Biomimicry Challenge: IDEO Taps Octopi and Flamingos to Reorganize the USGBC

Our biomimicry challenge What Would You Ask Nature? drew dozens of real-world business problems submitted by companies from all over the world. We assigned three challenges to three firms and paired them each with a biologist. Each team is now reporting their bio-inspired solutions.

Biomimicry Challenge: IDEO Taps Octopi and Flamingos to Reorganize the USGBC

Designers Accord


No matter how lofty their mission, most large organizations are not designed for agility, and therefore many have the same big issues that come with dispersed growth. The United States Green Building Council, who most notably founded the LEED certification system that rates structures by sustainability, is no different: With 80 local chapters nationwide, they struggle with challenges like making group decisions
and the ability to keep members motivated and involved. But the USGBC wanted to investigate redesigning their organization in a way that was more closely aligned with their mission to protect and celebrate nature. In their words, they wanted to be more “resilient and organic” in how their organization communicates with stakeholders.

For our What Would You Ask Nature? biomimicry challenge, IDEO‘s Boston office took on this hefty problem from the USGBC, which would essentially require a system-wide redesign for the way that their members communicate. Yet after interviewing USGBC stakeholders, IDEO’s team reframed the statement to broaden the focus to the organization’s structure itself and how different parties would connect within it, including the tools that would help make these connections. The reframed challenge became to “design an organization strategy to improve the effectiveness of a locally distributed effort, while staying aligned to the national USGBC mission.” Plus, a biology-inspired solution could itself be more inspiring for members, who had joined the USGBC to make an environmental impact.

A biomimetic approach was particularly intriguing to the IDEO team because the firm is so well known for their human-centered design process–we covered the toolkit they developed for this process as a Designers Accord case study. But instead of dismissing their own approach for a strict biomimicry approach, the IDEO team and their assigned biologist at the design table (BaDT) Tim McGee had a better idea. Working with IDEO’s project lead, designer
Eleanor Morgan, McGee weaved biomimicry into IDEO’s human-centered approach, resulting in a “mash-up” that incorporated biomimicry thinking into IDEO’s existing design pathways. The result was almost paradoxical, says creative director Jane Fulton Suri. “We were
really happy just to go along with their process and throw ours out the
window,” she says. “But in talking with Tim it was clear we’d all benefit
from learning about how these two processes could effectively meld together.”

To launch the project, for example, the designers, which also included core team members David Stychno, Scott Mackie and Greg Burkett, along with Jennifer Wood from the Biomimicry Guild, created coinciding nature-inspired and a human-inspired exercises–holding a “show and tell” with natural items that the designers felt were interesting, and also bringing in stories of inspirational human organizations that ranged from Yelp to fraternities. “To me what was interesting was that some of the skill sets IDEO
in designers–direct observation, abstraction, using stories as
wisdom–are the same skill sets we help everyone explore when using
biomimicry,” says McGee. Using a combination of biology-centered and human-centered approaches, IDEO’s team created a four-pronged menu of solutions for reorganizing the USGBC.


After holding interviews with USGBC stakeholders, IDEO team quickly uncovered a tenet central to their solution: A hierarchical, top-down approach wasn’t working for USGBC, says Fulton Suri. “We very much identified the idea for a stronger sense of community and connectedness that was more flexible–more about person to person than chapter to national body.” McGee then told a biology story about mycorrhiza fungi, which grows in a fungal mat in the ground between the trees that have access to both sun and water, distributing these necessary nutrients between the trees. When McGee drew this system, the designers instantly realized it was a perfect model: What if, instead of a hierarchical relationship, the national body (like the fungi) was in a supportive relationship with chapters (the trees), moving information and resources around as necessary? “Indeed, one of our contacts at USGBC had said that the organization would be successful when the national body was learning as much from the chapters as the other way round,” remembers Fulton Suri. “That suddenly connected with what we were just hearing about the symbiotic interdependence between the fungi and its associated trees.”

To encourage such relationships within the USGBC network, the designers looked at another natural concept, that of a “keystone” species. Even though a keystone species will only represent a small number of the overall population, this species is crucial for maintaining structure in the ecosystem–a great example being a beaver who builds a dam and creates an entirely new habitat for the river’s other species. Keystones in the USGBC’s case would be multifunctional, temporary networks aside from geographic chapters that could connect and unite members with national staff around common goals and expertise.

IDEO next looked at the way the USGBC selected those common initiatives, which was often following that top-down mandate from a national group, with little input from local chapter levels. “This created a lot of friction,” says Fulton Suri. A solution came from the comparison of two reproductive strategies in nature: “r” species vs. “K” species. A K species will give birth to very few offspring and put lots of time into ensuring their survival (like humans), whereas an r species will create a great number of offspring but invest very little energy in them. An octopus, which will give birth to thousands of tiny octopodes, only a few of which will survive, is a perfect example of an r species. For USGBC, this r model worked as large numbers of ideas for initiatives could be submitted by anyone within the group, which could then be voted on to ensure their “survival.” Each chapter can then choose from a group of initiatives that they helped to create to implement throughout the year.


The IDEO team also believed it needed to be easier for USGBC members to identify and meet each other. Here they looked to a rather unique natural model: Cleaner shrimp, which eat parasites off of fish by “signaling” to the fish through their color and posture that they are not there to be eaten, but rather to perform a service. Drawing inspiration from this functional “signaling,” the team designed a more robust intranet for the USGBC that allowed profiles to be created for individuals, not just chapters, where members could view each other’s interests and know who to reach out to for partnering on various efforts. Displaying so many individuals’ needs and interests at once would also make it easy to see which issues were hot-button for USGBC members.

But the designers also needed a way to show real-time feedback as it bubbled up through the chapter level, the answer to which came in the form of the pink flamingo. The pink-ness of a flamingo is directly correlated to how much shrimp it’s eating, giving a very clear outward signal about each animal’s diet and health. The designers loved a similar idea for showing the health of each USGBC chapter, or the organization as a whole, using input collected on USGBC’s intranet. Here they could solicit information or highlight areas of impact, which could be used to generate easy-to-understand data visualizations.

One challenge the team faced was that they found it difficult to isolate bio-inspired solutions for some of USGBC’s organizational needs that were very human indeed, like keeping people motivated and giving members a sense of ownership over ideas. “Things like the need for face to face contact, or feeling valued, or mutual respect between
national and local parties were a challenge for us since we needed to really abstract the biological aspects,” says Morgan. “People just don’t behave functionally, they act emotionally, and it felt like a place that biomimicry could have a hard time connecting with the behavioral aspect,” says Fulton Suri.


McGee agreed that this is an ever-evolving biomimicry challenge. “As a scientist I’m constantly looking for where the science ends,” says McGee. “In working with designers it seems like they have a knack for asking the questions that biologists never ask.” For a biomimetic solution, says McGee, the trick is to translate a question like ‘How does nature motivate?’ to a sound scientific basis. “Motivation implies much that is human, and to ask a biologist this question is outside the realm of much of biological science,” he says. “So we would have to break it down to ‘How does life structure itself to achieve goal-oriented behavior?'”

One solution the designers came across was nature’s built-in buddy systems. Groups of animals from swarms of birds to schools of fish pair up with buddies and always keep the same distance between them when moving from place to place. IDEO proposed that USGBC created “chapter buddies” where individuals working in separate chapters would have one or more buddies in different chapters who they could talk to about their common goals and initiatives. This would create an interlaced system of shared information across the entire network.

Click the image to view the entire process timeline

In addition to the elements they created for each solution, IDEO documented their charrette as a process timeline, where you can view the way they merged their nature-centered and human-centered approaches as well as some of the exercises they completed along the way. McGee thinks the hybrid approach revealed some insight into the Biomimicry Guild’s process. “I think IDEO’s outstanding insights into ‘human centered’ design can actually help define and drive what it means to do biomimicry,” he says, “because at the center of our relationship with nature is ourselves.”

For IDEO, the challenge gave the team a new set of tools they hope to apply to future projects. “It really does feel like an amazing untapped resource,” agreed Fulton Suri. “The thing about the process is that it gives us permission to use our fascination with nature as part of our work life and it’s so powerful. It’s a huge part of our unconsciousness that we can expand.” They also realized how biomimicry in general could be a part of their own mission to create positive impact, says Morgan. “If we could distribute these BaDTs around the world we could be in a
better place.”


Special thanks to the Biomimicry Institute and the Biomimicry Guild for partnering with the Designers Accord on this challenge.

More solutions from the What Would You Ask Nature? Biomimicry Challenge

If you have a design and sustainability story to share, let us know about it! Check out the Designers Accord Web site. And follow us on Twitter @designersaccord to hear what the Designers Accord community is thinking about.

Browse more Designers Accord Case Studies

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato