Materials Good News Stories

I’ve been collecting a handful of good news stories around materials for a rainy day. These are not crazy, wild stories, but accessible innovations that are commercially available. They’re not thrilling like silk from a hagfish, but they are real, which is very important.

Are Vacuum Cleaners the Measure of Success?

Image from MBA Polymers Website: Example vacuum cleaner using EvoSource™ ABS 4136. The example is boring, but I think that is a success of the material.

TED talks like this one from Capt. Charles Moore have me convinced that recycled plastic is mostly a myth. His research has suggested that exactly “diddly squat” percent of plastic is recycled. While that sounds a little harsh, it’s probably not far from the truth. Ever since my rant about upcycling in nature I have been looking for examples where plastic is not only recycled, but is also used at a high quality. MBA Polymers is a company that has an impressive sourcing program for collecting high grade polymers that can be produced at a level that replaces virgin materials. The products they are being used for are not earth shattering; vacuum cleaners and desk top stationary items, but perhaps that is actually the point. When “high-end” recycled plastic is used for standard items, maybe that means the material is doing it’s job and doesn’t require a fancy design statement to make it legitimate.

Plastic Toys that Return to the Beach?

Image from website: Beach toy that will return to being sand, sort of.

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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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Is Urban Sprawl a Bad Thing?

Is it possible to compare a groundhog's burrow to our suburbs?

Continuing on from the my thoughts yesterday, how do you explore design research and biology research in parallel?

Using nature to prove your idea

It is very tempting to look to nature to find “proof” that justifies your pre-existing idea. Often it is easy to find a connection between natural systems and the theoretical best-practices within the fields of urban planning, architecture and industrial design. But if you  are already aware of these ideas, has the biology research really helped you? And if these best-practices remain theoretical and mostly unachieved, are you even asking the right questions?

Perhaps in some cases this is all the heart desires, confirmation that you’re exploration is heading in the right direction, and new stories to help convey the thinking to your often unwilling audience.

But biomimicry should be about making “new” insights and observations that shift, challenge and expand how we approach design, business and engineering challenges. In order to achieve this level of insight a completely different mindset is required. The investigation requires ego to be set aside and preconceived wisdom to be parked on the back shelf and  freedom to explore some rabbit holes whose end destinations may be unclear.

Is urban sprawl a bad thing?

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Scenarios of Sustainability & Biomimicry

I don't really have a good image to go with this post, so here are some kangaroos.

Ok wonderful people out there, I need some input. I’m framing a discussion around scenarios of sustainability and the deeper I get into the issues of design, the further I get from inspiration from nature. It may be because I am in a process of trying to over simplify things and might not be seeing the wood for the trees, so I’m looking for some feedback.

Scenarios of Sustainability:

I want to qualify that my statements below are my first attempt at articulating what the scenarios of sustainability are from a product design perspective. I’m not sure all my generalizations below will stand up to Architectural investigation (yet), and am well aware that there are huge issues (social sustainability, cultural diversity) that are not being tackled (yet).

Scenario A: We stop consuming

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Utopian (?) Visions of the Future

The opening introduction to the project. A postcard for those who wish to announce they have "arrived". Not totally sure who to credit for the image - but please look at their web site.

It’s surprising that there isn’t more art generated to communicate a future to aspire towards. Anyone my age missed the great enthusiasm of futurism during the 50s and 60s and is more used to apocalyptic visions from Terminator, Bladerunner, etc.

The magic of the project are the enthusiastic blurbs on the back of the "postcards" for revellers to post home.

Liam Young and David Chen are contributors to the “Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today” blog, which is rich with design fiction provocations that are superb to wander through. One of my favourites, and in fact how I discovered them, is a project called “Where The Grass Is Greener”. It’s a tongue in cheek vision of a utopian future;

“Where The Grass Is Greener” documents a radical alternative in contemporary living, an urban infrastructure, a social experiment, a political statement…. Three thousand residents and counting. In London’s outer suburbs, a community has gathered walling themselves off from the rest of society. These postcards bear testament to their vision.

More postcards for your viewing pleasure

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Advertising and Sustainability

Saatchi & Saatchi S - model for change - from their website.

Due to the bias of my upbringing, slipping advertising and sustainability into the same sentence seems like a complete contradiction. Take a step back, however, and it is not so different from the emerging conversations in disciplines like architecture and industrial design. All design disciplines in some way have contributed to the problems we currently face, and all professional practices are looking for ways of remaining relevant in a changing world.

Robin Uchida, a brilliant mind who is part of Torch Partnership was telling me today of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi’s move into the strategic sustainability realm through establishment of a new arm; Saatchi & Saatchi S. Listening to how they position themselves casts the advertising agency in a different light. Pay attention to their language:

Saatchi & Saatchi S is a full service strategy and communications firm focused on “activating companies for good.”  We believe that engaged, inspired, and values-driven employees are the foundation of sustainable companies and innovative brands.

Powerful Language

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Solutions before Bans

When John Warner was discussing the need to remove harmful chemicals, such as red dyes that cause cancer, he made a point that replacements must be found before bans can be enforced.

He used a couple of examples, citing chemicals that had been banned, only to now become more used than ever  due to loop holes invented because there were no viable alternatives.

Any scenario of sustainability must be built upon this methodology. Change will not occur unless change is possible, and of course, either comfortable or required. In the context of green chemistry, John Warner suggests that industrial chemists now have two sets of tool kits available to them. The green set is the one everyone would like to use, but when you open the drawers it is more than 90% empty. Unfortunately the only option then is to revert back to the other tool kit and grab something that works, even if you know there is the possibility of some nasty unforeseen consequences.

John’s life’s work is trying to fill that green tool box, and motivating other industrial chemists to do likewise.

I think the analogy extends to most disciplines. Architects would love something to replace the fibreglass insulator batts, but even the natural fibre alternatives are treated with such nasty chemicals it is unclear which is better. We hear this sort of conundrum repeated over and over again in many different disciplines.

We need to make sure we don’t vilify the people who are doing the best with what we have right now, but it’s damn scary watching the known nastiness continue unabated.

So… I am going to use my humble blog to celebrate the people at the fringe who are pushing the envelope on the alternatives and hopefully creating the scenarios of the future. Here goes…

Cell Phone as Fruit Fly

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Green Chemistry and the Future of How Stuff is Made

I just returned from the Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, which was fantastic, and explains a little lull (breather) in the blog postings. I will warn you that if I get a spare moment there will be a torrent of ideas bouncing around that have been stirred up over the last few days.

Remember the discussion about the future of materials? Biodegradability as a scenario of sustainability? On Monday morning John Warner, the godfather of green chemistry, gave a talk about his journey and the true story of  how stuff could and should be made in the future.

He also shared the secrets of the future of hair dye, but you’ll have to ask him directly for that.

For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of seeing an industrial chemist spin an incredible, compelling tale about the reality of the profession, I have included one of John’s lectures below. It is an incredibly important story, because to most of us Industrial Chemistry is a pretty frightening partnership of concepts. It is a black box of science that shapes everything we do, and yet is poorly understood by most. It turns out that it is even poorly understood by the chemists, who have traditionally had absolutely no formal education in toxicology, and therefore an extremely limited understanding of the impact of the synthetic chemicals produced.

So I invite you to explore John Warner’s story, which includes connections between music composition and chemistry (which is an incredible concept). I’ll be diving into this area for more resources and ideas, there is a lot of emerging information to be explored.

John Warner runs the Warner Babcock Institute, which will, I hope, shape everything in the future.

Communicating Complex Concepts

I’m picking my jaw off the floor after watching some of the most compelling animated essays to explain incredibly complex concepts.

The animation below, from RSA (not sure I understand who they are, yet), discusses the anxiety created by excess choice, a byproduct of a capitalist consumer culture that reinforces a feedback loop. The content is pretty heavy stuff, and you may or may not be interested in the message. But the medium is incredible! This is an incredible example of using design – in this case illustration and visualization – to disseminate information.

My brain is beginning to fry with ideas for transforming complex essays into interactive essays that people can digest in different ways.

Enjoy the movie below on choice and cultural change.

Or if you prefer… here is one on changing education paradigms.

For more, explore here.

I want to start a project communicating scenarios of sustainability using this medium of essay/illustration. Absolutely amazing.

What Should we Learn from Nature?

This is going to be a quick post, because I have no idea how to answer the question, but found it intriguing that this question is not really being asked.

Cradle to Cradle is such a simple concept. It focuses on chemicals, has a narrow bandwidth of what is and isn’t acceptable, and through thorough analysis and investigation, that you would assume (incorrectly) was happening in the first place, leads to the approval of a small number of chemicals to be used in a final application. The redesign of the product using this refined palette to work from, leads to a chain of innovations from production to post consumption.

Biomimicry is not a simple concept. Cradle to Cradle can be argued broadly to be an element of biomimicry, along with a huge range of other creative and sustainability concepts. I’m not always sure this is a good thing.

As part of the scenario of sustainability around biomimicry, what do we actually need to learn from nature?

I’m going to treat this as an iterative discussion and return to it later once I have a little chance to process. I’m curious about how we should strategically approach this discussion.