Design, Engineering, Science – Their Differences through the lens of Biomimicry

Is this holy trinity of innovation? Note: Am making sure that strategy and tactics are at the same hierarchy - I think that is critical.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time with amazing people over the last couple of weeks. These include everything from researchers in basic science laboratories looking for nature’s recipes, to architects working on enormous projects collaborating directly with engineers, and the never ending flow of creative students who keep willingly signing up for my design thinking experiments. At the risk of gross over simplification, I’m beginning to see some repeating patterns.

Vision, Strategy and Tactics – the holy trinity of innovation

I wrote about vision, strategy and tactical thinking when I first began this blog, but it has never really been out of my mind. Here is my current synthesis regarding what they mean to me;

  • Vision = WHY. These are the fundamental values that drive an individual or business forward, and ultimately form the framework to measure success.
  • Strategy = WHAT. This defines the opportunities within the vision, or the problems that must be solved, in order to achieve the vision.
  • Tactics = HOW. These are the pragmatic, executable actions that must be resolved in order to achieve the vision.
Innovation occurs when all three elements line up and are achieved. While the above explanation ridiculously simplifies an incredibly complex process, it has helped me frame design process and scientific research in context.

Design as Strategy, Science and Engineering as Tactics

Is anyone offended by the above generalizations? There are of course individuals or sub categories within disciplines that live more one one side than another... perhaps business should also sit on the left page, fitting in at the why/what stage

My design students, whether professional practice, graduate, or undergraduate are increasingly being trained in skills and experiences in identifying what opportunities must be explored in order to achieve a client’s goals. How the idea is achieved becomes a collaboration with engineers and specialists. Good integrative process enables both “categories” of disciplines, strategic and tactical, to work together, as exemplified by the practices of Thomas Auer and Transsolar, and work I have witnessed from HOK partnering with OVE ARUP engineers. This integrated process is well documented, debated and celebrated, with the general limitation being budget constraints and good interdisciplinary practices. The failures of handing off a design to an engineer with limited or no integration is also well documented.

On the other hand, when I have visited basic research laboratories, the focus is heavily geared towards tactical explorations, with very limited strategic questioning. The scientific researchers looking to discover the recipes of nature are generally working from an assumption that these insights will fuel innovation once shared amongst their peers within the scientific community. The vision against which their success is measured is connected to peer review and recognition, ultimately tied to further funding for future research.

As a designer who lacks the long term patience of science, there seems to be a lack of strategic thinking. What should be researched, in the context of a more integrative vision; science and business and society, are questions that appear to be superficially explored. I recognize some of the emergent exploration is key to the general advancement of broad scientific discovery. Open research allows scientists to unravel mysteries on many frontiers at once, not limited by businesses’ short term desires and narrow thinking. But I am also curious to know whether strategic thinking could help foster support by bringing more disciplines to the table, therefore more eyes, money and brains.

Science and Design Dialogues – the Stalled Project

The joys of miscommunications between disciplines. The underlying challenge of true integrative processes.

So, I started a project in Summer with some passionate friends, which has since stalled, mostly due to my lack of time to follow things up, and an increasing personal awareness that I lacked a clear vision for the project. The Science and Design dialogues; explained here, and viewable here, was a loosely thought through initial exploration of “what if designers were invited into the conversations of science?”

I want to participate in more science spaces in order to understand what the opportunities of these dialogues could really be, and how best to explore them. Is it true that there is not a lot of strategic thinking? The cursory discussion sections of scientific papers suggest this, but I don’t know what is discussed at the conferences or over a beer afterwards. I want to understand more about the long, deep and patient tactical processes that are underway in these true research laboratories in order to explore what the value of the faster, sometimes shallow and provocative strategic processes might bring to the table.

A good topic for my Masters, no?

I think I’m going to dust off the Science and Design dialogues idea over christmas and have another think about what this could be…

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8 Comments on “Design, Engineering, Science – Their Differences through the lens of Biomimicry”

  1. scelop says:

    Carl,
    As I have come to expect from you, another provocative post. I think the why, what, how trichotomy is useful, but their specific association with disciplines reflects stereotype and bias more than reality or inevitability…this is just my opinion, so let me try to explain. I would argue that each of the disciplines you have identified can and does engage all three, but that might not be obvious in any particular instance for a variety of reasons that are not mutually exclusive of eachother. One reason could be the practitioner. For example, different people can choose to focus on different dimensions of a study or problem (like the what vs. the how) based on their temperament or goals. A different explanation could be that people outside of a discipline either don’t recognize or don’t accept the specific instance of the ‘why,’ ‘how,’ or ‘what’. For example, when I design a set of experiments to determine if the fat coating the hairs on a gecko’s foot are important to how it sticks, my motivation is to get a clearer understanding of the ‘why’ of gecko adhesion mechanics…the evolutionary significance and consequences. I realize that is not the same kind of ‘why’ that you may lament is missing from the discussion sections of scientific papers, but it is a ‘why’ nevertheless.

    What is most fascinating about these kinds of distinctions is that they reveal our biases and the contexts which we are, a priori, accustomed to accept as the ‘correct’ frame of reference. Indulge me on this one for a moment….when a business creates a product or a service, how come we don’t ask or expect that there should also be an outcome for increased scientific knowledge or new technology? How is that different from expecting that some scientific endeavor (e.g., a study) should have (as an integral part) implications for solving or addressing a human need or problem other than just the knowledge creation? It seems to me that the reason these seem like asymmetries is either because we function in a society structured by an economy of goods and services…or we we are anthropomorphic in the view that valuable knowledge is only that which can solve human problems (the rest is a diversion), or both?

    Ok, so now what? Not sure, but here is my assertion (I realize my comments above are not necessarily well substantiated; in fact they may be a bit confused): the trichotomy you layed out is critically important to recognize and acknowledge, but all three actors (designer, engineer, scientist) play in and across those spaces. What also seems clear to me is that the collaboration among them can be rich, not because they necessarily emphasize the ‘why,’ ‘how,’ or ‘what’ to different extents, but because their frame of reference in each dimension is different. New possibilities emerge (inovation) when we are forced to understand and acknowledge those other frames of reference.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      There’s a lot to think about in here… what kinds of visions are there? I love the comment that business does not contribute to any “science” and yet science must contribute to business… that’s a fascinating contradiction.

      Yes, I know some incredibly “un-strategic”, brilliant designers, and vice versa. Am deliberately provoking the stereotypes to see what people think…

      I wonder if you could do a cross section of “visions” from different individuals’ perspectives. I have a friend who is a Chef doing project management/development work in Kenya… he has an amazing interdisciplinary skill set.

      • scelop says:

        Ever since I started working with designers in the context of biomimicry (mostly initiated in a 1 week workshop the Biomimicry Institute ran in the summer of 2010) I have frequently been struck by the similarities between design and biological research as creative processes. In biology, especially evolutionary biology, we talk about the ‘holy trinity’ (usually not using that term, for probably obvious reasons) frequently as a way to understand the basis of our hypotheses and inferences about nature. Most evolutionary biologists I know can easily move across studies involving different contributions of the ‘why,’ ‘what,’ and ‘how.’ Moreover, this kind of taxonomy of thought/process is presented by many of the biology educators I know when they teach introductory biology to undergraduate students.
        Aside from this just being intellectually interesting to me (and maybe just me), I think there are some practical applications to the practice and paradigm of biomimicry. For example, I see a connection between the trinity and the fundamental parts of the biomimicry paradigm ‘model’ and ‘measure.’ Specifically, consider the biologist’s ‘why’ as a bridge between what ultimately shapes or drives a biological feature or process (at any level of organization; e.g., organism, physiological system, community, ecosystem, etc.) and the designer’s ‘why.’ The ‘why’ in the biologist’s version of the trinity is about ultimate causation…the evolutionary context/history. Using a specific example you have recently posted about, hagfish slime, we might ask why do hagfish have this fairly unique feature? Answering that would involve many different kinds of analysis (I am not a hagfish expert and don’t know that literature; possibly the extraordinary work of Douglas Fudge and others has already answered such questions) such as what are the glands that produce the slime precursor derived from in the skin, what is the chemical origin of the slime, etc. (notice that, individually, these are ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions, but in the aggregate they speak to ultimate causality – mechanisms of origination, spread, maintenance and future or even potential). In this context, an evolutionary scenario that builds a case about how such a character might have arisen, how it spread and eventually became an important feature of the biology of hagfish (enhancing lifetime reproductive success) should be material to what a designer might do with this ‘inspiring’ capability of hagfish in application to solving a design challenge.
        If we wanted to use the slime ‘model’ to solve some human problem, a designer in the biomimicry paradigm would do many things, including deconstructing what a ‘client’ might say they need into a problem statement(s) that allowed discovery of many possible solutions united by a common process or outcome. The ‘why’ in this case, biologically, involves an organism having a set of characteristics (glandular skin) that came to produce a capability enhancing reproductive success (through thwarting predators, presumably). So the ‘why’ might have more to do with how biological systems do innovation (perhaps the mucus just produced a protective coating on the skin of the fish originally?)…taking a character and through exaggeration getting a new function, which is very different, from the ‘how’ hagfish slime clogs the gills of predators.
        I have to admit, that I am still struggling with this ‘bridging’ that I am proposing between the ‘why’ of a biologist and that specified in the trinity that Carl so eloquently laid out…I am working on a more concrete example having to do with ecological systems and sustainability which I think might be clearer and which I hope to post in this thread over the next several days….that is, if I can get it to gel (slime) in my head.

  2. scelop says:

    …I think the relationship between the trinity and the biomimicry construct of nature as ‘model and measure’ is most clear in the context of biological systems and their properties and functions. The ‘why’ for a biologist is about ultimate causation, the role of evolution, and particularly natural selection, in shaping the biology that is of specific interest in a given analysis. That ‘why’ is not goal oriented but the designer’s ‘why’ decidedly is. What that suggests to me is that design using the biomimicry paradigm ultimately will require that the designer’s ‘why’ will have embedded in it a very literal understanding (and adoption) or direct implementation of the biologist’s ‘why.’ If that is not the case, then our ‘modeling’ of nature will be off, with the consequence that our ‘measure’ will reveal we haven’t captured the essence of the biological ‘model’ of interest.

    What I frequently find myself thinking about are issues that flow from the logic above as they might apply to the success or conduct of biomimicry. When the task at hand is building a better widget through biomimicry, I think the bridging between the ‘why’s’ is transparent, or maybe even inconsequential. But when the task at hand is concerned with a grander scale, such as might happen if the design goal is to build a new kind of community for people to live in where the architecture of buildings and spaces provides the same ecosystem services as the natural landscape it replaces, the fidelity of the match between the designer’s ‘why’ and the biologist’s ‘why’ becomes critical. The most fascinating aspect of this for me is that the fidelity of the bridging of biology to design and vice versa has a lot to do with gaps in our understanding about how the biological systems work. That is, we have the general operating conditions of the biological ‘why’ (evolution and natural selection), and we are constantly engaged in study of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in an effort to improve our understanding of the systems. I think it is obvious that gaps in biological understanding impact the conduct and success of biomimicry. I believe Carl’s work and thought in this context illuminate the contact points between biology and design and how critical a shared understanding of the trinity is to success and learning…by the way, I wonder what the engineers are thinking about all of this? Are there any out there?

  3. […] very much enjoyed the post over at Bouncing Ideas about the Why, What, and How of science and design. I had so many comments to make, my brain […]

  4. Tim McGee says:

    Wonderful conversation, I’m still working on it. But wanted to share a post I did about the last comment by Scelop. http://www.ecointerface.com/?p=444

    needed a post!

  5. Fil Salustri says:

    I’d be very interested in the Dialogues. I’ve added what you’ve already done to my reading list. As an engineer, I often sense that engineering wants to be more like science but needs to embrace design more than it does.

    Are you aware of Nigel Crosses 3 ways: science, humanities, and design?

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      No, have not heard of Nigel Crosses. Thanks for the info! Am thinking of organizing a general skype/conference call in the new year around the Dialogues project. Would love to include you on the mailing list for the conversation. Also, I noticed you are local we should chat in the new year.


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