Tagged: biomimicry

Part 3: Biomimicry for coastal protection

About 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast and that number continues to increase. We all know too well the challenges and hazards associated with this trend.

As described in Part 1 however, we exacerbate the coastline’s natural resilience to storm surges, high wind and waves as we continue the ‘domino effect’ of erosion and shoreline armoring. We build harbors, marinas and other public access points to the water as well as protective structures to calm the waters near those access points, but that causes adjacent downdrift shoreline erosion. That affected shoreline, in turn, then requires armoring to mitigate the wave energy directly breaking on its shoreline.

How do we break this cycle? What is the balance between human activities in and along Lake Erie and natural processes? Do human activities directly oppose natural processes or can we find a synergistic and regenerative relationship?

Much of this topic was covered in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice 2017 issue of Leaf Litter. The theme was Restoring Ecology Along the Urban Waterfront. I encourage you to check out the issue here. I even contributed an article entitled “Ecological Restoration Toolkit for the Urban Waterfront.” Many of the current solutions that Chris Streb mentioned in his presentation at the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session were covered in that article.

I’ll touch on a few solutions today, but I encourage you to check out the included links for more information.

ShoreSections_All_AreaLabels_600-002SM

Visualization of a natural, industrialized and reimagined shoreline by Biohabitats – featured in their Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter

 

I love the above visualization from Biohabitats. This image shows the potential of balance between the natural and industrialized coastline. Try to find all the additional green space in the reimagined photo!

The reimagined photo shows a couple of elements. One element is the floating wetland in the waterfront channel. Floating wetlands (FWs), an ecologically engineered technology, represent an effort to mimic the wetlands and marshes that existed long ago along our freshwater and marine shorelines. FWs hold the promise of returning ecological services like pollutant uptake and transformation, water quality improvement, wave attenuation, habitat, and aesthetic beautification. Biohabitats has deployed or studied floating wetlands in locations such as Jamaica Bay, NY, Potomac Yards in Washington, DC, and Orleans, MA.

Floating wetlands

Floating wetland – provided by Chris Streb, ecological engineer at Biohabitats

Floating wetlands work best in calmer waters however, generally near bays, marinas and harbors.

Higher energy environments are tougher, but wave energies are significantly reduced by underwater structures. These structures can be natural like sandbars or created elements such as living breakwaters constructed from oyster shells and spat, ECOncrete armoring units or Biohut breakwater units by Ecocean.

Oyster-ball-at-Gerritsen-Creek

Spat set on oyster ball ready to be deployed at Gerritsen Creek- originally featured in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter

Another element shown in the reimagined photo above is a submerged structure attached to the seawall. This structure is related to a project I mentioned yesterday in Part 2: the “greening” of the bulkheads along the Cuyahoga River shipping channel. Biohabitats completed a project with the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission (CCPC) designing, installing and evaluating hexagonal steel casing structures attached to existing bulkheads (or seawalls) filled with various habitat-supporting materials such as bioballs, sticks and brushes. Six-month testing showed that all designs accumulated a biomass layer and small organism attachment and proved durable within the channel.

Securing-Bio-Balls-1

Securing bioball baskets – originally featured in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter

Green bulkheads

Successful installation of hexagonal structures along the bulkheads – provided by Chris Streb, Biohabitats

Many of these solutions use natural materials and attach to existing protection structures or exist as separate elements. If we look back at the potential areas of focus explored during the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session, one focus was materials. What if instead of natural material (woody debris and vegetation) versus built material (rock, cement and steel), we considered a third category of material? Alternative, biologically compatible materials that offer both functional and ecological benefits? What would that look like?

What if we used the principles of wave dissipation from a kelp forest or freshwater marsh or the principles of connectivity, hierarchy and material composites in a coral reef to design our coastal protection structures?

These questions and more will be the focus of my PhD research, and I will continue to share updates with you in future blog posts! Have more ideas? Comment below and I hope you enjoyed this three part introductory series!

Additional References:

http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/natlinfo/indicators/methodology_sheets/oceans_seas_coasts/pop_coastal_areas.pdf

The featured image is a wetland restoration at Freshkills Park in New York City. More information about the restoration project can be found here:

http://www.biohabitats.com/projects/freshkills-park-north-park-wetland-restoration-design-construction/

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Part 2: Biomimicry for coastal protection

Yesterday, I ended the blog post with a question: How does the disconnection of the land-water interface by hard coastal protection structures and other shoreline disruptions affect ecological processes and biological life cycles?

I will just touch on some information regarding how altered shorelines of both rivers and lakes affect fish populations as an indicator of water quality and health for aquatic ecosystems. This topic was the focus of our second introductory presentation at the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session described in Part 1. I recognize that fish are just one aspect of a healthy aquatic habitat. There is also aquatic vegetation, benthic macroinvertebrates, phytoplankton & zooplankton communities and algae populations to consider. All these populations are linked and comprise the complex food web of Lake Erie, although the food web is much less complex with the presence of invasive species disrupting various points in the food web.

Before summarizing our second presentation given by Scott Winkler with the Division of Surface Waters of the Ohio EPA in Northeast Ohio, I’d like to show an image depicting the life cycle of freshwater fish species.

Freshwater fish life cycle

Life cycle for freshwater lake species in Europe

This image comes from a final project report on “greening” bulkheads in the shipping channel of the Cuyahoga River that my sponsor, Biohabitats, led a few years back. At the time though many local area fish biologists were consulted for the project, there was not a life cycle diagram for freshwater fish in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie.

It is known that larval and juvenile fish experience high attrition rates within the channel during spawning and development, especially the last five miles of the Cuyahoga River from the ArcelorMittal steel mill to the mouth of the river. Jane Goodman, Executive Director of the Cuyahoga River Restoration, referred to this part of the river as a “23-foot deep, steel-walled bathtub” in a September 2015 article posted on Cleveland.com.

The availability and diversity of food for fish within the channel is very limited as well as natural microhabitats that provide shelter and cover like the interstices of rocks, dendritic roots and overhang nooks. Because of the depth and width of the shipping channel created for the shipping industry, the dissolved oxygen levels are a low because of the slow flow of the water to the open lake. In the September 2015 Cleveland.com article, it was noted that it took young fish 14 days to swim from the top of the channel to the mouth of the river because of the stagnant water.

I mention the conditions of the last few miles of the Cuyahoga River before the open lake because it is important to consider habitat requirements of all aspects of an aquatic species’ life cycle in restoration practices.

Scott’s presentation during our Open Innovation Session just focused on the makeup of the nearshore fish population along different points of the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline. What did he find?

What are our nearshore fish populations?

Scott described the fish sampling locations along the nearshore all along Ohio Lake Erie’s coastline and the type of fish sampled. He showed the below chart, which shows five distinct fish assemblages that emerge when fish sampling data from 1982-2015 is compared for similarities of species by weight.

Five groupings of fish

Five groups emerged when fish samples from 1982-2015 were compared to each other for species similarity by weight – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Group 1 is a diverse assemblage with many fish that require different habitats, which includes rock bass, brown bullhead, bluegill, round goby, largemouth bass, common carp, white perch, rainbow trout, walleye, golden redhorse, gizzard shad and emerald shiner. Group 2 is also diverse, but contains species that are more tolerant of water quality and site conditions, such as turbid or muddy waters. These tolerant fish include smallmouth buffalo, yellow bullhead, orangespotted sunfish, bigmouth buffalo and white crappie. Group 3 consists of species ubiquitous to Lake Erie and are likely to be found in any sample anywhere. Those fish are emerald shiner, white perch and gizzard shad. Group 3 also consists of species that are generalists and are tolerant of pollution and environmental factors such as, common carp, largemouth bass, freshwater drum, and bluegill.

Freshwater drum

Freshwater drum (a less desirable species) – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

This fish group is only slightly better than Group 4. Group 4 is just those species found anywhere in Lake Erie. These species do little to explain the conditions of the sampling location. Group 5 is a combination of Groups 3 and 4, but with additional complexity by the presence of benthic insectivores (i.e. bottom-feeding insect-eaters) such as, golden, black, and shorthead redhorse. The following images show which groups of fish are present along the fish sampling locations along the coastline.

Western shoreline ecological groupings

Western Ohio Lake Erie shoreline – ecological groupings of fish species – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Ignore the numbers on the map and only focus on the color coding for each fish group 1-5. On the western half of the shoreline, Group 1 is found primarily around the Lake Erie Islands off Sandusky and the Black River Harbor of Lorain. These areas often have clear water and submerged aquatic vegetation. Group 2 is found only in Sandusky Bay, Maumee Bay, and the Portage River: areas that are often turbid.  The samples on the open lake shore are only Groups 3, 4, and 5.  Higher energy shorelines have higher energy fish populations- i.e. Groups 3, 4, 5. On the eastern half of the shoreline, Group 1 is confined to the harbors. Group 2 is found in the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland Harbor and found once in the Grand River at Fairport Harbor. Groups 1 and 2 are found in calmer waters even without the presence of vegetation.

Eastern shore ecological groupings

Eastern Ohio Lake Erie shoreline  – ecological groupings of fish species – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Keep in mind that these fish assemblages include invasive species and that the groupings do not take weight into account as they are plotted on the map. Common Carp makes up one third of the weight of all the samples.  The top five species (common carp, freshwater drum, largemouth bass, quillback and small mouth buffalo) make up two thirds of the total weight of all fish in the dataset, indicating that these groups really aren’t all that diverse. To learn more about the different fish and minnow species in Ohio waters, ODNR’s Division of Wildlife Species Guide Index is a great resource. I also came across Fish Base. Just type in the common name of your fish, click USA or other relevant location, and you can find information about this species’ environment, distribution, suitable habitat, life cycle and many other details, including a list of tools, special reports, Internet sources and a list of various ecological indicators based on models.

Scott concluded his talk with two main points. The first was that turbid or murky waters affect fish populations the most. Murky waters also affect the persistence of submerged aquatic vegetation – both a food source and resting place for many fish – as the sediment in the water disrupts the depth in which light can penetrate through the water column. Stormwater and upland runoff from heavy storm events contribute to the murky waters of our nearshore, often found in our bays and harbors – where both human agricultural and urban (think: impervious surfaces) activities are most present.

His second point was that no one wants to swim in a washing machine. Which means, fish don’t like to hang out in high energy waters! While we can’t calm the waters of our entire shoreline, we can create pockets of calmer waters for both fish and to reduce erosion of our shorelines, if we design our shore protection structures from a systems ecology perspective rather than just a structural or functional engineering perspective.

My last and final part, Part 3, will focus on our last presentation from our Open Biomimicry Innovation Session, by Chris Streb – ecological engineer at Biohabitats. He focuses on current practices and solutions for coastal restoration that balance both traditional protection requirements of erosion control and human activities along the shoreline (recreation, shipping, residential) with the provision of aquatic habitat for all species in Lake Erie.

 

Part 1: Biomimicry for coastal protection

Back in late February near the start of my PhD, my sponsors were asked if they had an interest in organizing a Biomimicry Open Innovation Session for 2017. Similar to last October’s Open Innovation Session organized by former Biomimicry Fellow Emily Kennedy (now a graduate!) and her sponsor GOJO, the idea is to pose a challenge statement unique to your industry that is open to collaboration and biomimicry design thinking to seek potential solutions. These sessions leverage the regional biomimicry community with support from Great Lakes Biomimicry.

Following many planning sessions with my three sponsors (Biohabitats, Cleveland Water Alliance, ODNR) as well as Great Lakes Biomimicry throughout the year, the Innovation Session was held at the Great Lakes Brewing Company Tasting Room on Wednesday November 1st from 1-5pm. 26 people from 8 unique institutions participated with 10+ biomimicry models identified and abstractions generated!

Innovation Session group photo

Participants working on biological model identification and principle abstraction at the Great Lakes Brewing Company Tasting Room, credit: Christine Hockman, Great Lakes Biomimicry

The challenge statement was as follows: To incorporate habitat features into existing and/or new shore protection structures to provide aquatic habitat for targeted fish species and enhance ecological functions, benefits and services in both freshwater riverine and coastal environments

Three potential focus areas were given:

  1. Structure: Alter structure to absorb or dissipate instead of reflect or refract wave energy. Wave reflection & refraction result in altered sediment transport pathways along Lake Erie’s shoreline.
  2. Habitat utilization: Nursery habitat for larval and young fish, habitat refugia that provide hiding places and protection against predators, feeding habitat for foraging fish.
  3. Materials: Soft structures utilize natural materials, like woody debris and vegetation, while hard structures are comprised of rock, cement and steel. Consider alternative, biologically compatible materials that offer functional benefits. Or, offer a solution between hard and soft structures or a structure that can be a combination of both hard and soft materials.

Throughout this week, I have prepared a three-part series (Tuesday through Friday morning) to share the content from the introductory presentations given at the start of the Innovation Session. I am presenting all this information for a few reasons. First, for those who didn’t attend to learn about what was presented and discussed. Second, for all those who follow this blog to learn more about the background behind my PhD thesis. 2018 (Year 2) is coming up for me already, which means a hopeful thesis proposal defense by the end of Year 2!

The three presentations were:

  • Characterization of the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline through the lens of coastal protection – Jim Park, ODNR Coastal Engineer (Part 1)
  • Aquatic habitat for targeted nearshore and open fish populations of Lake Erie – Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA Division of Surface Waters (Part 2)
  • Coastal restoration: Project examples of coastal protection and ecological function – Chris Streb, Biohabitats Ecological Engineer (Part 3)

Part 1: Characterization of the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline through the lens of coastal protection

What is a shore protection structure?
Jim gave many examples, which included revetments, seawalls, groins, breakwaters and beach.

Revetments are typically composed of large, rough, angular rock on a slope that dissipates wave energy on both the slope and rough surface. Revetments typically protect the foot of a cliff or a dune, or a dike or seawall against erosion by wave actions, storm surge and currents.

Revetment example

Example of revetment – provided by Jim Park, ODNR

Seawalls are vertical structures at the land/water interface designed to prevent erosion and storm surge flooding. They are made of concrete block, cast-in-place concrete or steel sheet pile. Seawalls reflect wave energy; they do not dissipate. Seawalls provide easy access to the water by boats docked along the wall. Steel sheet pile seawalls are almost exclusively used along the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland for transportation of goods by freighters and for recreational boaters to dock by restaurants along the water.

Seawall example

Example of seawall – provided by Jim Park, ODNR

Groins are shore-perpendicular structures made of stone, concrete or sheet-pile. They are effective in beach protection and had widespread past use in Ohio. If you are familiar with the Cleveland coastline, there are a few stone groins at Edgewater Beach and a few being installed at Perkins Beach currently!

Groin example

Example of groin – provided by Jim Park, ODNR

Breakwaters can be submerged, off-shore or connected to the land and are made up of large stone. They are designed to reduce wave action. Breakwaters are usually built to provide calm waters for harbors and marinas. Submerged breakwaters are specifically built to reduce beach erosion. A beach is typically formed or retained on the landward site.  They may also be referred to as artificial “reefs.”
If beaches are there, they are the most natural and effective form of shore protection.

Concrete rubble

Eastern Cuyahoga and Lake Counties – concrete rubble

The Ohio shoreline of Lake Erie is one of the most developed and structurally protected of the Great Lakes. Structural protection began in the early 1800s with the development of harbors, but any protection structure caused adjacent downdrift shoreline erosion. The affected shoreline, in turn, then requires armoring to mitigate the wave energy breaking directly on the shoreline rather than dissipating along the beach. As the Lake Erie Commission explains in their 2004 State of the Lake Report, “This ‘domino effect’ of erosion and shoreline armoring continues to this day.”

These shore protection structures have limited natural habitat value and alter coastal and hydrologic connections that in turn affect ecological processes and biological life cycles. On the mainland shore of western Lake Erie, the current coastal protection structures are not favorable to the nearshore biological community in both structure type and composition.

We know that coastal protection structures alter the primary mode of wave energy reduction; i.e. some reflect the waves back into the lake or refract the waves instead of dissipate. We also know these structures disrupt sediment (or the more technical term – littoral) transport pathways across the lake and many cause downdrift shoreline erosion. We also know they disconnect the land-water interface. How does this connection and other disruptions affect ecological processes and biological life cycles? We will touch on this question some with Scott Winkler’s presentation on nearshore fish populations tomorrow for Part 2!

Feel free to comment below or reach out to me on LinkedIn throughout this week if you have questions or ideas to contribute!

References:

Fuller, J.A., and B.E. Gerke. 2005. Distribution of shore protection structures and their erosion effectiveness and biological compatibility. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Sandusky, Ohio.

[LEC] Lake Erie Commission. 2004a. State of Ohio, State of the Lake Report. Toledo, Ohio.

*Note- All shore protection structure photos were part of the presentation given by Jim Park on November 1st at Great Lakes Brewing Company Tasting Room. Permission was granted to share content and photos.

Who doesn’t love going to a FAB conference!?

Last week was Spring break and we had this great opportunity of going and presenting in digiFAB conference in Boston about Biomimicry through one of my Sponsors TIES! Lots happened and I was excited to meet some great people in the field and had butterflies about my own talk. My excitement was doubled and butterflies gone with keynote speaker, Sherry Lassiter director of Fab Foundation, You can see her in picture below talking about different movements within Fab Foundation as well as the Fab network. IMG_8663

Dale Dougherty, then talked about Maker movements, I have been following Dale’s maker group (he runs the Make: which you can subscribe to) and was thrilled when he talked about  “Autonomous Boat [that] Went from California to Hawaii and Beyond”. I read about this project when first published in Make: and was happy that the boat had been picked up by a ship in New Zealand and was in display there.

The 2 day conference was packed by amazing talks, I like to shortly go through few of them.

FAB City A 40 year goal from Barcelona to empower citizens to be creators of their own city; “locally self-sufficient and globally connected”. For me, it seemed as a society that doesn’t need a centralized governing body, but where citizens create materials based on their needs, recycle when possible and are connected to many more cities around the globe.

FAB Cities

Tomas Diaz from FABCity also talked about the model and plans they have to reach this goal in Barcelona. he talked about POBLENOU where its supported by local and international community to become a FAB city.

IMG_8694

Rachel Ignotofsky; Women in Science , and the importance of design and arts in our life, how arts influences our perceptions and why is it important to use it in our learning kits.

3D printes, bluedragon made with business in mind, where you can print 4 colors in one product, you can mix different colors into one or just use one at a time: FIREPRINT. If anyone wants to put money together to get one, I am in! Check out their case studies, from combating Zika to cosplay, you can do all!

Second day  was nothing short of amazing talks as well, we first heard from Neil Gershenfeld, Director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, of his work on developing tools/processes for FABLAB, I did not see it coming where he talked about Nature! In below picture he was explaining how creating modules is similar to protein formation in our body. Neil

He also talked about how we are moving to Ubiquitous and with these changes, how his lab is working on developing the tools, materials, to functional part.

img_8746.jpg

And one of my favorites; Global Humanitarian Lab, talk by David Ott, Co-founder, Where they aim to bring FABKits (costing around < $10k) to refugee camps. David talked about what would be in the FABKits and how everything needs to be packed into container that could be transferred by 1 or 2 person. He talked about limitations, needs and potentials of these labs. He talked about makers/ people who need the opportunities we easily can access in our cities.

GHL

There was many more talks which I highly recommend attending. This year, there was an addition of having workshops and we had ours on Biomimicry in Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville. Another place to put in your places to go!

So What did we talk about! We talked on first day about Spiders and Ornilux, Tardigrades, Spikemoss and Stabilitech/Biomateria and How they relate to maker group! As we grow in FAB network and as we move toward FAB cities, Can we benefit from nature’s stories? Can we learn from 3.8 billion years of lessons? Our hope is to learn and make more sustainable decisions. Either in creating new FAB equipments, or materials used. We see a movement that will grow potentially in years to come and we want to instill biomimicry thinking in its foundation!

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La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)

 

Armadillo_ME_NASA

Rebecca Eagle-Malone holds “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo. Evening reception, NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit.

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.

hairyArmadilo

Hairy Armadillo has a soft carapace. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian

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.

Armadillo

Tolypeutes matacus is the only species that can roll into a complete ball. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

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?

Brains, Brains, Brains…

“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson

Summer time! For me it means working on bio-inspired algorithms, one in particular I’ve been spending some time on is Artificial Neural Networking (ANN). This had me asking my sister (who is working on her PhD in neuroscience) about how synapses, pathways, etc. work. This post will be on how ANN was inspired and some of the materials I found interesting on it. Let’s start with the obsession with neural network and why it matters? Machines do complicated mathematical calculations in a matter of seconds, yet they have difficulty performing some easy tasks such as recognizing faces, understanding and speaking in local languages, passing theTurning test. OK, let’s compare machines to our brain: A single transistor in your home computer is quite fast; only limited by speed of light and the physical distance to propagate a signal. A signal(Ions) in the neuron, on the other hand, propagates on a fraction of the speed (Flake, 1999). This begs the question, which is better? A good comparison can be found here. One main fact is that our brain makes use of a massive parallelism; it’s this massive interaction between axons and dendrites that contribute to how our brain works. Many argue that the comparison to computers is not very useful as they work differently from each other. Can we make a digital reconstruction of human brain? I follow Blue Brain project for this. Hence, as you can guess ANN algorithm is a simple imitation of how our neurons work. It works by feed forward and back propagations to learn patterns. Originally proposed as McCulloch-Putts neuron in the 1940s and 1980s by invention of Hopfield-Tank feedback neuron network. The 1960s had an good optimistic start on neural networks with the work of Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron (a pattern classification device). However, by 1969 there was a decline in this research and publication of Perceptrons by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert caused it to almost die off. Minsky and Papert showed how a single perceptron was insufficient with any learning algorithm by giving it mathematical proofs. It took a while and many independent works till the value of Neural Networking came to light again. One main contribution is the two-volume book titled Parallel Distributed Processing by James L. McClelland and David E. Rumelhart and their collaborators. In this work, they changed the proposed unit step function proposed to a smooth sigmoid function and added a backward error signal propagation using weights of some hidden neurons called back propagation (Flake, 1999). Reading through chapter 20 of Parallel Distributed Processing written by F. Crick and C. Asanuma, I read about physiology and anatomy of the cerebral cortex. It shows different neural profiles.

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.35.30 AM(McClelland, 1989)

It talks about different layers in the cortex such as the superficial, upper, middle, and deep layer, axons, synapses, neurotransmitters. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate the complexity of our brain and wonder about the simplicity of Artificial Neural Network algorithms, and can’t help but feel amazed by what Blue Brain Project is aiming to do.

Like a house-cat exploring its environment, lets dive into narrow unexplored places…

Books:

Flake, G. W. The computational beauty of nature, 1999

McClelland, J. L. Rumelhart, D. E. Parallel distributed processing, Volume 2. Psychological and biological models, 1989

5 Nature Lessons About Being an Entrepreneur

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

  1. The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
  2. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
  3. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
  4. Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
  5. All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter

 

This post was originally posted on Medium.com

Product Design using Biomimicry in a nutshell!

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!

Reflections about my time in Akron

It’s been three weeks since I moved back to my familiar habitat in Ghent, Belgium, to finish my PhD remotely. From all places, my primary advisor’s lab relocated to The University of Ghent earlier this year.

I had spent the first 22 years of my life in the same city, in the same house, when I decided to pursue a PhD in Biomimicry. Since UAkron is the only university that offers a PhD degree in Biomimicry my decision to relocate there was easy. Two months later I jumped into a new chapter of my life, which has been an eye-opening adventure. Getting out of your comfort zone takes courage. Almost everything around you is new and different. In the 3.5 years I lived in Akron, I was exposed to so many new people, places, ideas, traditions, landscapes, recipes… Every day you can learn something new. Feeling like a total stranger at the start, it took curiosity and adaptation to make myself part of a new habitat. Continue reading