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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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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Using Biomimicry to Rethink the “Wall” – Design Project

Lauren Dynes: sketches of the design context, what is a wood frame wall?

Lauren Dynes, who is now doing her Masters of Architecture in Calgary, explored the redesign of the internal wall for her biomimicry project. It might sound dry to some of you, but the wall was an interesting choice because of how fundamentally unchanged and standardized it is as both a concept and a product. When we think of walls, flat white surfaces generally come to mind, along with drywall and studs, bricks and mortar or maybe concrete.

When we compare the subdivisions of space within architecture to similar metaphors in biology it is clear that our designs lack the multifuncional complexity as the membranes that occur within nature.

Bridging Design to Biology

The above design spiral is the methodology we structured this project around, which will explain the key titles Lauren uses in her images. Note: that the design spiral I use has slightly different language than those you may have seen at other workshops.

For this project the first stage of the design process was articulating an understanding of the design challenge and translating observations into questions of nature. The core challenges at this stage being;

  • What are the core challenges or opportunities within the design project? (IDENTIFY)
  • How to start researching natural models. (TRANSLATE)

For those of you that are yet to try this process it can be very tricky trying to word open ended and yet specific questions of both design and nature.

Image by Lauren Dynes: We asked the students to identify 5 core challenges or opportunities they saw in their project, and translate those to "biologized" questions.

 

Image by Lauren Dynes: note that some of the questions sound broad and naive, we are deliberately challenging the students to ask open ended questions...

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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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Biomimicry is Not “Just” Biology Research

Superb diagram by Carla Gould and Jessica Ching - mapping out from hindsight the evolution of an 18 month biomimicry design project.

Having taught biomimicry for 6 years now, you’d think preparing for another wave of students would be relatively straight forward. In fact, it is probably more complex now that it ever has been before. Bruce Hinds (my co-teacher) and I have taught this enough times to be confident with the material, so much so that we are growing increasingly ambitious for meaningful projects to emerge from the class. Consequently, the question that drives the class has evolved from “how can we do biomimicry” to “where should we do biomimicry”. In other words;

What design topics should we tackle?

 Why is this a challenge?

Biomimicry is not “just” biology research. It also includes design research. While this might be obvious for some, there are many more who think the design insights should magically appear from thin air, with no need for context from the area of research. The reality suggests otherwise, and requires that in the limited time we have in the class room, our students need to cover twice as much ground. On one hand you think sounds straightforward, the students are in their higher years, and therefore have been exposed to a lot of design process already, but the reality is, introducing biology research adds a layer of healthy complexity to the design research and makes the whole process more time consuming (also pronounced “rewarding”).

And guess what, this is also the reason why businesses and design practices are not jumping vigorously on the biomimicry bandwagon; it’s hard work.

The good news about biology research

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