Biomimicry: Just Let Go

In my biomimicry classes I am repeatedly asked by students for permission around how they are “allowed” to use the biological models. This is a strange phenomena. In other classes conversations exist around how to find and use inspiration, but in biomimicry it is more specific:

Can I use this organism for my project? I started using X organism, but now I want to use Y organism, is that ok? How many organisms am I allowed to use for this project?

This highlights a problem. Any creative process requires many different tools, methods and approaches in order to achieve a result. When one of those elements becomes constrained by rules, it then influences and impacts the others around it. Biomimicry can have that effect in both positive and negative ways.

Positive disruption from biomimicry

A photo of strangler figs in the forest. Source: Carl Hastrich

A photo of strangler figs in the forest. Source: Carl Hastrich

I use biomimicry to disrupt thinking. I deliberately use natural models to challenge given assumptions and allow people to see a situation from different angles. When framing a business as a parasite, we can be cheeky about the pros and cons in a way that you can’t be if you label the business as outright negative. Parasites exist in nature, they thrive in many situations and in the Daintree rainforest in Australia strangler figs play a very positive role in the overall structural resilience of the ecosystem. Strangler figs grow around host trees, ultimately sapping them of all their nutrients over a long period of time. In some instances the strangler fig will survive the death of the host, becoming a self standing pillar, but in many cases as the host rots away the overall structure will give away. But that’s ok, because the strangler fig sends vines in all directions and many of the trees in the forest remain standing despite a lack of vertical integrity. It’s even better than ok, because the daintree rainforest gets hit by a lot of cyclones (those are hurricanes that spin in the other way for all you northern hemisphere peoples). The lateral vines that spread throughout the forest help provide flex and stability when buffeted by these storms. So a parasite can be a good thing. Therefore if I’m speaking in the context of a business we can beging to explore ideas of transforming a negative parasitic relationship into a positive one by asking “What is different? What is missing?”

Negative stagnation from biomimicry.

Image 7

Image 7

Creative thinking can stagnate when someone is holding onto a natural model too tightly. I see this happen a lot when there is one specific model that has become the sole solution of a given project. In architecture it will occur when there is a fixation on a given organism and all the work becomes the literal translation between model and application. Due to the scale, complexity and general differences between organism and a building the translation is not possible until you let go of the model. In product design it is easy to become overwhelmed because we just can’t do what nature is presenting us. In most cases our materials and technology can not replicate the subtle complexity of nature and if the organism model can not be fully translated frustration sets in and creativity stops. In the past I did a playful post around nudibranchs that eat sea anemones and absorb small cellular self defence structures, nematocysts, from their prey. The post is cheeky as I liken the process to my computer eating my cell phone and absorbing its ability to make phone calls or upgrade the camera. If I take the natural model literally my computer and cell phone can’t exchange in that way. If I hold onto that model, I’m stuck. On the other hand, there is a whole movement of open hardware, occurring in parallel to open software, that includes physical hacking, D.I.Y., mass customization, rapid prototyping and more that speaks to the deeper metaphor of “nutrient up-cycling”. Sure, the solutions might still be long term and not nearly as elegant as the natural model, but there are definitely tangible entry points to begin making the desired change.

Biology solutions

I have become a tyrant to collaborators in biomimicry for people to slow down and stop rushing to biological solutions too quickly. Biomimicry has a tendency for the natural model to impose rules on the broader creative process that shuts down integrative thinking. If a natural model shifts your perspective and allows you to reframe a given challenge, then capture all the insights, thank the model and move on. The organism might have done it’s job. You will likely require new models to inform the next stages of thinking and that’s ok. It’s still ok if during the solutions development you need to relax the grip on your organism in order to achieve a result. In fact, the more organisms you have, and the more you have abstracted your insight to the level of a principle the easier this will be.

2 Comments on “Biomimicry: Just Let Go”

  1. Robyn Klein says:

    Carl, I think you are right on. Being resistant to flexibility or intolerant or rigid are all traps in my experience. Any design will have some boundaries or limitations you have to deal with. But I think it’s important to not get fixed and unable to move. Interesting info on the strangler figs and hurricanes. ^^ Cheers!

  2. Thanks for this article, Carl, very useful! I plan to apply some of these ideas on my own blog,

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