Design leader Robert Suarez and Sustainability Strategist Kathy Zarsky have been exploring this question through their studies in biomimicry with Biomimcry 3.8, the world-leading organization that harnesses nature's strategies to inspire new kinds of creative problem-solving. In this conversation with the Designers Accord, we learn from Robert and Kathy not just what they ask nature but why they ask nature, and how it makes them better designers.
Designers Accord: Biomimicry is the area of investigation that seeks to emulate nature, its models, systems, and processes in order to solve human problems. How did you first hear about it?
KZ: In 2005, I participated in a US Green Building Council meeting in Austin, discussing the various merits, permutations and structures of LEED and our mission with my fellow design colleagues. A guest named Chris Allen, who would soon become CEO of Biomimicry 3.8, was introduced to me after the meeting where he went on to describe a concept called "biomimicry" as one of the most fascinating and important ways to problem-solve that he had come across. Chris encouraged me to read Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the unofficial bible of biomimcry by Janine Benyus. My interest was piqued and so my journey began...
It seems to be the case frequently that people are "converted" by someone whose eyes have been opened to biomimicry. Robert, as a current student in the Biomimicry Professional Certification Program, you'll soon be amongst those evangelists. How do you convey the essence of biomimicry to someone new to the concept? How do you describe the essence of biomimicry as a method for problem-solving?
RS: I'll be graduating from the program in January, but am already an active evangelist! When I'm speaking with people who might be unfamiliar with the concept, I usually start by presenting biomimicry as a new innovation methodology. Biomimicry introduces a new perspective or way of thinking about any given design challenge. Biomimicry asks us to find functions and strategies in nature and translate and apply them to our human design challenges. From that point, I introduce the environmental ethos of biomimicry and that its goal is to create conditions conducive to life.
What specific example do you give people about biomimicry when they ask for an illustration of nature's strategies?
RS: Most recently I've been using this very simple slide to show how biomimicry can be applied to design challenges. It illustrates the FORM-PROCESS-ECOSYSTEM framework for how nature's genius has been used in the recent past.
[Source: Robert Suarez]For a different audience, I've shared observations on resilience in nature and explain the different strategies that are employed by the Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, and Quaking Aspen. Their diverse fire survival and propagation strategies involve sacrificial layers, underground rhizomes, and serotinous cones that are programmed to release seeds only with high heat (fire). Clients often ask: "how can we maintain equilibrium?" I think that's the wrong question. Examples like these help them realize they need to admit that they are functioning in a state of constant and dynamic non-equilibrium. There will always be another fire and organizations need to adapt to changing conditions.
Which of nature's insights do you find the most useful to your work?
KZ: It's hard to nail it down to one specific example because biomimicry really has so many differing strategies, scales, etc. I find superorganisms and social insects are good examples, because they both demonstrate scaling from parts to whole and function across form, process and system. Salp, the barrel-shaped, planktonic tunicates found in ocean waters, are quite interesting as individuals, but they are really cool when they come together to form chains and become superorganisms. Superorganisms are biological entities made up of large numbers of simpler entities that have banded together to perform functions they cannot do as individuals. Such functions might include mobility, unique sensors, heightened intelligence, highly specialized division of labor, distributed intelligence, and self-organization.
Termites are particularly fascinating because they build mounds, which are well-studied and have served as inspiration for architecture with their ventilation strategies, but spatial dispersement patterns of mounds have also been found to improve ecosystem services.
In my professional work, biomimicry has been a great framework for me to use with organizational development and land use/city planning. I'm particularly interested in the concept of Living Communities, and biomimicry is a natural methodology to employ in that design context.
In your work in designing digital experiences Robert, what do you draw on in biomimicry in help open new thinking?
RS: Digital design offers a whole new ecosystem to play in, yet you can see nature's principles in many new digital experiences, from self-organization to integrated feedback loops. I've recently looked into Thistles as an example of a community platform or social network that accommodates diverse species while allowing for coordinated experiences and value exchange. They invest heavily in defense mechanisms while saving resources through free energy propagation. I am now starting an investigation into new communication and sensing strategies. From magnetic sensing and heat detection to electroreception and echolocation, animals incorporate additional perceptive abilities to navigate our world. I think there are some incredible strategies here to learn from.
We have no shortage of frameworks and methodologies for creative problem-solving—from The Natural Step and Cradle-to-Cradle, to Design Thinking and Systems Thinking. Where does biomimicry fit into the landscape and why should designers study it? What is the unique perspective gained and how does it change/improve your work?
KZ: Biomimicry is a discipline that helps us understand how we can fit into the landscape. The need for innovation and practice to contribute to creating conditions conducive to life is unquestionable, but how you do that must go beyond what we have established as precedent. Our human-made library of best practices and innovation is nothing compared to what nature has created.
RS: Biomimicry, as a methodology, is adaptable and scalable for different needs and applications. At IDEO we've been using Biology-to-Design tools early in our process to provide teams with new perspectives or approaches to design challenges. It helps teams think about the problem in a different way by introducing new mechanisms or models to further investigate. We've also been studying social organisms and abstracting strategies that we can share with clients who are looking for new organizational design solutions.
KZ: Biomimicry is a methodology for exploration that has the profound ability to reconnect us to place. People need to see how easy it is to examine nature's genius in their own backyards—biomimicry is everywhere, it's not just a collection of exotic examples.
Biomomicry is also a multi-disciplinary practice, so it draws new voices to the design process, voices that lend incredible new insight and language to our understanding of the world and how we might reconsider the role of design in that world. Everyone can participate in the study of biomimicry, so it can be brought into K-12 and higher education, it can be explored as a family, it can be applied to organizational development, material science, city and regional planning, banking systems, and on and on. The best part about it for me is that I can engage my sons with it like nothing else I've done professionally. There's definitely an element of play to biomimicry. It gets you outside, looking at things up close, asking questions like you did when you were a kid, and then you get to think about how they are relevant to our design challenges and design with those ideas.
There's no doubt that once you've studied and practiced biomimicry, you'll observe the world much differently. I suggest we all start with the simple question: "How would nature do that?"
Biomimicry 3.8 offers educational programs to train people how to expertly draw inspiration from nature and develop innovative and truly next-gen sustainable design solutions.
BIOMIMICRY PROFESSIONAL: Two-year master's equivalent program with instruction by Dayna Baumeister and inspiration from Janine Benyus, acclaimed thought-leaders who have literally defined the discipline worldwide. BProfessional combines experiential (ecosystem) and online collaborative learning and is comprised of five designers, five biologists, five engineers, and five businesspeople from around the world. It's extremely competitive, and attracts participants who are highly influential in their professional networks and aspire to be "trim tab" thinkers and doers.
BIOMIMICRY SPECIALIST: Eight-month program includes online coursework, virtual design lab, and workshops in two ecosystems. This program has been developed to complement the busy schedules of active professionals. Members of the Designers Accord approved and accepted into the program are now eligible for a 10% tuition discount (reference promo code "DAdiscount" with your application before March 2).
Applications for the 2012 Biomimicry 3.8 Biomimicry Professional and Specialist certification programs are due March 2, 2012.
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