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  • 04.01.11

Innovative Nature: Baking Biomimicry In

Mother Nature has a product development process we would do well to emulate, she has in effect solved many sustainable design questions already if we examine her systems.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

About the author

A dynamic social researcher, cultural narrator, future trendhunter and strategic designer, Jody Turner works and speaks globally via her west coast company CultureofFuture.com and the London group Trendwatching.com. Client engagements have included Apple, BMW, StyleVision France, Adidas, Starbucks, The Gap, Unilever Istanbul and multiple others.

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