To earn a PhD, a student must make an original contribution to his or her field of study. The novelty requirement can channel the student into a highly specialized research area. Whether measuring propulsion pressures produced when penguins poop or the effect of cocaine on honey bee dance behavior, to borrow some EXTREME examples, it’s important to periodically climb out of the rabbit hole and pause for philosophical reflection. For students specializing in biomimicry, this means asking:
- What does a world built through biomimetic innovation look like?
- Does the biomimicry community have a shared vision for the future?
- If so, what mode of inquiry will help us achieve that shared vision?
We are pioneers in this field, and as such, have a responsibility to contribute to its philosophical development.
I recently made a modest contribution to the philosophical development of biomimicry via a publication in Global Built Environment Review. The article, titled “Biomimetic Buildings: The Emerging Future of Architecture,” is open access. You can download it here. In the article, I try to develop coherent responses to common criticisms of biomimicry, which stem from philosophical misunderstandings. See abstract below.
Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by Earth’s diverse life forms which, thanks to billions of years of evolutionary refinement, embody high-performance, resource-efficient design solutions. Dismissing large potential ecological and economic returns associated with biomimicry, critics argue the approach 1) diminishes the role of the human designer; 2) relies on suboptimal models due to evolutionary incrementalism; 3) demands humans repress their impulse to build; and 4) depletes architecture of human meaning. The purpose of this article is to defend the merits of biomimicry by revealing how poorly founded these assertions are. Each is based on an outdated paradigm that we must shed in order to nurture a new era of architecture.
Let me know what you think of the article in the comment section!
Hi all, Thanks again for tuning in. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first annual national biomimicry forum and education summit. The following is a transcript of the talk I gave including some of the associated imagery. Hope you all enjoy Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure: Continue reading
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
So this week, I picked up watching chef documentaries in my free time. Inevitably, in the course of the documentary, the chef goes to a farm, a boat, the forest, or a market to find ingredients which comprise a part of one of the stunning dishes shown in a montage later in the documentary. The chef in the scene searches for only the most remarkable ingredients. During the scene, the supplier will usually discuss the ingredient in some amount of detail to help the audience better appreciate the care which goes into producing that ingredient. One which really caught my attention was a discussion on mescal. The producer collects the agave and separates them not only by species, but also by growing location and age. Context is key in making the best possible product. This led me to think about the role of context in seeing what we can achieve in biomimicry.
This semester, most of the fellows are participating in a design course. Though I have been working with my corporate sponsor for almost a year at this point, it is interesting to utilize the biomimicry design process in an interdisciplinary group, with designers, engineers, and biologists working together to tackle problems. What I have personally noted from my experience thus far is the rapid ability of these teams to translate biological inspiration into innovative ideas. Because I do not have background in biology, searching for and understanding biological systems which fit my problems can be a bit taxing. I utilize the resources which are currently out there, and do not always find that for which I am looking. Sometimes I’ll find papers, but I will get lost in the details. Working as a team with biologists has been much different, in terms of being able to extract the lessons behind the natural systems, without having to sift through the many details, but also in terms of accessing a wealth of natural systems which I would not have been easily able to find on my own.
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.
Uniting the sciences is not that trivial.
I’d argue physics has done a lot in terms of breaking down the barriers between the sciences. Each science has their own physics—certain equations of phenomenon that work for their own field.
So in a sense, I can imagine physics as the center of the sciences. Only because physics brings both numbers and theory (math only brings the numbers), and it’s the theory that makes it all make sense.
To give some context, consider all of the physics off-shoots of our central fields: physical chemistry, biomechanics, biophysics, geophysics, etc. Not to mention physics’ attempt at a theory of everything—which is really just a theory of the small (which if correct is technically everything).
But I’m not convinced physics is the best intersection.
I see the problem though stemming from the way we convey physics (not that it isn’t a great choice for an intersection of the sciences). We teach it as separate things, each phenomenon has its own set of equations and rules, though they can be derived from some starting principles (newton, thermodynamics). Ultimately, by building it up as separate ideas, with clearly different models, the unity is lost: how can they work together?
This brings me finally to Biomimicry.
Biology isn’t just a good resource for solutions, it also creates great examples of the separate concepts can work together.
Biology is the application of physics. There are too many organisms that utilize the many types of physics to accomplish a goal. In a sense I would bet that anything we teach in class could be found in an organism.
The point of this is to unify the sciences not through a theory of everything, but rather a unified subject of study. Such that when we learn about physics/chemistry/engineering/mechanics it’s in the context of biology.
Unification through a common application rather than a common equation.
I think this would be a good foundation for someone who is considering an interdisciplinary path; where things are seldom purely one thing.
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
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