Design, Engineering, Science – Their Differences through the lens of Biomimicry

Is this holy trinity of innovation? Note: Am making sure that strategy and tactics are at the same hierarchy - I think that is critical.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time with amazing people over the last couple of weeks. These include everything from researchers in basic science laboratories looking for nature’s recipes, to architects working on enormous projects collaborating directly with engineers, and the never ending flow of creative students who keep willingly signing up for my design thinking experiments. At the risk of gross over simplification, I’m beginning to see some repeating patterns.

Vision, Strategy and Tactics – the holy trinity of innovation

I wrote about vision, strategy and tactical thinking when I first began this blog, but it has never really been out of my mind. Here is my current synthesis regarding what they mean to me;

  • Vision = WHY. These are the fundamental values that drive an individual or business forward, and ultimately form the framework to measure success.
  • Strategy = WHAT. This defines the opportunities within the vision, or the problems that must be solved, in order to achieve the vision.
  • Tactics = HOW. These are the pragmatic, executable actions that must be resolved in order to achieve the vision.
Innovation occurs when all three elements line up and are achieved. While the above explanation ridiculously simplifies an incredibly complex process, it has helped me frame design process and scientific research in context.

Design as Strategy, Science and Engineering as Tactics

Is anyone offended by the above generalizations? There are of course individuals or sub categories within disciplines that live more one one side than another... perhaps business should also sit on the left page, fitting in at the why/what stage

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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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Impact of Behaviour

Behaviour is the gold of strategic scenarios. If you can shift behaviour, you may be able to prevent the need for innovation/technology in the first place. The following quote is from a document: “European Green Building Technologies” and it discusses the difference in behaviour between Americans and Europeans:

Europeans don’t seem to be as sensitive as Americans to temperature excursions in the workspace. They find somewhat comical Americans’ insistence on wearing the same clothing in the office year-round and expecting the same 73F temperatures, with little variation. This expectation of year-round constant air temperature is a great hindrance in adopting natural ventilation and radiant space conditioning systems, which can’t promise the “instant response” of overhead ducted, forced ventilation systems.

In Toronto summer is coming on strong right now. There are grumblings about it being too hot (after we have gone through months of grumbling it being too cold), but I am wearing a sweater and pants while sitting at my desk as there is an A/C duct directly behind me transforming my office into an ice box. Being in a condo there is not much we can do about it, and it is surprisingly easy to get used to the luxury of a very cool home.

Also found today is a pyramid / hierarchy diagram communicating the strategic opportunities of how / where to manage water. Unsurprisingly behaviour has the biggest impact. Have a look here.

Anyway, the document above has some absolute gold when discussing the big strategic challenges and opportunities within sustainable green building. I’m going outside to read in the sun.

Strategic Design – Good Quote

I love the quote below from Yves Behar, as it summarizes my whole conversation about what is required to create real change. When asked about what car companies needed to do in order to break free from their design stagnation he said:

“They need original design briefs and 21st-century business models.”

Note: he did not call for “improved design process”, or a specific tool like “life cycle analysis” or “biomimicry”. He asked for better briefs, and the freedom within business to challenge existing models that create revenue streams. In essence;

Better questions, and new value models.

Not bad…

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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