Biomimicry for Innovation: Your Amazing and Infinite, New LEGO Set

Why are LEGOs so awesome? Because you can mix and match them to create an endless variety of new things.

The process is analogous to typical front-end innovation. With LEGOs you’re taking building blocks that you already have and recombining them to create new solutions. In the design and engineering world we’re often taking bits and pieces of the cool stuff already floating around in everyone’s heads and recombining those to create solutions.

It turns out that the living things all around us contain these missing pieces and if we learn how to ask the right questions we can enable truly boundary-breaking design innovation.

This doesn’t always get us where we need to be, especially if the goal is something entirely new. To accomplish that, it’s helpful to have a completely new set of LEGOs with pieces that you could have never imagined.  It turns out that the living things all around us contain these missing pieces and if we learn how to ask the right questions we can enable truly boundary-breaking design innovation.

Biomimicry for Innovation: Optimizing for Everything

Break down the word “biomimicry,” and you have “bios” or “life,” and “mimesis,” which means “to imitate.” Biomimicry is the science of adapting solutions from biology to solve design problems. The idea is not to directly use the organism but instead to adapt the recipe or blueprint for the design principle to the problem at hand.

I first got interested in the field when I was given the book: Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Author and biologist Janine Benyus wrote it after noticing a trend of researchers looking for solutions in living systems. The book was written in 1997 and since then she and her business partner Dr. Dayna Baumeister have launched both a consulting firm and a nonprofit focused on developing the field of biomimicry.  In addition to consulting, one of Dr. Baumeister’s focuses has been on professional education — teaching engineers, designers, biologists and business people how to work together to solve challenges.  In 2015 she partnered with Arizona State University to turn the two year program she developed into the first of its kind Masters of Science degree in biomimicry.

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Since I last wrote about biomimicry in an earlier blog post, What Would Nature Do?, I’ve been fortunate enough to enroll in that program along with 160 other students from around the world.  In addition, 18 of us have undertaken a parallel profession certification that involves traveling as a group to six different biomes around North America to learn about different ecosystems and to investigate the solutions that exist in those contexts. The members of my cohort, pictured above, come from many backgrounds.  There are six different kinds of engineers, three types of biologists, designers, business people, a conflict mediator, three architects, a software designer, a user researcher, and a graphic designer! Never have I seen so many perspectives come together to solve problems.  We’re only half way through the program and already the results are truly inspiring.

Living things kick ass at solving problems. Their solutions are elegant, efficient, and sustainable. Critically to those of us in the innovation world, they are also truly unexpected.

This program combines all the things I love most: the natural world, sustainability, engineering, design, and innovation. For me it has confirmed the fact that living things kick ass at solving problems. Their solutions are elegant, efficient, and sustainable. Critically to those of us in the innovation world, they are also truly unexpected.  I’ve assembled a few examples here that demonstrate how biomimetic design serves up novel solutions including those for resilience, noise reduction, and usability.

Resilience and Resurrection in Action: The Water Bear

My colleagues at Bresslergroup are always solving for function. I tell them to talk to me about biomimicry if they can look at a new problem and ask, how would nature do this? The answers are usually surprising.

One of the coolest I’ve come across is the tardigrade, also called a water bear, which presents solutions for a host of design problems. The water bear, pictured below, is one of the most ubiquitous species on Earth — it exists everywhere from the tops of Himalayan mountains to hot springs. Its problem is that the moisture it needs to survive sometimes dries up. Most organisms die when they dehydrate, but the water bear survives by wrapping its cellular structures in a sugar called trehalose that holds its shape. Up to ten years later they can rehydrate and essentially come back to life.

biomimicry for innovation

The amazing water bear.

When a biomimic sees an amazing adaptation like this the obvious question is, “Where do we need to preserve living cells”?  Of course, there are endless applications in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.  Our solution is typically refrigeration, which works but also costs a fortune and emits tons of CO2. The strategy of the water bear has already been applied to the creation of dry vaccines. Shelf-stable, easy to transport and with no need for refrigeration, these vaccines are considerably more accessible to people in need of public health solutions around the globe. That’s the first commercial application but it’s easy to think of other industries and product categories that might make use of a tardigrade-inspired solution.

A Bullet Train to Efficiency and Noise Reduction

Natural solutions are a great place to look when you have very specific constraints, because you can often map these constraints to a living system.

When the designers of the original 0 Series Shinkansen bullet train engineered the vehicle’s nose, they figured its bullet-like shape, pictured below, would help the train shoot through the air. But as soon as they put it into service, they discovered a fundamental problem. Every time it went through a tunnel, it built up a pressure wave that produced, upon exiting, a deafening sonic boom.

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This, of course, caused great alarm especially in residential areas, and the operators had to reduce the train’s speed each time it traveled through a tunnel. A slow bullet train was a useless bullet train, so the engineers went back to the drawing board to try to figure out how to maintain the train’s speed while reducing its boom.

What else besides bullets moves quickly through the air? The lead engineer on the project knew a lot about birds, and he approached the problem by looking for birds who switch medium densities with little disruption. He settled on Kingfishers who dive headfirst into water to catch fish. It’s critical to their survival to avoid making any kind of splash as they enter so they can see the fish through smooth water.  As a result, their beak is the optimum shape for this problem.

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The design team emulated the profile and cross section of the Kingfisher’s beak and the resulting Series 500 Shinkansen, pictured above, travels 10 percent faster on 15 percent less fuel with no sonic boom.

Biomimicry for Usability: Flowers and Beehives

I recently considered the link between biomimicry and usability for a talk I gave at the World Usability Day 2016 event in Philadelphia last month. My friend, Denny Royal of Azul 7, a consulting firm out of Minneapolis, has spent some time considering what the natural world can teach us about usability and we identified a few quick examples.

Flowers and Feedback Loops

The goal of usability is to make products easier and more enjoyable to use. The most usable products don’t require a user’s manual — they are so intuitive, the user immediately understands how they work.  A lot of usability design hinges on the interactions between the user and a system, or among different users of a system. There are many lessons that can be learned from natural systems and how they communicate.

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Flowers are giant billboards.

Flowers, for example, are built to communicate — they’re basically giant billboards flashing the message, “Come use me!,” to their pollinators. There’s an incredible diversity in pollination strategies throughout the world. Many flowers benefit from attracting multiple pollinators. This is usability for the masses.

Other flowers co-evolve with specific pollinators — they have a special relationship where they need each other to survive and prosper.  Some species of mistletoe, for example, have flowers that can only be opened by one or two types of birds who know the proper technique.  This is a tighter niche, its design meant for a small and specific user group.  The advantage is that mistletoes, pictured below, are spread out in a tropical rainforest and by selecting specific pollinators and rewarding them handsomely with nectar it’s more likely that the bird will take their pollen straight to another mistletoe.  The message here is that usability isn’t a one size fits all proposition.  Like everything in nature and in design, it hinges on context.

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The Peraxilla mistletoe can only be opened by one or two types of birds who know the proper technique.

Bees and Emergent Behavior

Bee colonies are one of many examples from nature of emergent behavior, where the function of a system depends on many individuals following simple rules to get complex results.

Look at beehive thermal regulation, the practice where bees collectively maintain a precise temperature in their hive. When the hive becomes too warm, a few bees begin to fan their wings – and the hot air out.  If the temperature continues to rise, other bees with a higher temperature threshold join in.  The reverse happens when the hive gets cold —  the bees vibrate to generate heat.  The resulting response is that of a proportional gain feedback loop.

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Unlike our feedback loops, this system is bottom up. It’s decentralized and robust.  If your thermostat fails, you can’t control the temperature in your house.  When a bee dies, the hive keeps right on thermoregulating.  Where could emergent behavior, where simple rules are followed to get a desired outcome, be replicated as a product solution? What kind of signaling could you design into your system that would activate users?

Look Up, Look Down

What does all this mean for designers and engineers? We have been given a giant new LEGO set, and it’s hiding in plain sight. When we want innovation, we don’t have to settle for recombining things we already know.  That’s what everybody else is doing.  Biomimicry provides a methodology for finding the proven solutions that already exist.  And the coolest thing is that it bakes sustainability into innovation. Natural systems just don’t do unsustainable.  Unsustainable = extinct.  If you get your solution from nature, it’s almost always a better solution in every way.