Biomimicry & Algorithms

What is programming and what are algorithms? Can we foster an interest in them for anyone who finds programming to be a black box? Can biomimicry help? These are the questions I’m playing around with these days. Can reference to nature take courses in logical thinking beyond typical lessons in sequences, If/Else statements and loops? . I watched The Secret Rules Of Modern Living: Algorithms(trailer) and The Code (trailer) on Netflix over the weekend, still have to finish the code, and I kept thinking ‘wow this is brilliant! I can do this!’ I also got to know about an online course on Teaching Physical Computing with Raspberry Pi through my sponsor TIES and going through it has been very interesting (Raspberry Pi is a mini, cheap computer, not a literal raspberry pie :D, inside joke!),. It led me to Scratch which helps young people learn programming.

Next, I have been thinking; Do I want to teach programming or algorithm development. The answer seems to be easy, because a way to keep someone engaged is to have results and programming is what gives algorithms an outcome. Yet, algorithms can be developed without any computer, while programs need to be written on a computer of some sort in a language (considering analog here as well). Also, it seems to me creating a lesson is different than what I want to do, which is produce a software/piece of a machine. For example, a biomimicry lesson could be similar to an exercise on learning about birds and nesting to come up with the algorithm they use. Instead of an abstract lesson, I want to deliver something students can touch and use hopefully without much outside help. That is not to say, my deliverable cannot involve students going out and experiencing nature while working on/with my product. However, my product needs to be a software and/or a hardware that is attractive, engaging by using nature’s life lessons to teach programming/algorithms to the user.

I can see how nature is brilliant for my task; it has millions of algorithms to teach and we have been learning them for quite a while in the computer science world. My goal is to bring those lessons  to the general public. At the end of The Secret Rules Of Modern Living: Algorithms movie, narrator Marcus du Sautoy mentions how our world wouldn’t function without the power of algorithms and I think that’s absolutely true! As we rely on them greatly, how can we increase everyone’s interest in them?


Biomimicry for Technology-Push (vs. Market-Pull) Innovation

Market-pull innovation is driven by customer needs. Demand for a solution to a problem triggers its development. For example, the digital camera was invented because customers grew impatient waiting for film to be developed, and expressed desire to be able to view their photos instantaneously. The philosophy behind a market-pull innovation strategy is encapsulated in the familiar adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Problem-driven biomimicry, comprising the following five iterative steps, can support market-pull innovation:

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What’s New In The World Of Fashion Tech?


What’s New In The World Of Fashion Tech?

That question was amply answered at the Kent State 2017 Fashion Tech Hackathon1 held this last weekend.Hackathon.jpgThis annual event gathers students, professionals, and many cutting-edge experts from across America, in an attempt to innovate fast and dirty practical applications of fashion and technology. The goal is to step beyond the traditional ideas of wearable tech and invent something that does more than simply blink. The idea is to get fashion tech inventors to delve into what it means to really live and function in the world as they work.

  • What about the garment’s appearance rises above the basic, superficial level?
  • What does it do?
  • What new way do we have of looking at accouterments differently than what exists already?
  • Equally important, how can we use what already exists in a completely new and more connected way?

Supported this year by Major League Hacking, various tech experts and professionals worked with inventors as mentors to guide groups to discover broader, deeper potential in the available technology and materials. Biomimicry made its introduction into the Fashion Tech Hackathon venue thanks to a PechaKucha presented by Great Lakes Biomimicry (GLBio)2 and here-all-weekend consults offered by GLBio and myself, as University of Akron education fellow. “…Biomimicry blows the inspiration-set wide open,” declared Stephanie Diane Pierce, GLBio’s Director of Creativity, Tools and Process (and incidentally, my wife, aka, Steph). Leg up.jpgIt was a statement many of the groups came to understand during the one-on-one consultations throughout the event, and several of the projects developed for presentation Sunday showed that the inventors had taken the sentiments to heart.

Naser Madi’s Hermês paragliding helmet, with its active reading, reporting, and display of mental fatigue3, GPS location, current weather patterns, altitude, and speakers took several awards. Madi added bat ears to the helmet following his biomimicry discussion, to display his discoveries about bat & owl ear apertures and his hope of refining the altitude, air-stream sensing and landing support with further research and application of biomimetic properties.Hermes.jpg

In the 36-hours allotted, Abeona group, who also took a first prize, developed a (Re)-Connect themed hiking jacket from concept to prototype, whose purpose was “…to allow total immersion into nature so technology supports it and doesn’t detract,” according to the group spokeswoman. The breathable jacket boasted an altitude sensor, pedometer, heart rate monitor, and compass located on a small-screen sleeve display. The compass also had a haptic function as a vibration in the upper arm, which occurred if the individual steered away from a determined course and which continued until the proper direction was found. The jacket’s shoulders contained flexible solar panels that charged the phone (which was then kept in a pocket, since the idea was to experience nature and not the tech). The unique business plan for these jackets was to have individuals rent the garment so that as time went on they could be updated and old materials could be stripped and re-used in closer to a closed-loop cycle4 – “We plan to recycle not only the fibers, but the technological nutrients.”

Moon Flower group created a bracelet which charts a woman’s monthly cycle. The connected app allows the wearer to track the menstrual and ovulation cycles, sexual activity, symptoms and emotions, to help cultivate supportive relationships and better the wearer’s well-being.5

Cat Call group created a concept shirt for those who suffer from extreme social anxiety or panic attacks. The intent of the shirt is to measure heart rate and stress, to notify friends and family on a preset list. The final prototype will contain haptic responses of increased weight on shoulders during time of stress and the team shared an intent to explore inclusion of an octave vibration of between 25 and 1506 to comfort the wearer, following their consultation.Teams2.jpg

Three groups from various high-schools demoed products they had created. GLBio and the University of Akron Bath Field Station have partnered with Buchtel Community Learning Centers on a series of Ohio Environmental Fund-supported biomimicry field trips to the Bath Nature Preserve and Panzner Wetland. The Martha Holden Jennings Family Foundation awarded a grant to support GLBio and Buchtel High School learners from the BRAIN program, Biostatistics Research and Awareness Network, Inc., founded by Lillian Prince7, to further some work branching from those efforts: To strengthen a community of practice working to gamify the Biomimicry Habits of Thought© and to introduce high school and college students to biomimicry at two upcoming hackathons in the process.

As practice for the first hackathon in the spring, two Buchtel High School BRAIN program learners, Nasieur and Naudia Harris, volunteered to venture into KSU’s as their first hackathon! After 36 exhausting hours, nearing completion on the last day, these Buchtel CLC learners presented on a concept centered in MUSIC, with wearable volume control via smart phone and bluetooth device, called Fashion On Mars.

Nasieur and Naudia Harris.jpg

From on-site mentors the young women learned how to run an AEIOU design framework, found that their own logo could be digitized and embroidered via computer, were introduced to Thingiverse to print a selected and re-sized 3D component, began to learn to solder, discovered a bit about how and where to find and adapt code to run their Arduino board, were introduced to the words ‘slap-happy’ (in the wee hours of day one, when the phrase seemed truly hysterical), worked to engineer their soft-membrane, slide potentiometer into the product, and discovered, of course, what biomimicry can bring to a hack. “This has been the most wonderful experience of my life,” Nasieur told her sister, in the early morning on day three, when both ladies were somehow still going strong.

A remarkably enjoyable hackathon! The numerous ideas carried out to comprehensive prototype was slightly staggering. Many products created this weekend seem likely to be carried to the next stage.

2The Biomimicry PechaKucha begins at minute 19, followed by brilliant presentations regarding potential fashion technology in (dis)Ability support and material science.

3Madi explained, the leading cause of paragliding accidents occur where the mind becomes tired while the body remains largely rested so that awareness and reaction time are drastically slowed. Since the body still has energy the brain generally doesn’t recognize that mental fatigue is critical.

4Natural Principles: Evolve to Survive, Recycle All Components and Be Resource Efficient (Material and Energy).

5The operating conditions and natural patterns or principles of design recognized by many include cyclic processes and cultivating relationships of support.

6The same octave of a cat’s purr, which has been shown to increase relaxation and healing rates.

Biomimicry and the Women’s March on Washington

This past Saturday, January 21, 2017, millions of people marched in support of women’s rights (and civil rights in general) as a response to the oppressive and misogynist messages coming from the new Administration. What started as a centralised march for women in Washington D.C. initially organised for 200,000 quickly grew to approximately 1.3 million in D.C. and 3.5 million collectively with marches occurring all over the world on every continent (yes – including Antarctica). This is an impressive display for a civil rights movement, yet especially in these times, the event(s) is not without its critics and detractors; the main critique being that this is an ad-hoc event and no change will transpire as a result. Yet as we look to hindsight of the march, we see that much of the march fit within biomimicry principles and in order to keep the momentum moving forward, there are lessons we can learn from nature to keep the march and message a success. For those unfamiliar with Biomimicry 3.8’s Life’s Principles, they are essentially nature’s design blueprints – a set of commonly evolved strategies that have emerged over billions of years.

The march initially started as an idea with the leadership of four main women (and one very intelligent male), yet even within that small subset of leadership, diversity was intentionally incorporated into the foundation and philosophy of the movement. The grassroots movement, carrying the ethos of diversity, was built from the bottom up, and as it grew, it was necessary to decentralise the leadership (yet keep it hierarchically nested) – and still diverse, allowing the message to naturally resonate and pick up along the various decentralised networks where locally attuned and responsive people were ready to leverage local resources and processes. Further, because of the hyper-speed at which such a massive event was conceived of, organized, and carried out – on the heels of another logistical (and policy-wise) nightmare, the information coming from the march leadership changed constantly; the decentralized networks thus incorporated an adaptive, flexible, and ecological resilience approach to the streams of information – always moving forward with plans, yet tacking and changing accordingly. The result was a stunning, peaceful display of solidarity at the D.C. and sister marches around the world.

So now that the initial march is complete, what can we learn from nature in order to carry on the success? Let’s quickly look at the adaptive cycle in panarchy theory. Briefly – where Life’s Principles can help us explain common strategies within nature, Panarchy Theory and the adaptive cycle is a conceptual model to help understand entire ecosystem process dynamics and the cross-scale interactions within and across nested hierarchies. Life’s Principles can help us design sustainable, biomimetic solutions; the adaptive cycle helps us understand the dynamic structure and flux of complex adaptive systems.


                  The adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle is a conceptual model of dynamic processes of ecosystems which focus mainly on growth, conservation, collapse, and reorganisation, with particular consideration given to transitions. As of now, capital and resources have “grown” and accumulated (“conservation”) to the point of “release” (the march). The capital and resources are currently in the process of reorganisation. This period of reshuffling information is the perfect time to replicate the strategies that work, toss out the ones that didn’t, and incorporate new, unanticipated novelty into the next iteration of the “Women’s March movement ecosystem” to insure institutionalised learning.   We currently don’t know what the next iteration will look like and despite some having a feeling of unease from uncertainty…know that that’s OK – we know we’re in a natural process of reshuffling and reorganizing resources.

Social foraging behaviour can provide additional insights. Leaning on Giraldeau’s work on behavioural ecology, we recognize that individual learning of naïve beings (be it birds, bonobos, or humans) occur through observing group behaviours and thus cultural transmission of ideas and novel innovations transpire. Learning and cultural transmission occurred not only through naïve individuals observing the processes and messages, but also crossing geopolitical boundaries.


#WokeBaby taking part in cultural transmission through group observational behaviours        

One final observation: much like a bee hive or an ant or termite colony, the Women’s March on Washington movement could be classified as a Superorganism: where individual women (and enlightened men) form a distributed intelligence network where, like systems theory, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts to accomplish group goals – where emergent properties materialize to achieve far more than could initially have thought possible.   This is the ‘magic’ of complex adaptive (superorganism) systems. The women’s march will be a continued success if the emergent properties are nurtured and kept alive. We just have to continue to follow nature’s lead.

A Meadow of Inspiration

“Plants are amazing!” This is something I hear a lot from non-botanists. Of course, I know plants are awesome, but every time I turn around, I learn something new and exciting. This semester was no exception. Tasked with a project in my Biomimetic Design class, led by Dr. Petra Gruber, I walked into the meadow to find inspiration– literally.

On a very wet, cold, rainy day in October, I walked to a meadow within our field station property (Bath Nature Preserve, Bath Twp., Akron, Ohio) and found a section to investigate. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) towering over my head, I decided to stop at 20 steps and set up a 1m x 1m plot to sample. October in a meadow doesn’t give you very much to identify, but goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Indian grass (S. nutans) were plentiful among a few baby asters, Galium spp. (aka ‘Cleavers’ or ‘Bedstraw’), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),clumps of unidentifiable grass and moss. I measured heights of stems and area covered,  took the percent coverage to determine how much each species covered the plot,and took several picture views for record. After returning to campus, I created a hand-drawn schematic of the plot.


Hand-drawn schematic of 1m x 1m meadow plot in Bath Nature Preserve. Oct. 2016

A few weeks later, I returned to the same plot. Apparently my methods of counting and direction are spot-on because my last step landed on a pen I had dropped on that rainy day a few weeks earlier! If you’ve ever done field work, you understand how amazing it is that I found a PEN in the middle of a meadow over 2 meters high! This time I was there to measure the ability of the meadow to hold a load. I admit, I didn’t think the stems would hold up… being so late in the year and being dried out. As usual, though, plants are amazing and surprised me yet again!

I decided to test the load by creating a 1m x 1m foam board that was sturdy, yet lightweight. I placed the board directly over the plot, placing flags on each corner. The flags allowed for a visual cue to observe movement of bot


My husband and daughter gave me a hand in the field at Bath Nature Preserve. Three books really impacted the system. Notice how far the stems are bending, yet still not breaking! Amazing.

h plants and the board, as well as giving a reference point at which to measure the height of the board after each addition of weight. After the foam board was placed on top of the plants, I measured the height at each corner (flag) for the “initial” height. I added one heavy book and measured the height at each corner. Subsequently, I added increasing weight and measured the heights. At 3 books (6.7kg), the system (the meadow plot) could no longer hold the weight. Because this was the same plants were used over the entire experiment, I believe more weight can be held by the plants in true form.


So how does this happen? Plants are amazing. IMeadow roots.pngn the meadow, plants grow up to 10 feet below ground (roots) and above ground. You can imagine how secure this makes these cantilever beams! Here, the Indian grass and Goldenrod grew 1.5m to 2.5m above ground. The stems reached diameters of 2-5mm. You may wonder how the stems did not break when the weight was added. Galileo was the first to record these observations, noting that bending is resisted in the outer layers, not the inner stem as some might think. Several studies have investigated this design, including F.O. Bower (1930) who compared plant stems to concrete, saying, “Ordinary herbaceous plants are constructed on the same principle. The sclerotic strands correspond to the metal straps, the surroundin


g parenchyma with its turgescent cells corresponds mechanically to the concrete.” Equisetum (Horsetail) is another champion plant for many reasons, but here, in this context, it’s a biomechanic superstar.  “The hollow stem of Equisetum giganteum owes its mechanical stability to an outer ring of strengthening tissue, which provides stiffness and strength in the longitudinal direction, but also to an inner lining of turgid parenchyma, which lends resistance to local buckling. With a height >2.5 m isolated stems are mechanically unstable. However, in dense stands individual stems support each other by interlacing with their side branches, the typical growth habit of semi-self-supporters.” (Spatz, Kohler, Speck 1998). Again, plants are amazing.


After doing some mathematical calculations (very much estimated


The Lone Bloomer. The best-looking Goldenrod in the whole place puts out a flower for us!

in this case because of the imprecise nature of this ‘experiment’), it is expected that a single Goldenrod stem can support >118% of its biomass! Now, we’re not talking about the strength of steel or lead, but we can see that plants offer us new possibilities when we are designing or constructing new things! Imagine a support feature that is hollow inside and allows for storage in the “stem” as well has having the strength to support weight. Think on a smaller scale: imagine a space in which a stiff, lightweight outer covering is needed to secure something. Imagine the many possibilities that plants offer us to grow using Life’s Principles.




Graphical representation of the meadow plot using InDesign. I’m still learning how to use this new software and have also created a “worm’s eye view” to show a different perspective. Yellow stems are the goldenrod, the purple and lavender stems are Indian grass (single stems and clumps).

Human Swarm

This blog is based on this paper: “Crowds vs Swarms, a Comparison of Intelligence” by Louis Rosenberg, David Baltaxe, and Niccolo Pescetelli.

Recently, I went for a conference organized by Daniel Palmer and Marc Kirschenbaum of John Carroll University on Blended Intelligence. I thought it appropriate to talk about one of the talks. How do we get intelligence from a crowd of people, surveys, interviews? How does nature get intelligence from its beings? Authors claim nature does not aggregate independent samples but works on a closed real-time loop with continuous feedback. Hence, can we have a human swarm similar to a flock of birds or a school of fish and does it result in better intelligence? That is exactly what the authors put to test with their software UNU. UNU works by having a group of knowledgable individuals about a specific topic to come together virtually and decided on an answer for a given question. Each user has a magnet which he/she can use to pull the puck toward their desired answer.

What of the results? Check this article on how it predicted the Kentucky Derby, or read their paper on its prediction for the 2016 Super Bowl; a human swarm of 20 people outperformed (68% correctly) a crowd of 469 football fans (47% correctly). If this doesn’t impress you, well the swarm outperformed 98% of independent individuals in the study. Now, could this be a reason to pool our intelligence in order to tackle more challenging questions facing us in the future? Could this help in finding solutions to climate change that is affecting us more every day.

Do you want to try it? All you need is to sign up, verify your email, and you’ll be in your way to create you first UNU human swarm, or you can just enter one of their open UNUs. Finally check out their tutorial:


TEDxSalonUniversityofAkron Talk

Hello Readers!

For my post, I wanted to share some exciting news! Last April I had the amazing opportunity to do a TEDx talk on Biomimicry at the Akron Art Museum. It was a nerve-wracking, but incredible experience. I even had the honor of designing the theme ‘De(SCI)gn’ logo! It took quite a long while for the video to be edited and uploaded, but here it is! Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Putting the ‘Ph’ in PhD

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!