Design in the Age of Biology

I have been re-reading a superb paper by Hugh Dubberly about the future of design as we (which I mean in the grandest sense) move into an age of biology. Every time I read it through something new sticks out at me. The paper is an excellent review of a whole range of different ideas of change, transition and sometimes tension.

Throughout the paper there are a series of tables summarizing these ideas. This one below is a personal favourite:

Source: Hugh Dubberly -

Source: Hugh Dubberly – Principles of Organization

What stands out to me are the discussions about control, the shifting relationships and the “stopping condition”. Biology suggests a concept of good enough – optimizing over time – which is outside of the scope for human design when the solution being generated is fixed. I’m personally fascinated by what this implies for ideas being more “malleable”, which is easy to understand when it comes to software and coding, but a little more abstract when it comes to tangible design. But what if architecture begins to become organic?

Source: Dezeen - by Gilles Retsin of Softkill Design

Source: Dezeen – by Gilles Retsin of Softkill Design

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Design Thinking Resources

The internet is a wonderful and bizarre thing. I received a lovely mail today saying that someone “liked” my blog post. With my ego getting a little bit of encouragement I went and investigated. It turns out that Stefanie Di Russo is a PhD candidate at my old university (that I didn’t graduate from) in Melbourne. Wow that is a small world.

Even better it turns out that Stef produces enormous quantities of excellent, thoughtful content all with wonderful illustrations. I may have had a very good coffee this morning, because I just spend the last hour scouring her blog and writing many rambling comments. I thoroughly recommend you to explore her site, with a couple of entry points that may be of key value:

The History of Design Thinking

Source: Stefanie Di Rosso - We've all seen these diagrams, but I like the evolving solution as the finishing point. I know I am going to redraw this at least three times in the next two weeks.

Source: Stefanie Di Rosso – We’ve all seen these diagrams, but I like the evolving solution as the finishing point. I know I am going to redraw this at least three times in the next two weeks.

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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

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Biophillic Design and Biomimicry

Image by Unknown: Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water is a famous example of biophilia for it's integration into the landscape.

In a research project I am exploring right now we are researching the sensory experiences of people within the built environment. There are some great concepts coming together that I’ll share in upcoming posts, but one of the themes that keeps reoccurring is the difference between biomimicry and biophilia. It’s not something that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past, but I’ve found a few resources I’d like to share.

E. O. Wilson

I have to admit I still haven’t read E. O. Wilson’s original writing on the subject, but his quote that captures the essence of biophilia is;

“… the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

You can find many, many wonderful quotes from E. O. Wilson, but this particular one came form a gorgeous brochure for the E. O. Wilson Centre for Biophillia.

What is Biophilia

Image by Unknown: Boston Methodist Hospital, in Michigan (left) and Alberta Hospital (right).

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Deep Principles from Nature

Image from Biomimicry Group: This evolving list of deep principles is a complex tool for deep inspiration. It is at the core of biomimicry as a systemic, regenerative innovation tool, and requires many people, like Kathy Zarsky, to experiment with methods of telling these stories. Click for a larger version.

Life’s Principles

Life’s principles are the deep principles of nature that fuel and inspire deep sustainability, or whatever is beyond that concept. These principles, in the table above, are present in all organisms at multiple scales and levels. They are the deep criteria for thriving and surviving on earth, while creating conditions conducive to life. It is through these principles that work is done to prevent superficial biomimicry, because each principles challenges humans to think systemically within a broader context than a single organism. As a consequence they can be challenging stories to tell (I have two lectures that go over 2 and half hours each…).

Enter Kathy Zarsky, alumni from the Biomimicry Specialty Certificate.

Image from Kathy Zarsky: example of one entry into materials use - when visiting the site, click on the various links to see different layers of stories regarding these principles.

Kathy is driven by complexity and the desire to tell deep, interconnected stories of relationships. Not satisfied with a list of life’s principles, Kathy built a web site with extraordinary depth of content. This web site goes through the life’s principles with examples from nature, case studies from design and a personal synthesis summarizing the need and opportunities of exploring these deep insights.

I thoroughly recommend spending some time and patience exploring the content, as there is a lot of depth and as with all complicated tools, it will take a moment to get into the flow of Kathy’s thinking.

Seeing the Principles in Action

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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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Learning from a Barrel Cactus

Image by Rui Felix: Above banner is a small crop from one of the many rich images Rui developed for this project. Each image file is quite big, and has a lot of great content to process.

I have recently developed a slight obsession around barrel cactus. They have become my go to organism when introducing biomimicry, especially in workshop exercises that gets an audience engaged in biomimicry.

To start the biomimicry class this year we ran the Barrel Cactus project and had a huge success. I have several case studies I want to share, and today’s is from an Environmental Design undergraduate student from OCAD University; Rui Felix. And I will warn you in advance, the images are superb, and you may want to set aside some time to really process the content.

Project Overview

The project we ran began in class and stretched over a couple of weeks. The core learning objectives included; general awareness around biomimicry, early concepts of biology, and practicing skills of observation and abstraction.

We began with a general discussion around “selective pressures”, defining the context for the barrel cactus, encouraging students to recognize that visual “features” of a cactus are actually “adaptations” to survival. Or from a design perspective; “solutions” to “problems” posed within the habitat. The exercise deliberately merges language of biology with design, to encourage students to engage using similar observation tools they would use in other design research investigations.

Observation through Sketching

Image by Rui Felix: Observational Sketches and Diagrams outlining insights from the Barrel Cactus

Rui Felix has outlined a stunning page above that summarizes the diverse observations made in class around the barrel cactus. You can see both sketches of form and process. Personal favourites are the digrams of light and shade, comparing the cactus ribs to a circle or square cross section.

This is an example of design research communicating biology in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience. I believe this general format should be integrated into tools such as Ask Nature.

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