Biomimicry Challenge: For IBM, Smart Design Draws Water Conservation Inspiration From Ecosystems

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: For IBM, Smart Design Draws Water Conservation Inspiration From Ecosystems

Designers Accord


You’ve probably seen ads for IBM’s SmarterCity initiative, a program that uses the company’s information technology to help municipal governments create healthier, more intelligent urban environments for their residents. Using their ability to collect and analyze data, IBM is able to provide information about elements of daily city life ranging from weather and traffic to water usage and air quality. But what they’ve done with that data has largely been used to make policy and economic decisions. IBM appealed to our What Would You Ask Nature? biomimicry challenge, asking how they could use nature to understand how these overlays of information could help guide residents toward making better personal decisions for the good of the city. A New York-based team at Smart Design accepted their challenge.


After having a discussion with IBM, and walking through some day-in-the-life exercises that explored issues facing urban dwellers, Smart chose to focus on water conservation. Because of the complexity surrounding its systems, water is often misunderstood, says Tucker Fort, Smart’s director of industrial design. “But unlike something like energy, it’s a finite resource.” Water was also something that residents interacted with everyday, and since IBM’s goal was to make cities more responsive and resilient, using a biomimetic approach for encouraging more responsible water usage could have a real impact when implemented across an entire municipal area. Smart zeroed in on urban water consumption to explore how nature could inspire relevant, everyday solutions for city inhabitants to conserve water.

blindfolding exercise

To immerse themselves in a biomimetic mindset, Fort, along with director of interaction design Ted Booth, and their team consisting of Whitney Hopkins, Colin Kelly, Anton Ljunggren, and Stephanie Yung, were introduced to the emerging discipline of biomimicry by their BaDT (biologist at the design table) Mark Dorfman. After a biomimicry primer, the team engaged in a blindfolded exercise where they were encouraged to smell, taste, touch, and listen to nature–anything that would break them of their reliance on vision. This is something Dorfman calls “quieting our cleverness.” “If I were to show you a pine cone, you would see it and immediately know what it is, and that might be the end of your curiosity and exploration,” says Dorfman. “But if you’re blindfolded and handed a pine cone, you’ll have to explore its shape, texture, smell, before figuring out what it is.” The hope is that this process will open the designer’s mind to viewing living things through a functional lens–a way that is particularly relevant to solving design challenges.

High Line

Visits to two urban greenways, the High Line and Hudson River Park, near Smart’s offices, provided an opportunity to use this sensual awareness while focusing intently on natural solutions. Reframing the challenge as a functional approach, the designers asked themselves questions like “How does nature store water?” and “How does nature collect water?” Through Dorfman’s storytelling and by looking at examples on the site, they learned about examples that ranged from the corky tuber, a giant 700-pound water-filled tuber that grows under the ground yet throws out a few tiny shoots on the surface to alert animals about its water levels, to the ways that camels self-regulate water consumption due to availability.

Although the designers were inspired by the natural examples, they quickly found a more actionable solution in the Life’s Principles, a chart created by the Biomimicry Guild to illustrate
how the earth regulates and conserves resources within its own giant
ecosystem. Examining this representation of nature’s complex systems, the designers realized that their solution would not come directly from an organism, but from this entire system as a whole: These core
principles for life could work as a metaphor for a city, inspiring and informing solutions to make a
healthier and smarter environment.


Life's PrinciplesClick the image to view the illustration in a larger size. Our understanding of Life’s Principles is constantly evolving; please
to ensure you have the most current representation.

After studying the Life’s Principles chart, one truth became apparent: Nature has strict boundaries when it came to resources. Cities don’t. Especially when it came to water, organisms had very specific ways for dealing with conservation during times of scarcity. Grass will go dormant during droughts. Birds will conserve food for the good of the group. Animals and plants have a very intrinsic ability to monitor and self-regulate, whereas humans are so far removed from this cycle that they only pay attention when they experience what the designers named a “heart attack moment” where resources have been depleted and it’s too late. “Animals regulate based on ambient conditions–they do for themselves but also for the good of the species,” says Booth. “So how do you make those signals apparent? How can we bring out those concepts so we’re looking at those boundaries and limits?”

But here’s where Smart tapped their own knowledge of human behavior: “People hate the word ‘boundary,'” says Fort. There’s nothing that frustrates people more than strict regulations and limits. The team realized to make their solution appeal to people, they needed to create “soft boundaries of encouragement” for water conservation: Using IBM’s data, Smart could design feedback loops on each layer of the city’s ecosystem that would create boundaries for individuals, communities, and cities.


Life's PrinciplesClick the image to view Smart’s interpretation of the Life’s Principles for urban ecosystems at a larger size

Using the chart as their guide, the designers began framing a
three-level approach to that would provide tangible and relevant feedback loops in different layers: individual (organism),
communal (species), and societal (species to species).

For the individual layer, Smart wanted a non-intrusive, yet tangible way to show residents how much water they were using. They created the Heartbeat Faucet, which provides feedback by pulsing after dispensing every 12-oz. cup of water–approximately 20-30 times a minute for the typical faucet. This metered pulse would allow users to see and feel how much water they are using each time they turn on the faucet, informing everyone in the household about their behavior. The faucet would also give IBM point-of-use metering for real time analytics.


For the communal layer, Smart focused on the concept of “leveraging interdependence,” or creating cooperative behavior. For this solution they looked at the idea of a Communal Reservoir, which would encourage groups to work together. In an urban environment, Smart decided, a reservoir would translate to the water used by an entire apartment building: Water usage is typically metered for a whole building but each resident often has no idea how much or little they’re contributing to the bill. This program would track your building’s water usage during a fixed time period and give a community reward–from municipal tax credits to flowers for the lobby–if you come in below your target. The elevator could then serve as the “town square,” with displays that show the building’s reservoir level and allow the community to modify behavior on daily basis.

Finally, for the societal layer, Smart needed a way to quickly convey the city’s water health to its residents and reconnect cities to the natural resources their inhabitants depend on for
survival. “When people used to have to pick up their water they could see the stream or the well, and know to conserve,” says Booth. “We have to real connection to that.” They created the concept of MicroParks, tiny greenspaces throughout the city located next to fire hydrants retrofitted with solar powered wireless water metering systems. The MicroParks’ water feed could be manipulated to reflect the cities future water supply–a lush MicroPark would communicate a healthy water supply and a withering MicroPark would let residents know that conservation is critical. These miniature green spaces can forecast city water supply health and make behavior-changing daily connections with people in a positive way.


Smart was able to use the concepts of an entire ecosystem as a metaphor for a city environment, moving from very micro examples from nature into an application like the Life’s Principles that applied nature in a very macro, big-picture way. This resulted in a solution that they felt was more appropriate than the traditional biomimicry approach of inscribing specific organisms’ traits upon urban infrastructure and human behaviors. “We felt we lacked the credibility to say we can take the corky tuber and turn it into a reservoir,” says Fort of the limited time and experience in biomimicry. “But it was valuable to think about things from a different perspective.”

Although Dorfman didn’t expect the team to make the Life’s Principles the centerpiece of their solution, he thought it made an excellent bridge for designers to work between life’s technologies and human behavior. “Most often, I’ve used Life’s Principles to evaluate a potential solution that we’ve proposed to a client, so it was quite interesting to see the team use Life’s Principles as both the inspiration for ideas as well as a tool to evaluate its sustainability,” he says. “It was actually quite exciting to see the
design team
run with it.”


The designers will now use the Life’s Principles as another tool in their toolkit, much like the way Smart already uses the principles of Universal Design, a process of designing products and environments that are usable by people with a wide range of abilities. It will remind them that nature is often the
best role model for elegant
solutions. And for this solution, it also helped them to realize a simple truth: That some of the world’s largest challenges will be overcome by changing the behavior of each individual within a larger system. “The modern city is just like an
ecosystem,” says Fort. “It seems so obvious, but if you just go right
below the surface, there are
all these inspirations and connections that are so meaningful.”

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


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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


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