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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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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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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What we Need to Learn from Nature

Julian Vincent, Professor of Biomimetics at the University of Bath, and a team of researchers wrote a paper in 2005 titled; “Biomimetics: its practice and theory”. It’s one of the earlier papers that really began to put biomimetics into context from a critical and pragmatic engineering sense. I have been dying to put this in a post, but there are so many different ways of approaching the content that I’ve been running around in circles. So let me get to the punch line and work my way back from there.

Here are two superb diagrams – cue sesame street music – can you spot the differences?:

Copyright © 2006 The Royal Society - A diagram of Engineering approaches to solving problems at an array of scales.

Copyright © 2006 The Royal Society - A diagram of Natural approaches to solving problems at an array of scales.

Noticed the big differences?

Information vs Energy

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Selective Pressures and Design

I’ve just returned from the second workshop in the B.Specialty course from the Professional Pathways Program offered by the Biomimicry Group. There were a couple of enormous insights learned from the group working dialogue that I want to use this blog to process.

Language within biomimicry is very powerful. Within the interdisciplinary discussions it is very easy to distract and confuse when the “wrong” word is used. By wrong, I mean a word that is ill-defined that means too many (or too few) things to each individual. When used right, language becomes the connective tissue between disciplines that allows cross pollination of research and concepts.

Habitat Conditions and Selective Pressures

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Biomaterials of the Future

Nanofabricated hairs that self-assemble into different structures on command. From Harvard WYSS Institute

Science fiction may be getting closer to reality in the future of materials.

The WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard is an interdisciplinary “alliance” between the internally diverse schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, as well as a broad array of Universities and Research Centres. Their focus is the development of new materials using the deep, micro scale principles of self assembling natural materials, and the vision of their research is pretty wild.

The deceptively simple mission statement of the WYSS Institute reveals incredible goals:

The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that Nature uses to build living things, and harnesses these insights to create biologically inspired materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare and create a more sustainable world… Understanding of how living systems build, recycle, and control is also guiding efforts focused on development of entirely new approaches for constructing buildings, converting energy, controlling manufacturing, and improving our environment.

The self assembled future

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Is this Biomimicry?

The classic biomimicry case study. Burrs have hooks, replicate those hooks and bingo = velcro... but is this all that biomimicry offers? Click on the link to see 7 examples of literal biomimicry.

Biomimicry and Abstraction

So… in the scenarios of sustainability I said I was struggling with my vision of a “biomimicry world”. This is not completely true… my struggle is with the sliding vision between literal interpretations and abstraction. I actually think that all the scenarios of sustainability fit in biomimicry, but that is a further conversation.

Biomimicry suffers from literal connections, replicating spider’s silk, mimicking gecko’s feet as tape and the good old burr inspired velcro. But if I suggest that Lego is biomimicry because it “adapts and evolves”by “building from the bottom up” it is hard for many to see that connection. That is just ‘good design’, not biomimicry! People want the literal translation.

The typical example of where this goes wrong is when someone new to biomimicry, floored by the observation in nature, but is then frustrated that they can’t “source” that organism’s shell to layer on the roof of their building. Biomimicry is not that easy, it’s up to you, as the designer/engineer/innovator, to work how to replicate the performance of the organism in your design.

But even that is too limited. If we are only obsessed with performance, we’ll miss the bigger picture.

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Biomimicry as Strategy

If biomimicry principles are used to define the criteria of success for a project, whether someone is “trained” in the biomimicry tool and executes it according to the defined methodologies or not, the end result will fit into the broader vision if the project is successful. Conversely, as outlined here, if the tool is applied without criteria of sustainability from the beginning, there is no guarantee biomimicry adds holistic sustainable value to the process. Therefore, a shift (or a balance) must be made from training specific skill sets of “tool application”, to defining clear, measurable criteria that has value to a project’s stakeholders.

For example: Biomimicry as Tool

Eastgate Building

A favourite case study of biomimicry for the broad impact and scalable success.

Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, by Mick Pearce Architect and OVE Arup engineering. They were tasked with the challenge of building a large complex in a desert environment without energy sucking air conditioning units. They could have taken any approach to resolve this challenge, and there are many examples of passively cooled buildings that do not take explicit inspiration from nature.

But, Mick was inspired by a documentary by David Attenborough that led his engineering team to develop a solution inspired by the termite mound, which has since become a celebrated icon of biomimicry. It is an excellent case study, they saved an enormous initial cost, continue to achieve enormous energy savings, and the chimney effect of drawing cold air up through a building has sense been replicated and advanced through many different applications.

So What?

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Does Biomimicry as a Tool = Sustainability?

Recently I have begun to learn the difference between vision, strategy and tactic. These are not new concepts for me, personally, but until now I had never understood why the specifics necessarily mattered. To help explain this let me summarize these concepts as best I can.

Strategy = What. Tactic = How. Vision = Why.

(Note: enormous thanks to Alex Manu, and apologies for enormous over simplification).

What problem needs to be solved? What need must be met? What opportunity must be taken? These are questions of strategy, that guide the success of an individual, organization or business. The tactical challenge is to resolve those problems, meet the needs, or seize the opportunities. The vision is the driving force behind why anyone would commit to undertaking those challenges.

This has become important to me recently as I realized I was focusing on a tactical tool, while overlooking any strategic vision. If it sounds as though I am speaking in riddles, then you get a small glimpse into the circling chaos inside my mind as these ideas collide painfully together. Let me explain.

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Genius of Place: Concept Definition

Genius of Place, or the horribly political sounding GofP, is a concept in biomimicry of learning from “nature’s genius” in a specific location. It can be used in reference to the exploration of integrating nature back into a location, habitat restoration, understanding what nature would want to naturally do if humans were not in the way and then removing those barriers and assisting in natural growth.

Or it can be used, within a design process, to identify natural principles of an location that can be replicated in design. Architecture and urban planning, disciplines that are directly associated with a specific location, are the most obvious examples of where this has value.

Why is Genius of Place Important?

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