Innovative Nature: Baking Biomimicry In

I met Jake Cook after sharing content at the innovative HatchFest.org, a creativity/film festival gathering held in Bozman, Montana. Innovation can happen anywhere and developing communities on their talents is something I have a strong passion for. Jake is a talent within a talented community that I am willing to support.

Biomimicry. At Nike I worked on a science and design exhibit brought in by Janine Benyus and her team. Over the years this discipline has influenced Nike's product development and led to many environment-saving practices including Nike Considered. Please enjoy Jake's guest post below, his latest foray into design with layered meaning.

Innovative Nature: Baking Biomimicry In
by Jake Cook (Cofounder of Digital Wax Works)

The term biomimicry and biomimetics come from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. (See examples of companies already using Biomimicry.)

Up until recently, getting biomimetic ideas put into design practice in industry has been tough due to a lack of curriculum development at the educational level. Put another way, to have biomimicry-trained designers would require educational programs to start at the primary school level, continue through to university, and beyond to professional development programs. With this in mind, educators from around the world came together at Autodesk headquarters in San Francisco last year to discuss and share how to blend biomimicry into K-12 and college-level curriculums, as well as forging relationships with industry.

Janine Benyus is often cited as the founder of the biomimicry movement through the publishing of her landmark book, Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Ms. Benyus has made a remarkable career by pointing out what's been under all our noses. However, these ideas have been slow to be adopted into engineering and design curriculums in accredited universities.

Yet all this is changing. As Janine states; "The time is coming when engineering and design students will finally be able to take a class in biology-based design principles. Amazingly enough, for the people who make our world, usually they take no biology."

Mashing Up Education and Industry Partners
Making products that allow you to immerse yourself in, and enjoy nature is what Bozeman, Montana based Pacific Outdoor Equipment loves to do. In 2010 they partnered with students across the nation to meet the challenge of bringing nature more fully into the story via biomimicry design.

The design challenge: A quilt that could be used for sleeping on the ground when camping. A relatively simple product in theory, but fraught with big challenges when working with real-world considerations such as materials, purpose constraints, manufacturing costs, construction methods, retail price points, and carbon footprint.

Designs and collaboration poured forth via Skype, email and Wordpress over a six-week period. The Biomimicry Institute's staff lent a guiding hand to the students, professors, and professionals as they followed the BiologyDesign Spiral.

"The Biology Design Spiral is a methodology bringing nature's wisdom not just to the physical design, but also to the manufacturing process, the packaging, the shipping, distribution, and take-back decisions. We use a spiral to emphasize the reiterative nature of the process--that is, after solving one challenge, then evaluating how well it meets life's principles, another challenge often arises, and the design process begins anew."

The outcome? Design briefs with ideas ranging from how bats stay warm to recycling garbage as an insulation layer. Many of these were inspired by the recently launched AskNature.org website that serves as a wiki-style site for researching applications of biomimicry to design problems.

Below are the product renderings courtesy of Pika Designs showing a potential sleep system inspired by how bat and butterfly wings insulate. The user can simply fold over another "wing" if they would like more insulation based on whatever the ambient temperature might be.

A Profound Impact On All Involved.
Students at the conference professed to have deep insights into where they wanted to go with their careers, namely avoiding "designing for the landfill." Professors were ecstatic that students had a real-world challenge and were exposed to the grey areas within product design.

Whether the product will appear on store shelves remains to be seen via Pacific Outdoor Equipment, but all schools involved, as well as the 2011 facilitator of the project, Pika Designs, have pledged to do another student design challenge in 2011.

A Business Case for Biomimicry
Business professor Dr. Jakki Mohr of the University of Montana, who also presented at the Education Summit, included a section on biomimicry in her co-authored book Marketing High Technology, which is used in MBA courses around the world.

"Biomimicry offers a unique methodology for new insights into innovation. As authors of a book on marketing for technology and innovation, the biomimicry process captured us and we wanted to pioneer this important methodology in our book. Looking to nature for solutions to design and engineering problems offers a new source of competitive advantage and sustainable innovation, both of which are key to success in business today."

Refreshing the Design Palette
Applying these lessons, the startup Calera, which is backed by the noted VC Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, has a process that produces building products with a negative carbon footprint by using inspiration from biological process in the ocean coral reefs. The company has generated considerable buzz to date.

Watch a fascinating video from the founder Calera, Brent Constantz, speaking recently at Stanford on how he's founded four companies whose core technology is based around principles found in nature.

Biomimicry Inspired Design for the Masses
On a consumer product level, Nervous System is a small company using bio-inspired designs to create various lines of jewelry and housewares. Founders Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg have backgrounds in biology, architecture, mathematics, and computer science. Their designs draw inspiration from items such as leaves, hard corals, sand dunes, and algae.

In speaking with co-founder Jesse Louis-Rosenberg about what Nervous System is all about, he states; "Our work is not simply about mimicking biological forms but trying to understand the processes by which those forms come about. We then abstract those processes into a distinctly non-biological context to create designed objects."

This process starts with Nervous System researching and reading scientific papers to truly understand how nature's process works, before generating an object. Next, they code up a virtual system to digitally grow a similar pattern on a 3-D surface. Finally, these designs are pushed to a 3-D printer and come out in a variety of materials such as stainless steel.

The results are elegant yet organic and Nervous System's products were recently picked up by the MoMA store in NYC.

What, in his education background, prepared Jesse and partner Jessica to work across such diverse areas? "Educators don't quite yet have the expertise across all these areas. So, you have to do it on your own," Jesse explains.

Biomimicry Going Forward
This begs the question--how much longer will students have to go it on their own?

Ms. Benyus' reply: "Biomimetic design labs are going to start appearing in schools. The future is that biologists will have a seat at the design table. But it starts with education and then trickles out to the workplace. Looking back, we had human factors, and now that's commonplace in a design conversation. I'm optimistic biomimicry will enjoy the same consideration in the coming years."

Indeed, industry and the planet need biomimicry integrated into the design process and it's going to take employees trained in how to apply these ideas to today's design problems. This could prove to be both profitable and innovative for companies and universities alike.

As biomimicry continues to gain mainstream acceptance, with institutions and collaborations blossoming, Benyus remarks, "Somehow there must have been an earthquake in San Francisco because all the silos have fallen down."

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  • Mike Lee

    My free program for young children, "Animal Exercise Fun" is all about biomimicry teaching: breathing, stretching, balance, aerobic and relaxation exercises from exact animal models. It works animalexercisefun.org