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Biomimicry Design: The Answer May Be Zebra

Our last blog was about the change makers co-working space housed at the BrowerCenter.org called The-Hub.net. Per its mission, it is here I met Cameron Matthews. Cameron is currently working on a green start up at The Hub and has kindly reviewed the latest Biomimicy talk given by Janine Benyus: “Twohundred or so architectural and civil engineering students and professionalsput their hands down. The white noise of shifting folding-chairs and latecomerstrickling in echoed in the high ceilings of the darkened auditorium.

Our last blog was about the change makers co-working space housed at the BrowerCenter.org called The-Hub.net. Per its mission, it is here I met Cameron Matthews. Cameron is currently working on a green start up at The Hub and has kindly reviewed the latest Biomimicy talk given by Janine Benyus:

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“Twohundred or so architectural and civil engineering students and professionalsput their hands down. The white noise of shifting folding-chairs and latecomerstrickling in echoed in the high ceilings of the darkened auditorium.

“…and how many of you arebiologists or biology students?”

Again,nearly half of the hands in the room went up. Clearly I was in a very smallminority or even alone in the audience and I was starting to think I didn’tbelong.

I was attending Janine Benyus’talk, Biomimicry in the Built World:Consulting Nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor, sponsored by the Collegeof Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. As the founder of an early-stageelectronics startup and with a background in economics, I was skeptical of therelevance to my own interests, aside from my boyish curiosity of cool animalswhich had brought me in the door. But as the presentation began and the screenbehind her lit up with brilliant panoramas of diverse ecosystems, then zoomeddown to wildly imaginative macros of plants, animals, and fungi custom-built forsurvival, synapses fired and a storm cloud of ideas gathered strength. Nature,it seems, is an expert in efficient systems. By observing these systems and theproblems they solve we can tap into millions of years of evolutional R&D.

Lesson#1: Learn from the lowliest

…like slime molds. Ms. Benyus (who is NOT one of the “lowliest,” but hey,nobody’s perfect) is considered by many to be the “mother” of the biomimicry movementand is passionate about slime molds. In fact, she has a thing for all organismsseemingly tiny, insignificant, and grotesque. These organisms often have someof the most “clever” ways of solving systemic problems.

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Slimemold spores start out as individual organisms scattered about the forest, butas a rich food resource like a delicious dying log becomes known to a few,thousands converge into a single colony. The distribution and structure of theorganisms as they come together is remarkable. In still unknown ways, theycommunicate to form efficient nutrient transportation pathways. Thesedistribution patterns can be used to model other systems like subways,city planning, and electrical grids… and they can do it in a matter of hours. (http://www.mnn.com/technology/research-innovations/stories/slime-mold-able-to-process-information)

Otherlowly idols include limpets, velvet worms, and slugs, whose natural slime wasstudied by Nike in development of their non-toxic shoe adhesive.

Lesson#2: Resource aggregation is a key to moving past exploitation and exhaustion

Many organisms have adapted waysto collect and aggregate dispersed resources. Nowhere is this better displayedthan in the desert, where scarce water is focus of life for many. When fogrolls in, The Namibian Beetle climbsto the top of a dune and stands on its front legs with its rump in the air,condensing moisture from the air on its textured shell. The design of body andhead promote aggregation and flow of water directly into the beetle’s mouth to “drink”the fog. (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/water/images/lg/a03-475439_lg.jpg)

Dew capture is an ancientpractice, but has gained larger-scale momentum lately with organizations suchas FogQuest building condensationsystems around the world. (http://www.fogquest.org/)

Lesson#3: Design better systems, not better components

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… and reduce redundancy! Thequestion is, “Why design a better cleaner when you can design something thatdoesn’t need to be cleaned?” This principle is everywhere in nature and isstarting to be picked up by designers. Slow moving Galapagos sharks keepbacteria and organisms from growing on their skin with special texture that doesn’tallow microorganisms to attach. A company called Sharklet Technologies has turnedthis concept into several products, including anti-bacterial surfaces forhospitals and anti-fouling hull coatings to reduce drag and improve efficiencyon ships. (http://www.sharklet.com/)

Otherexamples include butterfly wings and lotus leaves, whose micro-textures don’tallow dirt to adhere and are cleaned by rainfall or other moisture.Applications for these micro-textures abound, from solar panels and building exteriors thatself clean to fabrics, airplanes, and beyond. (http://www.stocorp.com/allweb.nsf/lotusanpage)

While this first generation ofbiomimicry is changing the field of product and civil design, adaptation ofthese principles to business processes can’t be far behind. If a healthyeconomy is simply an efficient system of exchanging scare resources, and ahealthy business is an efficient business, then it only makes sense to optimizeefficiency by modeling our systems on the millionsof examples found all around us, from the microscopic to macro Earth ecosystem.

How might nature solve theproblems that businesses and governments face today? What might nature be ableto tell me about an optimal growth rate for my fledgling (see? the language isalready biomimicked) company or how to differentiate in a saturated/overcrowdedmarket? What about shipping & logistics, or where to manufacture in orderto minimize shipping? What might nature suggest about whether to acquire ordevelop a new technology in-house? What is the efficient allocation ofresources between IT infrastructure, R&D, manufacturing, marketing, etc?How does nature do marketing? Whatdoes nature say about employee relations and company culture?

It was just two weeks after Ms.Benyus’ talk that I met Jody Turner of Culture of Future. She was hosting aworkshop at The Hub inBerkeley (http://bayarea.the-hub.net/public/) on trend research and strategyand I was, of course, in attendance. The workshop was great and worthy of aseparate discussion, but there was one thing in particular that caught myattention. We were talking about how to listen to feedback and not to dismissideas as irrelevant. “If someone says the answer is ‘Zebra,’ don’t tell themit’s not Zebra; listen to what they are saying and add onto their answer if youhave a difference of opinion.”

Lesson#4: The answer may in fact be “Zebra”

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Coincidentally, two weeks before,Ms. Benyus stood at the lectern and explained how the black and white stripesof a Zebra create variations in air temperature just above the surface of theskin, which in turn creates an air current and natural cooling systemsurrounding the zebra on the sweltering savannah. “Skins” are coming into use inarchitecture as well (like the Phare Tower in Paris http://morphopedia.com/projects/phare-tower),for thermoregulation, water collection, energy harvest, and self cleaningsurfaces.

There are many unansweredquestions to systematic problems throughout business, civic planning, anddesign. The answer to some of those questions just might be Zebra.”

* * *

And if we at CultureofFuture.comwere to add on a Lesson #5 it would sound something like: Hang out in thequestion … Create the posture of being open to allpossibilities. We are dealing with such wild complexity of variables there isno right answer. We are looking for field sets of viable solutions, being opento all ideas is critical in terms of creating new pathways forward. Primarily wecan’t use our old thinking or assumptions at the surface and it isfundamentally impossible for one person to track the depth of what is going ontoday. Collaboration gives us infinite edges off of which to generate a newemergence, which is the fuel of all creativity and innoventive (made up word)thinking.

Resources:

http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_shares_nature_s_designs.html

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http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/

http://www.biotechonomy.com/life.htm

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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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