Q&A: Biomimicry

“We are nature.” So goes the new mantra in some design circles. And the word “biomimicry” comes up with increasing frequency. When we heard that Jane Fulton Suri, a partner and creative director at IDEO and author Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Design, is working to reconcile nature with design, we couldn’t resist asking her a few questions.  She comes to design from psychology and architecture, as a pioneer in empathic observation and human-centered design she encourages us to be curious about everyday human behavior. At a time when designers are starting to tackle complex and systemic challenges, Jane is looking beyond human behavior, exploring how the exquisite patterns in nature and sustainable living systems might inform and inspire us to create more elegant and less harmful solutions.

Susan S. Szenasy: The refrain we hear often today goes like this: “We are nature.” Architects say it, designers say it, so do biologists, and others. How can we begin to understand this belonging, when our species has spent a century separating ourselves from nature? Can you give us some practical advice, something hopeful about how we reconnect in this age of electronic overkill?

Jane Fulton Suri: I wonder if the refrain “we are nature” is really all that common among architects and designers today.

At the end of Akira Kurasawa’s film “Dreams” a wise old man tells a visitor to his idyllic village: “People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature. Yet, they destroy the nature on which our lives depend. They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists. They may be smart, but most don’t understand the heart of nature. They only invent things that, in the end, make people unhappy. Yet they’re so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are, too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. They don’t know it, but they’re losing nature. They don’t see that they’re going to perish. The most important things for human beings are clean air and clean water.” 

The sentiment strikes a chord because, while many of us personally have a deep sense of human connection with nature, professionally our activities, conversations, and reference points are often out of step with that. Last year though, I had an opportunity to address that disconnect by working to apply design principles form nature to a design challenge. One of our most exciting realizations was that a personal fascination with the natural world could so readily and productively connect with the professional work of design.

We were deliberately exploring how a nature-inspired approach might blend effectively with human-centered design, something that many of us at IDEO have been eager to try for a long time. Our brief was to work with a biologist and come up with ways to help the U. S. Green Building Council enhance the way the national organization and its chapter network communicates and organizes. We have worked on organizational design projects before, but we’ve often looked exclusively to HUMAN systems to inspire us. This time, in addition to some basic exploration of the human issues, our most powerful sources of inspiration were fungi, flocks of swallows, quorum-sensing ants, and the reproductive strategy of cuttlefish—natural phenomena that were other-than-human LIVING systems with relevance to the design challenge.  

The biologist, Tim McGee of the Biomimicry Guild, primed the experience by asking everyone to bring in “an object from nature…anything you think might have a bearing on the challenge, even if, right now, you don’t really know how.”  We brought bits of moss and mushrooms from our backyards and shared our observations while Tim offered additional and deeper interpretations. This turned out to be a wonderful way to begin incorporating a new form of inspiration. Right from the start we were tuning in, through our own experience of nature, and participating in the language and concepts of biology, engaging with ideas, analogies and principles from nature, and learning quickly from an expert who could enrich our—often naïve and superficial—understanding.

We could see how principles exhibited in nature, such as symbiotic interdependence (between trees in a forest producing nutrients through photosynthesis, and mychorrhizal fungi transporting nutrients around underground), or distributed forms of awareness and communication (like the simple spacing rules for individual birds who move cohesively in a flock), have immediate application to the design of human systems which often lack resilience because they default to top-down ways of organizing.

What made these principles graspable, appealing, and inspirational for design, was that they emerged from direct observation, compelling stories, and images we shared about specific organisms. It was exciting to realize that if we start by opening our senses and curiosity about the natural world around us and then go deeper, we will learn from it to think about our challenges in refreshing and fruitful new ways.

And paradoxically perhaps, in “this age of electronic overkill” we have access to some tools that actually help reconnect us with nature and natural processes. Through connected media we are able to see, hear, learn and otherwise tap into resources about the natural world and phenomena beyond our immediate surroundings and into the expertise of naturalists and biologists who can help us appreciate and interpret what we see. While I wouldn’t want to suggest it’s a substitute for direct experience—the worlds revealed by Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, and National Geographic are now accessible to us anywhere, anytime.

SSS: What can practicing designers do, NOW, to find ways to understand nature’s processes (not just its forms and physically apparent patterns)? Where do they start?

JFS: First, get into a setting where you can observe nature and living things—taking time out to look, to wonder, use our senses, and reflect upon the patterns we see. Second, collaborate with expert interpreters who can help us go deeper and draw out life’s principles. So, start by being curious, reconnecting to that child-like sense of amazement at the elegance of nature, and ask a biologist or naturalist to help uncover the mystery.

Designers have an appetite for learning about how things work and are habitual observers too. We enjoy immersion in environments and activities that inspire and inform our work. Most frequently we look to a man-made world but the habit of looking and pattern-making is ingrained, so it is not a huge step to expand our field of view to include the natural world. But it takes a change of mindset to realize that if we’re working on a project about trash disposal, for example, it may be as legitimate and valuable to leave the studio and sit quietly in the woods as it is to visit the local recycling center.

Another way is to understand nature’s processes is to take advantage of AskNature.org, a wonderful web-based resource provided by the Biomimicry Guild/Group.  The site invites users to query a large database to learn about hundreds of different organisms based on the functional strategies they employ. And for designers interested in guided immersion, the Biomimicry Guild/Institute offers workshops. As my colleague Robert Suarez, recently back from a week of immersion in the Sonoran Desert, told me, “… I was quickly reminded that nature is all around us and accessible to really everyone. The reminder to re-connect with nature is the most powerful and meaningful component for shifting the design paradigm. Hours after returning home I went for a walk in my neighborhood with my son. I was looking deeper into everything I saw. I considered the possible function and strategies a plant or leaf may employ, I visualized the complex network of underground tubes that are the rats’ homes. My knowledge of how things work in nature, ‘how nature does it?’ is far from exhaustive but my curiosity and wonder has certainly been renewed. “

SSS: What can design and architecture schools do, NOW, to emphasize nature’s lessons, for teaching to design objects large and small (salt shaker to city)?

JFS: In the context of new opportunities and challenges facing our future designers both learning from nature and learning about nature, biology, and living systems is going to be crucial.

Our students need opportunities for firsthand exposure to nature and natural systems, as said before. Additionally they need access to new language, metaphor, and conceptual frameworks that ecologists, biologists, and bio-scientists can provide. In the same way that progressive design schools in the 1990’s made alliances with social scientists and anthropologists to deepen design students’ understanding of human behavior and culture, I expect to see similar alliances made with life scientists who can deepen our understanding of nature and living things. Forest ecologies and insects’ foraging strategies are inspiring ways to appreciating the interdependent systems involved in creating salt-shakers and cities; nature’s models help us engage with levels of complexity that otherwise can make your head hurt!

We need to equip our future designers to contribute to sustainable design and global challenges in how to feed and clothe our population, and make effective use of materials, energy, water, air, and habitat. They also need to be prepared to engage with revolutionary technologies from synthetic biology to biotechnology. Already there are companies, like Ecovative Design LLC, growing ready-formed materials. It probably won’t be long before we’re designing living materials and organisms.

Developments in the life sciences are going to change the world and open up possibilities for whole new classes of design. Schools can encourage collaborations of the kind my colleagues Adam Reinek and Will Carey are engaged in with Wendell Lim and other bioscientists in University of California San Francisco. They’re asking questions that will impact all of us, like What might it mean to nurture living probiotics specifically designed for us? How would that change how we “cleanse” ourselves, what would “soap” look like?

My colleague Tim Brown talks about “the shift from a Newtonian, physics-based, way of thinking about the world to a Darwinian, biology-based, way” which he sees as a move away from top-down planning and prediction to bottom-up emergence and experimentation. As evidence we only have to look at the way design practice itself is changing to be a more collaborative, more democratic, more evolutionary, and open process. Designers, producers, consumers, and other contributors and stakeholders form a diverse ecology, supported by new communication tools and networks. 

A final thought about what our schools can do to emphasize nature’s lessons: become decentralized, resilient systems supporting new emergent behaviors, new networks and more diverse forms of cultural expression. Nature would teach us not to focus on standards, which tends to be our default with respect to education, but as a principle schools should follow different models.  There should be more diversity and more experimentation.

SSS: How can ergonomics or human factors be redefined through our understanding of nature’s processes?

JFS: There is widespread awareness, especially in the industrially developed nations, of the many ways that human behaviors, products, and services negatively impact the quality of life and environment for ourselves and other living things upon whom we (inter)depend for our health and well-being. If an underlying motivation for design is to enhance our “quality of life” collectively and individually then our practice needs to embrace consideration of such fundamental questions as How can design ensure clean air and water as a widespread biological and economic necessity? These questions bring us face to face with the reality of our place in relation to natural and biological processes.

So, rather than thinking of ourselves as users, consumers, or even part of an exclusive human family, there is another way to think of our being: simply as a living thing, a living organism. 

It feels increasingly important that we consider ourselves part of an ecology of living things and consider more humbly our co-existence and interdependence with other life-forms—some of whom we host—and other organisms that purify our water and nourish us in other ways—mind body and soul.

Over the years there has been an evolution in the way designers think about human issues in design and have drawn upon different kinds of expertise. In the early days, when design was exclusively about the tangible aspects of products and spaces, there was an emphasis on physical and cognitive ergonomics, anthropometry, and human perceptual abilities. As physical products became smarter and more complex, designers began to work with dynamic information and turned to cognitive psychology and the social sciences for help in creating human-computer interactions. More recently designers have tackled services, roles, processes, organizational and cultural issues, and routinely draw upon the skills and knowledge of anthropology. And now, as designers begin to address challenges of global scale and complexity and (whether intentionally or not) impact living systems, human-centered design needs to broaden to include an ecological component.  This is the moment to integrate expertise from biology and the life sciences with human-centered design.

SSS: And what kind of changes might this nature-inspired approach bring about in our designed environment? 

JFS: The promise is that we will design beautiful products and systems that elegantly fulfill human purposes and at the same time benefit other life forms in our environment. That means designing and building with new ecological principles in mind: being adaptive to context (rather than controlling it), dynamic and flexible (rather than fixed and resistant) and designing solutions that can become increasingly complex and diverse over time. Interestingly, provided with the right kind of infrastructure, human systems can and do evolve in these ways: think how companies like Facebook and Amazon have evolved, as networks, within networks, and supporting social networks that almost literally take on a life of their own. These are new companies, founded in a networked information age. The challenge is to evolve mindsets and institutions that were established in the industrial age.

There are already many examples of technical solutions that deliberately emulate phenomena found in nature—non-toxic adhesives based on mussel chemistry, self-cleaning surfaces inspired by lotus leaves. But the real breakthrough will be to develop approaches that routinely achieve mutual behavioral and ecological benefits over the long haul. We should aspire to these couple of successful examples that come to mind:

First (through Ray Anderson, founder and chairman) Interface Inc. (http://www.interfaceglobal.com/  ) has for over a decade consistently employed nature’s principles in a systematic way to pioneer sustainable practices and create a wide-ranging positive impact—creating business advantage through innovation, and bringing functional and emotional benefits to its own employees, installers, designers, building owners, and inhabitants too. The company was the first in the USA to offer the modular format of carpet tiles (that allow individual tiles to be rearranged or replaced to cope with wear), and introduced random patterns (no two tiles are identical, inspired by the “organized chaos” of the forest floor, so that tiles can be laid without painstaking care in orienting them). It was also first to eliminate the need for glue in installation (inspired by glue-less examples of adhesion in nature, such as the tiny hairs that allow geckos’ feet to cling to any surface); and first to salvage and re-use carpet in manufacture. All this has established new paradigms in the industry and also drives sustainable behavior on the part of customers—modular refurbishment has become an attractive and economical alternative to new purchase.

Second a social, business, and material ecosystem designed by Industrial Symbiosis in Kalundborg Denmark (http://www.symbiosis.dk/) and running for a couple of decades. The overall goals of this group are to minimize the utilization of energy, water, and natural raw materials through efficient exchange of industrial bi-products between multiple industries within a local geography. Literally the outputs of one factory become the inputs for another. Although this is essentially a technical goal with economic and environmental benefits, the effort requires a level of human collaboration, openness (it means sharing details of each other’s manufacturing cycles to design waste streams that reintegrate into other manufacturing cycles) and information exchange to accomplish. And so Industrial Symbiosis is itself built as a network to support co-operation between several companies (including a sheetrock factory, pharmaceutical plant, enzyme producer, and an oil refinery) and the technical departments within the Municipality of Kalundborg.  A key element of Industrial Symbiosis is stated as “working together to find new solutions” — new resources for production processes and new processes for available resources.

These examples suggest that a truly nature-inspired approach will mean rethinking some fundamental ideas about design: What we design: perhaps it is not about things, but about ecosystems. How we think of materials: perhaps the concept of “waste” is outmoded, materials reform. Who designs: perhaps our new heroes will not be individual human designers but rather diverse (and multi-species?) design communities.

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