I’m a big fan of one of the three 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival’s (DIF) themes, #SystemReset – “It’s time for a change of operating system.” That about sums up where I am with everything, so I’m adopting it for my next series of posts on biomimicry’s potential for setting us on completely new paths. Where is that System Reset button??? I want one.
I think I’ve seen glimpses of it in Michelle Obama’s recent speeches, in the North Dakota pipeline protest, in the struggle to overcome the desperate hopelessness of the people of Flint, Michigan, in the new climate agreement, and in the proposed carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State. I see it in our US presidential election and our politics, in the way people are groping for something, anything that might show that someone has some influence on the system of power that is gobbling us up one by one, day by day, without blinking. But I, for one, am shuddering. And perhaps shuttering.
Ok, so I have to lay the obvious out there – on top of the three weeks of some virus tearing me down, it’s all getting to me. It does indeed sometimes seem somewhat hopeless. To me, an individual, all this makes me feel powerless. My conscious and unconscious selves have slowly moved in harmony in one direction (finally!) – unfortunately, it’s been towards an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, feeling of inertia. But I know it’s not just me. Apparently psychologists are reporting a much higher percent of patients feeling stressed as a result of this election (and I’m guessing it’s more than just this election, as evidenced by the public’s desire for an “outsider” candidate). We are all feeling it one way or another. The System Reset button is on our consciousness. We don’t know where it is or what it does or what it looks like, but we hope it’s out there.
What happens next?
One of the six primary Life’s Principles (LP) in biomimicry is “Integrate Development with Growth.” What does that mean? It means don’t grow 300 feet tall without simultaneously investing in your root structure as you grow or you’re sure to fall over. It means you can’t evolve a democracy without simultaneously investing in educating the entire population about democracy. It means when you press the System Reset button, make sure you’ve got the support system to back you up, or your turn with the button will fail.
It also means before we reset the whole system, let’s try resetting smaller systems first, one at a time. And let’s combine and leverage these smaller alternatives as we go to create a larger, more complex robust system. Then when we finally find and hammer that System Reset button with enthusiasm, perhaps we will see a real shift.
So what are these smaller alternative systems? We can see and feel that there has to be something better than the current paradigms that results in us poisoning ourselves, tearing down our human dignity, throwing our entire planet out of balance. But the alternatives – real answers to satisfying our needs with truly sustainable solutions – often elude our imagination. Too often we find ourselves stuck in the rut of resource minimization as our only path forward. What are the opportunities? What if examples for alternative systems are already out there? And how do we find them?
Biomimicry and #SystemReset
Each design challenge exists in context – a system that surrounds it that includes both direct and/or indirect connections with raw material sourcing, transportation, manufacturing, retailing, marketing, distribution, consumption and disposal. It also includes cultural norms and deep-seated assumptions that we often don’t even question until someone designs something that flies in the face of those same assumptions. Biomimicry helps us to break down those assumptions and focus in on the true goal of a design – the need the design is addressing – a.k.a., the function.
Biomimicry focuses on function – function is the bridge between human design and biology that allows knowledge transfer to happen. Which function you choose to research and pursue will determine to a large extent the potential breadth of impact of your biomimetic design solution. Are you looking to redesign a well, or are you looking to redesign people’s access to water? Are you looking to redesign a light bulb or are you looking to illuminate?
In the Constantinos Markides and Paul Geroski 2005 book, Fast Second, they discuss how the culmination of the “radical innovation” process results in a “dominant design.” A dominant design “defines what a product is and what its core features are. It is, if you like, a platform, from which come a wide range of product variants that are distinguishable from each other without seeming to be fundamentally different.” (p. 52) The dominant design is the category of products we think of when we hear “TV”, “car” or “fan.” The term “product” here can even apply to systems – such as our systems of politics, financial markets and economic system, although obviously the ecosystem surrounding that “product” would be represented somewhat differently.
When we hear “lighting” we think light bulbs, and can probably name several kinds of bulbs – incandescent, fluorescent, LED, halogen, etc., and many brands like Phillips, Sylvania and more. But what is the function of lighting? To illuminate. What if we could find other ways of illuminating that don’t look or operate anything like a light bulb? And what if we took it one step further and asked about how the lighting product is made – materials, manufacturing, source of power for use, and disposal? Now we are starting to rethink an entire system.
Choosing a function that improves the functionality of an existing design without fundamentally changing the core features limits its disruptive impact within the product category. For example, if you redesign the structure of a water bottle using biomimicry with a function of reducing material use without sacrificing strength of the structure, your impact will be limited to reducing the amount of raw and manufactured materials used, retooling for production, and increasing the efficiency of distribution (weight is reduced, resulting in increased fuel efficiency of transportation). While these efficiency gains are important, they do not fundamentally change the access and method of delivery of water to people for consumption.
However, when you start to think about the central function of a challenge along with each part of the product ecosystem, the impacts change dramatically. Take the vaccine thermo-stabilization technology solutions from Stabilitech and Nova Laboratories, Ltd, which rethink the dominant design in the industry for thermoregulation of live vaccines – that the only way to keep them alive is refrigeration throughout the supply chain. The Stabilitech and Nova Labs technologies are based on anhydrobiosis – a natural process that occurs in plants and animals during times of drought in which the water within cells is replaced with a sugar solution that thickens to a point of solidifying as a glass, protecting the cells until water is available again. Their technologies achieve thermoregulation protection for live vaccines and other thermo-sensitive pharmaceuticals using this same concept. The technologies require no refrigeration during their life cycles (they can withstand heat and freezing temperatures) and no lengthy reconstitution before injection.
The potential magnitude of impact of this approach to thermoregulation for vaccine stabilization technologies can be found throughout the product category ecosystem, from raw materials (non-toxic and inexpensive sugars), to manufacturing processes, distribution (no refrigeration required throughout the product life cycle, reducing storage and transportation costs and expanding the reach of vaccines into third world countries), and use (vaccines and other pharmaceuticals are not thrown out due to fear of exposure to temperatures outside of the accepted range, and rehydration of the vaccine is instant). Depending on the delivery mechanism of these technologies, the disposal of the product might also produce less waste and close the loop.
In addition, not only is the ecosystem surrounding this technology disrupted, but the complimentary goods and services are impacted as well, particularly with respect to all services associated with refrigeration – the refrigeration product manufacturers, energy companies, thermo-regulated storage and transport suppliers, etc. are rendered irrelevant with respect to these products. By redefining the dominant approach to thermoregulation of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, the entire product category ecosystem and more is impacted.
Searching for other #SystemResets
As you can see, your choice of function to solve for in any design challenge affects the potential impact that solution has on a product category ecosystem. If you are looking to create solutions that are not just “disruptive” but rather radically change the entire product category ecosystem – initiate a system reset – start with an approach that rethinks the core features that define a product category to redefine the dominant design.
Using biomimicry (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to solve for that central function while looking at the entire life-cycle that surrounds the product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. The sooner we can begin to rethink and impact multiple systems which in turn have an expanding and overlapping ripple effect beyond the product categories, the greater chance we have of turning the tide against existing paradigms that do not support life.
In Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this #SystemReset series, I’ll describe additional biomimetic solutions that represent paradigm shifts in their industries – designs that begin to address and impact whole systems change for different product category ecosystems and beyond, including carbon-sequestering plastics made from air pollution, non-toxic fire retardants made from food stuffs, and bacteria management through structure instead of chemicals.
It’s important to recognize that creating alternative systems is a serious challenge, as systems often resist change. But actually coming up with and developing alternatives is the first step. Second step might be to quantify more fully the broader potential impacts of these alternative systems (i.e., conducting a life-cycle or cradle-to-cradle analysis of not only the product itself, but of the whole industry and the impact of potential changes brought about by these alternatives). Third, we need to figure out how to disrupt systems. The more we can do this, the greater the support system we create for large-scale change when we find and push that System Reset button.