Complex Ecosystems Require Co-Operation

Future of Innovation Relationships

It is becoming increasingly accepted that co-operation is more common than competition in the biological world. Dayna Baumeister and Robyn Klein have written about this multiple times and ecology research is diving deeply into how organisms “facilitate” conditions and relationships for one another. Survival of the fittest was always meant to be interpreted as the “best fit” to a particular condition, not the best at killing competition.

As the innovation landscape continues to get more and more complex, new relationships are emerging that seem counter intuitive at first glance and could be a sign of the changes to come in the future. The Green Tea Party is a real thing. It is a partnership between conservative political groups and eco-green groups. In Georgia they played a role in forcing local energy utilities to integrate more solar into the energy mix. This win is enormous as part of a broader energy shift, but the emerging relationships might be even greater. The Huffington Post states that the conservative group even went against the Koch brothers, the wealthy billionaires who were instrumental in the creation of the original Tea Party.

Scott Smith, the Changeist, has a brilliant essay on the emerging trend of “hippies and libertarians” becoming unlikely allies. This highlights to me, that as the innovation ecosystem matures it will become increasingly complex and require unique relationships to navigate pathways to change and creation of value. If that isn’t biomimicry, I’m not sure what is…

Niche Construction – Deep Ecological Concept

Image source Ilya Haykinson: Beavers are ecosystem engineers that have a dramatic effect on the evolution of an ecosystem due to the scale of niche they construct for themselves.

I am currently doing a research project with Autodesk at OCAD University exploring ecological concepts within building performance. The research team, including students, graduate research assistants and my colleague Bruce Hinds are having a lot of fun diving into the deep end of ecological research.

What we are discovering is a wide range of concepts that should be more closely linked with research and practice within the built environment. We are still in the early stages of really processing and understanding these links, but I thought I needed to begin sharing some stories (warning: this is going to be a long one…).

Ecology and Building Performance

Current research from building science is slowly transitioning a building-centric view, that focuses solely on building efficiency, to an occupant-centric view, which focuses on the broader impact on the user. The emerging themes explore a deeper understanding of comfort, as well as the impacts on health and well-being. It is a rich space of exploration, with many insightful theories begging for more practical application, and to be greedy we are pushing it a little further.

Our research is exploring an eco-centric worldview, that observes at a systems level the broad relationships within the various biotic (living) elements and the abiotic (non-living) elements within the city. In order to get the creative juices flowing, we assigned papers of ecology and building science to the students and had them diagram and explore the concepts for discussion (diagrams to come in a future post).

Ecological Concepts

One of the emerging concepts that has triggered lots of discussion is niche construction. 

Niche construction is the process whereby organisms modify selective environments, thereby affecting evolution.

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How is the Eastgate Building NOT like a Termite Mound?

Image from J Scott Tuner and Rupert C Soar - Figure 9 from excellent paper available by clicking the image above.

Why is biomimicry superficial?

Back at the beginning of this blog I wrote an entry commenting that biomimicry does not guarantee sustainability. It was not meant as a critique against biomimicry as a methodology, but rather at those who only wish to learn superficial insights from nature. A recent comment highlighted the complexity of this conversation, when Jamie Saunders commented that “biomimicry” as a term might suggest non-systems thinking;

Might this be supported if ‘ecomicry’ rather than ‘biomicry’ was initially considered ? Co-evolution and ‘ecomimicry’ – drawing a conceptual understanding and insight from the ‘whole’ ecosystem’ – ‘the interwoven systems that can provide “life support” for current and future multi-species inhabitants.’

My answer, in full here, explains that “bios” has always been interpreted by those pioneering biomimicry to incorporate all of life sciences; including biology, ecology, evolutiona and much more. In other words, at all scales and at multiple levels; form, process and ecosystem. Unfortunately, most stories celebrate a form based level of inspiration; velcro for example, and skip over the deeper, more complex stories; such as Paul Hawkins using redwood forests to evolve business models.

Should the Eastgate Building be a Lung?

We've all seen or used one of these images (I'm guilty), but perhaps we didn't really know what we were comparing?

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PhD in Biomimicry – Research Fellowships

Click on the banner above to review the full details of this opportunity.

I have some big news.

Biomimicry Research Fellowships have officially been launched within the Integrated Bioscience department at the University of Akron. Anyone from a diverse background is now invited to apply for a PhD in Integrated Bioscience, making it possible for “non”-science to truly explore a deep dive into biology.

True Interdisciplinary Research

The Integrated Bioscience department is run by Peter Niewiarowski, also known as “scelop” on this blog, who is working closely with Doug Paige, professor of Industrial Design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. On all fronts within their work together, Doug and Peter and pushing interdisciplinary collaboration.

I thoroughly recommend this unique opportunity to embrace the deep collaborative opportunities of a PhD research fellowship founded on the principles of biomimicry. There is no other opportunity for designers to fully emerse themselves in science, and the lead researchers in Akron are passionately open to seeing what will emerge from these new processes.

More Information

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Hagfish Slime in Action

Photo Credit: Vincent Zintzen, Clive D. Roberts, Marti J. Anderson, Andrew L. Stewart, Carl D. Struthers, Euan S. Harvey via For the full effect look at the videos, available here. has a feature scientific report on my new favourite organisms titled; Hagfish predatory behaviour and slime defence mechanism. It features some extraordinary footage of the slime in action as it chokes up a startled looking seal shark.

If you’re not sure where my fondness for this bizarre critter comes from, read my previous post.






Hagfish Slime is the new Spiderweb Silk

After only a second or two, these sheets of slime are produced by the small, ancient Hagfish. If you look up close you can see the threads that create a chaotic woven structure that hold the sheets of slime together. Thanks to Jamie Miller for the photo.

This week I helped run a biomimicry workshop with high school kids. Many thanks to Dr Doug Fudge for inviting me in on the session, and Jamie Miller for making it all happen.

During the workshop Dr Fudge showed off his research into whale baleen , and the amazing slime from hagfishes. Jamie and I played with the students, helping them extract functional insights from the organisms and then leading brainstorming sessions around further research questions and design ideas. Overall it was a great experience, biomimicry encouraged everyone to look at the organisms in a different way, and ultimately Dr Fudge was thrown some questions and ideas that he has never considered before, which is always a success.

But the Hagfish Stole the Show

Lovely little critter resting in a neat spiral. Seems like the name hag is a bit harsh, until you get up close to their faces...

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Up-Cycle like a Nudibranch

The humble nudibranch, or sea slug, could be an incredible inspiration for how designers view recycling and up-cycling, and possibly even concepts around regenerative design. It’s taken me a little while, since Tim first told me this story, but here goes my first real attempt to put my money where my mouth is around the concept of visual communication in biomimicry. Looking forward to any feedback and ideas…

Nematocyst Up-cycling

Image 1 - Anemone

Image 2 Nematocysts

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Helping Designers Navigate Science

Alëna's superb and brave diagram above is kind of fascinating... I think this warrants a full discussion in the future...

For those of you who haven’t met Alëna, or followed her comments within the blog, I’d just like to point out that she is bloody superb. On her blog there is an excellent overview of “how to read science papers” that is a superb resource. For the most part, I’m probably going to repeat what Alëna already laid out beautifully, but thought I should put it in my own words and lock it in.

How to read a science paper

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When to Let Go

Ahh... the never ending frustrations of design process...

In any creative process it is always difficult to know when you have what is needed to move into the next stage of thinking. Moving from research, the gathering of insights, into ideation, transforming those insights into action, is almost always a surprisingly difficult process. If you’re a little over-enthusiastic like myself, you’re likely to want to explore every insight and try to solve every possible challenge.

The real trick is identifying exactly what should move forward, and what can be left behind.

Good insights derail design process

As mentioned previously, the insights from good design research are usually extraordinarily simple in hindsight. But in the thick of things it can be almost impossible to summon up the courage to commit to such a simple observation, especially when you have reams of other data that you don’t want to go to waste.

For example, imagine you are doing an architecture project for community development in a specific habitat and have exhaustively researched all the biological models and that align with your functional design challenges. You are swamped with articles, spreadsheets and diagrams of incredible insights and opportunities. With your nose to the grindstone and a deadline looming, it is easy to be overwhelmed when generating ideas as you rush to pull every little element together into the utopian building that will foster the perfect community.

But do you really know what needs to be designed?

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Re-Cycling, Up-Cycling, Bio-Cycling?

Google "recycled furniture" and you get some weird experiments, most of them a play on the concept of recycling like this chair made of foliage; "Commissioned by the Design Museum for the Designers in Residence programme, Harvest is a reseach project using London's flowering foliage as a raw material for furniture production. Installed in the Design Museum Tank, Jan-March 2010, and at Sawaya & Moroni, Milan April 2010"

Huge thanks to the mighty fine brains of Tim and Peter, their comments to my last post are incredibly insightful and offer a lot for designers to chew on (yes I did throw a pun in there, sorry).

I want to hear some more design voices – so I thought I would begin to articulate how I am interpreting the information flow from a design perspective and see what bounces back. How can we reverse engineer these biological models into ambitious design ideas?

Nutrient Cycles in Nature

I have a very basic understanding of nutrient cycles, and I’m likely not the only designer out there with these limitations. We’ve all seen those simple diagrams showing water flowing through a landscape, or the how nitrogen, carbon or some other basic element moves through the different layers of an ecosystem. We’ve all heard of decomposers and their vital roles. But any discussion at a molecular level is usually pretty vague.

The more I am learning in this area, the more I realize how important these principles may be for designers.

Every Organism is a Recycling Plant

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