Earlier this month, August 2016, I had the privilege of leading an evening reception for the NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. (OAI = Ohio Aeronautical Institute). A group of 60 attendees gathered inside the Primates, Cats, and Aquatics Building of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as we engaged in a discussion of Biomimicry in Your Backyard. I selected three common backyard critters to demonstrate how easy it is to find inspiration in the spaces around us every day: La Plata Armadillo, Eastern Box Turtle, and Children’s Python. This week’s blog will feature our one and only “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus).
As we’ve discussed before, biomimicry is accomplished by two possible methods: 1) Start with a question and look to nature for a solution, or 2) Start with an inspiring organism and discover what problems can be solved using that particular structure or behavior. Working in the zoo setting, I typically start with the latter. Whether I am preparing for our Biomimicry/Ecophysiology class within our Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University of Ohio and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, answering a question from one of our educators while preparing a program, or speaking at an event for Great Lakes Biomimicry, this is the case. I am given an animal and I start my research. My starting point is generally: What makes this organism unique? It is in this uniqueness that inspiration jumps out at you! I encourage all of you to try this any time you have a moment outdoors to think. It is really amazing what a person can dream up once the trigger is pulled. We will start at this point with our armadillo inspiration.
What makes an armadillo unique? Particularly, the La Plata Armadillo? I would play the Jeopardy music in the background, but I don’t think it will take you that long to come up with the answer: the carapace. The scutes are hard dermal bone with keratin—very similar to a tortoise shell. La Plata, also commonly called the 3-banded armadillo, has a shoulder plate and hip plate with dermal hinges to allow flexibility. This is the only species of armadillo that is able to roll into a complete ball, courtesy of a head plate and armored tail. The Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) contrastingly, has a soft outer shell.
The carapace offers several advantages. Most obviously, perhaps, is protection. The La Plata Armadillo is nearly impenetrable when he rolls into a ball. The only predator that could possibly open this shell needs to have opposable thumbs. However, even with this advantage, most predators would find the benefit (food) is not worth the cost (time) it takes to open. It also offers fortification measures by pinching the opposition in its hinges.
Another advantage of the carapace for this dweller of arid environments is thermal regulation. While all armadillos live in regions with temperatures between 92-97°F, the La Plata Armadillo can survive even hotter climates. One might think the shell would keep heat trapped inside the body, but the dermal hinges serve as climate control, allowing for air flow between the hinges.
Lastly, all armadillos have this really cool ability to travel across water. How?! They can hold their breath for really long periods of time. This allows them to walk on the bottom of riverbeds and waterways. What if they don’t want to walk? Like other mammals, they can suck in air and float across the water! Nothing can stop these guys from getting to the other side!
So I ask … what does the armadillo inspire in you?
Last week I had the pleasure to submerge myself in the rainy, flat, yet beautiful landscapes of the Netherlands.
Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park, Netherlands
Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”
Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.
1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life
Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a “dynamic non-equilibrium” or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.
Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.
By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.
2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young
Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.
Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea?
If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.
3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation
As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs.
Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.
4. You have two different ways to impact your environment
Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.
How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.
In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!
5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom
You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”
Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.
There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.
Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”
Further Readings — Inspiring books
- The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
- Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
- Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
- Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
- All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter
This post was originally posted on Medium.com
Over the course of hundreds of millions of years our forest has evolved to become an intricate design of function and self-support. After researching anything and everything of plant evolution this week, I have become even more in love with these photosynthetic critters. There is much biomimicry to be learned from plants: urban design, architecture, engineering, and cooperation among individuals. Now, let’s talk plants!
First, the importance of community: herbaceous, shrub, and canopy levels are put in place to create a sustainable environment for each individual and the community as a whole. (For the sake of clarity, herbaceous layers are typically knee-high and below, shrub layers are knee high to five meters, and canopy layers are anything above five meters). Within each layer, there are different sizes, shapes, and colors that allow efficient flow of resources.
The colors of plants hamper the effects of sunlight, dependent on location of the plant. Dark leaves absorb more light than light-colored leaves. Consider the dark needles of the conifer. Known to be in areas where sunlight can be limited, the dark needles allow them to take full advantage of any sunlight they receive. The cactus, on the other hand, has no shortage of sunlight in the open desert. Typically light-colored, cactus stems reflect light, preventing them from scorching in the direct sunlight. Leaf size and shape differ among species, as well. Leaves with a higher surface area are directly related to increased cooling effects. Surface area is increased by features like prickles and hairs: cactus spines, roughness of an Ulmus leaf. Research has indicated that in urban shaded areas, there is an air temperature decrease of up to 2.5℃ and a surface-soil temperature decrease of up to 8℃ (1). Leaf and plant shapes are important in much the same way as color. Larger leaves are designed to absorb more light, but what is particularly interesting to this midwestern girl is the efficient shape of the cactus. The star shape, specifically, is linked to a more energy-efficient building design in architecture. There is less surface area to receive sunlight, this buildings require less air conditioning (less energy) to cool the building.
Biomimicry is using the plant communities for inspiration. Designing urban areas with community structure in mind seems to be on the mind of some city planners. In a forest, every ‘layer’ is utilized for the benefit of both the individual and the community as a whole. Waste is reduced because there is no waste. Every material is used in some way. This is just the structural level of urban design. There is a much deeper level that is being inspired by plant communities. The ecosystem services that they offer abound. Treehugger.com quotes Janine Benyus herself as saying, “The city would provide the same level of services as the forest next door.” In the interview, she also describes the ability of a city to “build fertile soil, filter air, clean water, sequester carbon, cool the surrounding temperature, provide biodiversity and produce food.” By city planners, engineers, and architects designing infrastructure in the same way and having a conscious use of materials, we may be able to reduce energy costs and limit heat islands. The prospect of inner cities being as aesthetically pleasing as a forest is an added bonus!
Two weeks to finishing my first academic year, I’m feeling inspired to talk about our course on developing a product using biomimicry; Michael introduced it here. For this course, we worked with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Nottingham Spirk. Nottingham Spirk (NS) gave us the problem and some deadlines. Milestones we had were for coming up with areas we’d like to target, developing the concepts, and finally refining our product designs.
What is the first step to go from biology to a product or vice versa? It was a bit messy for me, considering I am also still learning about many biological organisms, but I am pleased with our results and the progress we made.
First, we worked on our target audience, drawing mind maps of stakeholders and key opportunities. We divided into subgroups based on our interest in particular key opportunity areas. There was only one condition: having almost an equal number of Biomimicry Fellows from University of Akron biomimicry and designers from the Cleveland Institute of Art on every team.
And then we started… Not sure how to go about it, we looked at current products, specific issues within our key opportunity area, as well as asknature.org, other books and papers on animal’s adaptaptions. By end of February, we were ready to give a report to NS about the issues we were targeting and organisms that could potentially help us and got their feedback.
Our next step was to develop concepts by end of March. Here, we needed to read more and actually think of a specific problem and solution. I would say, while researching current market, it was not difficult to see where we can introduce new products and what’s missing. The more challenging part was abstracting ideas from biology. We had a format to follow similar to asknature.org: it included writing first the abstracted function, then the strategy the model organism uses and finally extracting design principles. This time NS were more specific on which ideas they were interested in having us pursue and which they were not. Then it was time to form new groups based on the latest product ideas we were moving forward with. Now, for our final work, my team focused on one specific product and our concept looked to many organisms (from ducks to rabbits) for inspiration. Our final report is today. yay!
Couple of things I learned:
– It was wonderful to work in groups of various specialties (mine included industrial designer, polymer scientist, product designer and me)
– Drawing/talking about ideas helped in better grasping the biological function.
– When there is no actual structure to follow, the flexibility lends to creativity.
– Having many groups, it was interesting to see what each team has come up with and inspirations are endless.
– Designers are great in making an idea come alive and look appealing!
– There are many complicated texts in biology for non-biologists, but, knowing what function you’d like to learn about makes it much easier to research and pictures do speak 1000 words.
– I’m more excited today than when I joined the biomimicry degree.
Till next time, Happy Biomimicking!
We’ve done much damage to our planet. We’ve cut down trees. We’ve used pesticide and fertilizer chemicals on our soil and plants. The good news is this: the planet was designed to heal itself. To first begin, we need to help. I believe we can use bioremediation to fix some of the environmental problems we have created and as a preventative mediation for future issues. Continue reading
Biomimicry is a tool/discipline that can be used in many fields ranging from industrial design, architecture, engineering, math, and even computer science. Being from a graphic design background and practicing digital painting, I find myself struggling to find exactly where biomimicry fits within the digital aesthetics realm. Can a designer/artist practice digital arts in a biomimetic way, or are the digital arts just a good tool to perform and carry out biomimetic thinking within a digital space? Surely when you are 3D modeling a biomimetic building or product on your computer, you are aiding in the biomimetic design process, but the 3D modeling process itself isn’t the thing that is biomimetic, is it? Biomimicry, in root words terms, is the act of mimicking life. How literally should we take this? Is virtual reality a sort of biomimicry because it does just that; mimics life? Maybe it’s just a useful tool to aid in the design process. These are some of the things I hope to figure out in my studies, but I’m finding as I dig deeper that when approaching biomimicry with a digital aesthetics lens, that it’s not just about the design process and appearance, but also about how using digital tools can help learn or experience something in the natural world. It is possible that, like art, digital aesthetics is particularly useful to inspire, evoke emotions, and increase understanding using the natural world as a muse. Continue reading
Thank you for continuing to follow us, the biomimicry fellows, as we continue to probe the depths of nature’s solution manual in search of sustainability. I find it a little ironic that I had the privilege to kick off the school year and now I will be closing out the first semester for the new biomimicry fellows. Over the last fifteen weeks we have been endeavoring to discover more about this thing we call biomimicry. I’d like to take a second to share a few of my thoughts that have been shaped this semester. Continue reading
Being involved with the development of this first-of-its-kind Biomimicry PhD program and having co-founded two startups, I’ve experienced how challenging communication can be in these fast-paced, quickly evolving environments. Luckily we can learn a lot from the world around us! Although not many other organisms use “verbal” communication like we do, they have developed very intricate and successful strategies to collaborate and co-exist. Continue reading
Traffic on my way back from Thanksgiving break gave me a block of time to think about biomimicry. In particular, I had time to think about the boring situation in which I had found myself. Car accidents in the rain had caused all of the other cars to stop as emergency services responded. What was interesting is how a setback in the flow of traffic caused delays which lengthened my trip time by quite a few hours. The traffic was not very responsive to difficulties. When I arrived home, my heater was not working. Therefore, I had to go to the closet and grab a few extra blankets so I could sleep without freezing. I was able to respond to a challenge with a manageable enough solution. Continue reading
TED and TEDx events showcase speakers with “ideas worth spreading.” In September, the University of Akron hosted a TEDx event. The theme of TEDxUniversityofAkron was “Breaking the Mold.” Breaking the Mold means doing things differently in a way that challenges social norms and drives innovation to its true potential. I was honored to be an invited speaker. Continue reading