FIRST LEGO League Biomimicry Guidance

What’s better than not only getting kids excited about biomimicry, but also giving them the opportunity to actually try to use biomimicry in innovation? Not much! In this year’s FIRST LEGO League challenges, Animal Allies and Creature Craze, which are focused on how humans and animals learn from, interact with and help one another, kids have the opportunity to do just that. The Biomimicry Institute was consulted in developing the challenge and biomimicry is listed as a (very cool!) option for teams to use as a way to learn from animals. Sign me up! But if you are team looking to use biomimicry, where do you start?

We were fortunate enough at Biomimicry Chicago to have a local FIRST LEGO team contact us for more information about how they might use biomimicry in their process. My cousin in Michigan also reached out to me as her kid’s team is also interested in talking to a biomimic. It has dawned on me that there are likely many more teams out there interested in using biomimicry but are perhaps struggling with how to start.

Fortunately, there are online resources to help you get started. Those, combined with the recommendations and biomimicry process outline below will provide you what you need to get your feet wet.

Next Steps

The following are next steps for FIRST LEGO League teams. Each link will send you to a section farther below for quick navigation each time you come back to this page!

1.  Find a local expert!

The Biomimicry Institute provides links to their Global Biomimicry Network, which is made up of local nodes such as Biomimicry Chicago. Search for one closest to you! Biomimicry Professionals and specialists will be able to guide you through the process and answer questions you have along the way. If you don’t have a local network, don’t be afraid to reach out to biomimics that are in your larger region. There are many like me who would love to help!

2. Understand what biomimicry IS and is NOT.

Understandably, any team looking to use biomimicry will go online and start searching under key terms and any number of things will pop up. Without any background in biomimicry, it can be hard to know what is what. So what is and isn’t “biomimicry”? In the simplest terms,

Biomimicry IS…
  • Learning from nature – Understanding the strategies, mechanisms and deep patterns used by Life to solve challenges in the wild, and applying that knowledge to our own designs.
  • All about function – Applying lessons learned at the form (shape), process and/or systems levels to achieve a function.
  • The ultimate sustainability and resiliency measure – Evaluating additional opportunities for each solution through the lens of Life’s deepest patterns (Nature’s Unifying Patterns or Life’s Principles – I’ll refer to Nature’s Unifying Patterns in this post since there is more information online about them; however, Life’s Principles provides a more detailed list).
  • Life-centered design – Making the conscious choice to solve problems in ways that benefit (not just don’t negatively impact) all species that interact with and are impacted by the design, including humans.

Many people think only of biomimicry as it has been applied to products. But biomimicry can also be applied at the systems level – for example, wildlife management systems or educational outreach programs. Depending on the challenge, you can use the biomimicry innovation process by looking metaphorically at systems level examples – ecosystems, food chains, social insect organizational structure, etc., and/or by using Nature’s Unifying Patterns to help shape your program. Nature’s Unifying Patterns is a powerful tool all by itself to help teams identify opportunities for improvement in a program. (A great resource for understanding where the best place to intervene in a system is the book by Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems.)

Biomimicry is NOT…
  • Using plants or animals to achieve a function (this is called bio-utilization, which is a very viable approach to solving many problems since plants and animals often are able to perform a task better than any technology we could invent…but it’s still not biomimicry).
  • Creating a technology (robot) that looks like an animal or plant.
  • Developing a bio-inspired technology without first understanding the context of the challenge and determining the best point of intervention in the system surrounding the challenge.

I think there are common misperceptions out there about biomimicry when it comes to animals and robots. This comes down to the misunderstanding that biomimicry is not about replicating animals (or plants) but learning from them. Making a robot that looks like a gecko is…a robot that looks like a gecko. Making a robot to perhaps try to find people trapped in the aftermath of a natural disaster that adheres to surfaces like a gecko, sees like a mantis shrimp, hears like a parasitic fly, and detects heat like a vampire bat AND is 3-D printed on demand using just the right amount (but not more) of local readily available non-toxic materials AND can be deconstructed and recycled at the end of the robot’s life to make a new one…now that’s a biomimetic robot! It may not look like an animal (who knows what it looks like), but it is able to perform the functions of climbing through variable terrain and detecting people, and the robot itself is made such that the materials can be recycled or reused at the end of its life (per Nature’s Unifying Patterns).

For further information about biomimicry, check out the links on my biomimicry resources page.

3. Get familiar with the biomimicry process.

Below I provide a quick outline for the biomimicry process, but you can also do more research online. A great place to start is the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge Toolbox. And if you have questions, ask your local expert! 😉

Here is the general process we follow when doing biomimicry:

  1. Define the challenge in terms of a function. Whenever you settle on a challenge, you’ll want to define it as a question with a function included. The function – a verb with a noun – might be something like “create diverse habitat”, “absorb water”, “sense movement”, etc. You’ll also want to clarify the critical context that surrounds that functional question like, How can we absorb water from the air in a dry environment? Your challenge will likely have more than one functional question. Being clear and specific about the challenge and context is critical to the rest of the process. (see #4 below). We then “biologize” the question which means we put the words in a format that makes it possible to ask, How would nature [absorb water from the air in a dry environment]? The scoping section of the Biomimicry Institute Toolbox has a good explanation of this process.
  2. The next step then is to look to biology to answer those questions. We cast a big net to find all sorts of examples in biology for solving for the function – we call this the “Biobrainstorm”. There are existing resources out there that are tailored to thinking about biology through function like We also brainstorm with experts! And read magazines, watch nature documentaries, etc. Then we choose among those brainstormed examples for the best biological examples that fit the challenge (this is where the context defined in the scoping comes in and is super important). We then do a deep dive into primary literature for a few examples to learn all we can about how the organisms do it. For each organism we want to know, 
    • Why is it doing it (what challenge is it trying to solve)? (context)
    • What is the organism doing to solve for the challenge? (strategy)
    • And how is it achieving the solution? (mechanism)
  3. Once we have the biological information, we then translate it back into design language. This can be tricky (ask your expert to review your design principles!)! That design language is then used to inspire and guide the design. A true understanding of the biology is important here so that you don’t just use it as a place to jump off, but to actually stay true to the biology as much as possible in the design, often revisiting the biology to see if you are doing it as close to the strategy/mechanism as you can, even if you are using it metaphorically. Staying true to the knowledge embodied in the biology is central to biomimicry.
  4. Another layer to this is that we use Nature’s Unifying Patterns/Life’s Principles (design principles based on deep patterns) found throughout life that constitute the equivalent of a rule book for survival. These provide a deeper level of evaluation throughout the design process – you can keep going back to them and use them to check what you’ve come up with. (Can I use more life-friendly chemistry? Can I use less energy? Can I optimize my design so I can use less material? etc.)

4. Do a very thorough job scoping your challenge.

For any design challenge, it is critical to do an effective scoping step to understand what you are trying to solve. It’s easy to jump into the solution space before truly understanding the problem (whether you are using biomimicry or not). But developing a clear picture of all the factors that play into your challenge will help you to ask the right questions upfront. Rushing to solutions without identifying a real need and the context around that need will most likely result in a design that misses the mark.

For example, what if you are looking to create a monitoring robot that moves along the bottom of a relatively shallow body of water, and you decided the best way to move would be to “swim” (not walk along the bottom). But you never considered that the body of water which usually has slow currents, will have significantly increased water flow in the spring and after heavy summer rains, and your robot is not equipped to handle these stronger currents? What if you decide it should walk on the bottom, but don’t realize the bottom is mucky and your robot constantly gets stuck? Or that the bottom is uneven with potentially huge obstacles that your robot can’t figure out how to get around with the algorithm you’ve created for it? Or perhaps that the body of water gets near freezing in the winter and your robot battery doesn’t last long enough in the cold temperatures? Or that the water carries a lot of silt that could clog up your robot? Understanding everything about what your robot will encounter will increase the chances it will be successful in all working conditions.

A final word about scoping and defining your challenge. It’s often tempting to jump to technological solutions to address challenges (because we can!) without first attempting to identify and solve the underlying causes of the challenge. Each problem has a context and system around it. Understanding where and how your team can and should have an impact within that system is important. Sometimes, the best solution might be not to design anything at all, but make management or process changes in a different part of the system.

For example, when looking at the question of dying bee populations, there are many places to intervene in the system. Top results for “bees pollination biomimicry” are focused on the Harvard Wyss Institute’s “Robobees” solution, which was first conceived as a response to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as described in a Scientific American article published in 2013 (fortunately the top Google result is a K-12 exercise that demonstrates why the robotic alternative is not a good use of biomimicry!).

But is this the best use of our resources? In a scoping exercise focused on the challenge of CCD, the first question we would ask is why the bees are dying in the first place. The resulting cascade of questions would likely lead us to the conclusion that the best place for intervention and focus of resources is up the system to change the practices causing bee deaths, not down the system to create an robot alternative that will never replicate all the functions of bees. It seems as if the researchers at the Wyss Institute now focus more on the other potential benefits of flying swarms of miniature robots and see the potential for pollination by their robots as a “stop-gap measure” that is “at least 20 years away.” I bring this up because we can get excited about technology and miss the boat about the human element of any design challenge.

5. It’s about the future.

Last but not least, it’s important when first introduced to biomimicry to understand that the sustainability and resiliency element of any design is front and center. We are always asking how to make our designs not just “sustainable”, but restorative and regenerative through all that goes into the design – the shape, materials and systems that define the “product”. The use of biomimicry when done with the conscious choice to design for the success of all life – not just humans but for all species that interact with our designs – will result in a better future for all those kids out there learning about biomimicry for the first time through the FIRST LEGO Leagues.

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