Thanks to a smart TED talk by biologist Janine Beynus that made the rounds a few years ago, books like Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and new online resources like AskNature.org, more and more designers are realizing a simple truth when trying to find responsible, ecological solutions: If we're trying to do it, chances are, nature already did it better.
Biomimicry is quickly becoming a cornerstone of sustainable design (read our story on biomimicry from 2008), but for designers who want to incorporate biomimicry into their work, many don't know where to start. Some famous biomimetic solutions have gotten passed around the mainstream press—including examples like self-cleaning surfaces modeled on lotus flowers, or the sticky repositionable tape inspired by gecko feet—but biomimicry isn't as easy as using nature as a crib sheet. "One of the big realizations that designers have when they play with biomimicry is that it's not a tool, it's a mindset shift," says Dayna Baumeister, who co-founded the Biomimicry Guild with Benyus in 1998. "Because of that—because of the fundamentally different way of thinking—it's hard."
Biomimicry expert Janine Benyus' 2005 TED talk
Even for biologists, it requires a shift in thinking, says Baumeister, from learning about nature to learning from nature, including how each of those processes fit within a larger ecosystem. In a way, it's examining nature's solutions for survival, but through a design lens, says Chris Allen, project manager for AskNature.org. "You can look at brilliant engineering and strategies for living over thousands of years."
A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
The Biomimicry Guild has worked alongside companies to help them achieve that shift in thinking, from a longstanding relationship with flooring and finishes company Interface, to a team currently on-site at an architectural project in India, where they're creating buildings that not only are made from natural materials, they actually behave like natural organisms. Currently there's a great deal of excitement bridging algorithms found in nature and information technology or "generative design," where we're able to extrapolate data from the way that nature goes through its iterative design process in evolution.
A rainforest strategy in need of a real-life application: The bill of toco toucan acts as a heat exchanger to regulate body temperature by adjusting blood flow
And, using biomimetic principles, we've also been able to learn more about our own species: The Biomimicry Guild is starting conversations with global companies that manufacturer things like cosmetics—in which case their own in-house scientiststs have been studying hair and skin for decades.
Because biomimicry experts believe that designers play an integral role in making sustainable, nature-inspired decisions in a project, they believe that's where their influence is best appropriated. A biologist working in biomimetic design is known as a Biologist at the Design Table, or, in a biomimetic-appropriate acronym: a BaDT. There are currently very few BaDTs—only about 75 worldwide—since they have to undergo extensive training. But eventually, the goal is to have a BaDT in every design firm who can help guide the designers towards smarter, more nature-influenced solutions—and that's where we come in.
A lightweight chair design inspired by spiderwebs, by Linda Dong as part of the Student Design Sketch Challenge
A REAL-WORLD BIOMIMICRY CHARRETTE
To start a larger conversation between biologists, designers and businesses, we thought we could help by seating at least three BaDTs at three design tables of Designers Accord adopters across North America. We've tapped teams from three firms: Smart Design, New York; IDEO, Chicago and Boston; and Taller de Operaciones Ambientales, Mexico City. Each team will be paired with a Biomimicry Guild BaDT who will lead them through a two-day biomimicry design workshop as they work to solve a business problem, documenting their processes and reporting back to us in a little over a month with their bio-inspired solutions and how they got there.
Now all we need to complete the puzzle is your company's challenge! Do you have a real-life design problem that you just haven't been able to crack? Do you have a system, material, structure, process in your business that's seriously in need of innovation? Explain your problem as clearly as possible in the form below, including what limitations have prevented you from being able to achieve your goals in the past. If we think your challenge is a good match for one of the firms, we'll contact you for more information. Your company could be featured on FastCompany.com as "clients" for one of three biomimetic challenges, and receive a solution for your problem—courtesy of nature, of course.
If you have any questions, feel free to add them in the comments, and be sure to submit your challenge by 11:59pm PST, March 17, 2010. We'll see you back here in a little over a week with an update.
SUBMIT YOUR DESIGN CHALLENGE
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