deep in biology research who have lost their way. Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll have some superb tangible stories of how they emerged from the wilderness, and what processes they’ll have gone through that I can share with a broader audience. In the mean time the ideal project for my students appears to be one where the design and biology research has started and stalled, so that we can work out ways to move it forward and realize creative, insightful ideas.