Apr 17, 2012

Triple Bottom Lunch and Biomimicry

Sarah Brooks's picture
Sarah Brooks
Director, Social Innovation

Hot Studio is kicking off Triple Bottom Lunch—a monthly lunchtime speaker series exploring social, economic, and ecological value.

Julie Sammons led the first event, helping us explore how biomimicry can inspire creative design solutions and inform our approach to solving complex problems. Julie is a biologist, business advisor, and co-founder of the Bay Area Biomimicry Network.

Here’s some of what she discussed:

The term biomimicry was coined by biologist Janine Benyus fourteen years ago. It is an ancient practice and emerging discipline that emulates the forms, processes, and systems found in nature to solve modern design challenges. Biomimicry 3.8 is the recently re-branded identity of the Biomimicry Institute; the name references the 3.8 billion years of nature's research and development here on earth.

Increasingly, biomimicry is used as a lens to guide development of consumer products, manufacturing processes, materials research, and the creation of organizational structures by asking, "How would nature do that?"

Form and Function in the core patterns found in nature
Julie brought the natural world to Hot Studio in downtown San Francisco, beginning the workshop with a sensory exercise. With closed eyes, each attendee was given a series of natural forms to explore via smell, shape, and texture and asked to consider recurring or differentiating patterns. When we opened our eyes, many of us were surprised to find a turtle shell, magnolia blossom, seashell, feather, and stingray tail among the collection. It was fun to get out of our heads and have a kinesthetic learning experience to ground an exploration of nature's processes with, well, objects from nature. It sounds so simple, but we don't do it very often, and there were many interesting insights shared.  

Life's Design Principles
Julie reviewed the biomimicry group's distillation of Life's Principles: evolve to survive, be resource efficient, adapt to changing conditions, integrate development with growth, be locally attuned and responsive and use life-friendly chemistry. She gave a few examples such as the spider web, which is stronger than steel, and the alternating height of a zebra's black and white stripes, which create a rolling ecosystem of cooling—patterns suited for form, function, and the environment.

The idea of micro competition within a context of macro co-operation sparked a really interesting conversation about what that means when applied to the world of man-made organizations and systems. Julie introduced the idea through the example of the Eucalyptus tree. Native to Australia, Eucalyptuses were imported to California during the Gold Rush for use as railroad ties. Planted in the same coastal ecosystem as the native redwood there were a few unintended consequences. Eucalyptus trees grow differently here. The trunks twist and make them unsuitable for railroad ties. And, the sap in the soil from fallen leaves is toxic to redwoods. So the two species compete to survive and thrive within the larger ecosystem.

Complex Adaptive Design
Biomimicry teaches that living systems are our best models of complex adaptive design; we evolve to survive, replicating what works, integrating the unexpected, and reshuffling information along the way. The trick is that nature does this utilizing the design principles of optimal energy efficiency, local attunement, and efficient resource usage. Julie pointed out that of every patent granted for a human innovation, there is only a 12% overlap between "biological" solutions and "technological solutions" using the TRIZ methodology, which compares patterns in new inventions, patents, and ideas. Only a small percentage of them meet the criteria of life's design principles that are optimized to support life. Food for thought.

Complex vs. Complicated
Another really interesting aspect of the workshop was our final discussion of complex vs. complicated systems. As Julie explained, complex systems have a dynamic interrelationship of connections that lead to emergent outcomes, whereas complicated systems feature a structured relationship of connections that lead to predictable outcomes. People and our social systems are complex. Are we accounting for emergent outcomes in our design solutions? After all, Hot’s tagline is "Making the complex beautifully clear.” We all agreed we'd love to dive into that question, but alas, we ran out of time. So it will have to be another conversation for another day.

We all quickly saw the crossover of these principles to practical application in our work at the studio; conversations with clients, approaches.

It was a successful start to Triple Bottom Lunch. Stay tuned for Patrice Martin and Liz Ogbu from IDEO.org, up next month.