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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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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Architecture for Birds

Continuing the Co-habitation Discussion

Home sweet home... the nest is in the yellow steel guard beam is the down town loft for the demanding chicks.

We discovered a bird’s nest wedged inside a cross beam hanging at the entrance of our condominium parking garage. It’s a brilliant example of nature’s opportunism, carving out homes in unlikely and unplanned locations throughout the city.

Our discovery feels like a hidden treasure. The steel beam has become a little secret moment of magic to watch. If we get this much pleasure from chirping chicks in a steel tube, why isn’t there more of this downtown?

Why isn’t there more integration? Cottages have their bird boxes and feeders, but not downtown. Why not integrated into the tower’s building envelope?

Nature is a Pest?

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Scenario C: The Grown – A Biomimicry World

Scenarios of Sustainability

Warning: the following will include an excessive use of question marks, as answers are far beyond me in the current scenario.

What if the world of the manufactured became the world of the grown? How literal should this future be?

Image by Steve Kinderman-AP - How comfortable will we be with a fully integrated urban ecology?

Do we want our indoors to be the same as the outdoors? What if hardwood floors and stark white walls were replaced by soft grass and flaking bark? How do we deal with the germ-o-phobia and fear of creepy crawlies inherent in the wild? Predators are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, would a healthy urban ecology be able to support larger predators, when we already struggle with accommodating pigeons and raccoons?

I’m very curious to know if these questions are currently being pursued by the true visionaries of sustainability, biomimicry, ecological design and any other label for innovation inspired by nature. There may well be some of us that wish to return to a life connected to nature and who want to see nature physically integrated into our daily lives. But the vast majority are likely happy with this inclusion being limited to the tame confines of a green wall, internal garden or meditational pond, and would like their desk free of dirt, and with blinds over the windows to prevent glare on their computer screens.

So, then, what IS the vision of a biomimicry future?

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Scenario B.5: Mass Customization – Unique Solutions

One product for one person. A solution for every personal need.

Scenarios of Sustainability for Design

Nobody knows... the troubles we've seen...

If you could make the perfect digital camera. Would you need a new one? If you played an active role in the design and creation of your winter coat, would it last more than one season? If the couch was uniquely and individually yours, would it make the trip to your new home intact, rather than left by the side of the road in anticipation for something “new” from IKEA?

Mass customization and personal fabrication is becoming a thing of the present. It is being written about aggressively in WIRED magazine and is a very real movement. Design is becoming more democratic, the tools available to more people and the process of turning idea from concept to reality is being fuelled by emerging entrepreneurial models and micro-financing.

"The Oona is a simple, versatile smart phone stand that can do as much in the physical world as your phone can do in the virtual." Just what we need...

Does this mean we will have better stuff that will last longer, meet more individual needs, and slow down cycles of consumption?

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Upgradable Digital Camera

What happens if your $32,000 camera becomes obsolete in a couple of months?

The beautiful Hasselblad H4D-200MS

While most of us are fussing about whether we really need 16 megapixels to take great party photos for facebook, there are some pretty serious photographers demanding a heck of a lot more from their machines. Hasselblad uses some amazing multishot technology, turning a 50 Megapixel camera into a 200 megapixel camera!!!

While impressive, the real story is… what if you had forked out an enormous sum of money for the previous H4D-50MS sans the super ultra level of pixel mania? Ship it back to them, part with a few extra thousand dollars and they will add some hardware, fiddle with the software, and send you back a super, duper version of the greatest camera you had ever owned.

Upgrades! On digital cameras?

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Scenario B: Endless Upgrades – The Iterative Solution

Scenarios of Sustainability within design.

What if our products never became waste?

Infinitely upgradable, endless lifecycle, constant innovation growth and evolution. Closed loops of technology cycles that are broken down, and remade into the latest generation of must have features.

Yves Behar's hackable car... cute?

What would your cell phone look like if it was infinitely upgradable?

If the high energy, high toxicity components, namely the electronic core, was re-usable and upgradable, then this could be an interesting step forward. But perhaps the scale of product is too small for realistic exploration.

Do you want to hack your car?

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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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Strategic Engineering

I need to do a deeper dive into their content. The web site has a superb array of papers and articles, with some excellent discussions around their visions and methodologies of sustainability.

Thomas Auer is a brilliant Engineer I was fortunate to meet last year in a meeting at OCAD University. He works at Transsolar KlimaEngineering, a very innovative German engineering firm that does a wide array of amazing things. More to come on that front.

While looking through my various notes as I reflect on my growing awareness of strategy and tactics I noticed something I had written down. Thomas, as a side thought, when we were discussing challenges in “green” or holistic engineering, outlined a couple of scenarios for how clients approach him. The vast bulk of clients still think in terms of the first option, but his personal focus is attracting more and more of the second option, as that is where the real change occurs. It all sounds like an echo of the discussions I have had within the field of Biomimicry.

  1. Client has moved forward with an idea, but hit a challenge that they can not resolve. They approach the engineers to solve the problem. The engineers are able to chart out a very clear, sequential process.
  2. Client is interested in challenging the scope of their project, and invites the consultant in at the beginning to establish aggressive vision. The engineers are able to shape the project proposal, and develop an integrated design process.

I need to find out if I can sit down with him again and get more information about enabling strategic engineering consultation…


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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