Last week, Dr. Ashok K. Goel of the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) visited the University of Akron. Ashok delivered a talk as part of the Integrated Bioscience Seminar Series. The topic? Cognitive Challenges of Biologically Inspired Design. Given my personal interest in the biomimicry innovation process (reminder: the focus of my dissertation is creating a piece of a procedural template that could be readily implemented by R&D managers), I was absolutely enthralled. Like a tween at a Bieber concert, I was snapping photos and kneeling on my chair for a better view.
In his talk, Ashok argued that for biologically-inspired design (BID) to be successful, we need repeatability. For repeatability, we need a process scaffolding grounded in cognitive models. To build cognitive models we need to observe and document BID processes. With a sufficiently sized pool of case studies, we will be able to answer research questions like this fundamental one Ashok posed in his talk: Are the processes of BID domain-independent (e.g. different for a mechanical versus a chemistry-based challenge)?
Ashok’s research team at GT are pioneers in BID process study. They have built an impressive database of BID process case studies. Meta-analyses of these case studies has informed pedagogical strategies and development of interactive, open-source BID tools like DANE (overview here). The work being done at GT is groundbreaking, and as a researcher with similar interests, I find their publications most inspiring. I am especially interested, for example, in expanding this work from studying students in classrooms to professionals in business. Such case studies of R&D professionals engaged in biologically-inspired design in a business context are critical if we are to design a BID process scaffold that can be readily implemented by business teams. Industry is an important leverage point for accelerating biomimicry.
Many of GT’s findings about the behavior and needs of students engaged in BID may be generalizable for business application. For example, I personally think the GT research team’s finding that in BID, problem formulations evolve (sometimes changing as much as 80%) in response to identifying biological model solutions (Helms & Goel 2014), will hold across a variety of practitioner populations. I am also confident there will be a high demand from businesses for the more user-friendly computational tools the GT team has built to facilitate BID, such as ERASMUS Concept Based Exploration System. But the biomimicry research community should also engage with the understudied population of business professionals. Students, especially undergrads, are distinct from business professionals because, at an average 18-22 years old, they tend to lack crystallized attitudes (Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan 2010) and have limited first hand experience of corporate culture.
Thankfully, we are uniquely positioned here at University of Akron to help fill this gap by conducting field-based studies with business professionals. Most of the fellows have five year industrial assistantships with corporate sponsors and spend up to 20 hours a week onsite. I co-authored a BID in business process case study with Tom Marting, a GOJO colleague that will be published in the coming months (stay tuned). This publication will make a modest contribution in this area, but many more case studies are required for deep analysis. If you represent a company using BID processes, this is a call to action! Start by observing and documenting business professionals engaged in BID to better understand their cognitive behavior. If you have any insight which you can share, or would like to collaborate in these observational stages, please contact me.