While walking in the grocery store last Sunday, the shelves were empty in several places where they hadn’t been restocked. The bare shelves were just a reflection of a busy day, but the thought crossed my mind, what if access to choice in foods was like this everyday? I am lucky – spoiled rotten really – but for many in my own country, let alone around the world, food insecurity is a reality. (Food insecurity is the set of circumstances that prevent your access to food such as lack of money, unemployment, lack of access to transportation and health problems)
Can you imagine being hungry everyday? Or knowing that you can buy food now, but at the end of the month when your bank account runs dry, you may have to send your kids to school hungry? Or choosing between (for the same price) a box of processed mac ‘n’ cheese that could feed your family and a healthy apple that could only be a snack? Or stand in a long line to pick up free food from a food pantry two days after you ran out of food? Food insecurity has no race, ethnicity or class. This is happening to people in your own community, maybe to your unemployed neighbor who lost their job 6 months ago. It breaks my heart and nags at me. So I thought I’d share my experience with using biomimicry to develop solutions to this problem in the hopes I might inspire you to do the same with something you care about.
Art of Science Learning Innovation Incubator
To someone who loves food in a country with an excess of it (approximately ⅓ of our food goes to waste), the fact that approximately 1 in 6 people in the US aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal will come from is simply abhorrent. For this reason and to expand my skills in the innovation process for a good cause, I participated in the 2014 Art of Science Learning (AoSL) year-long Chicago Innovation Incubator focused on urban nutrition challenges.
The innovation incubator was a lesson in the innovation process, but even more than that, I increasingly realized through the weekly presentations by a wide variety of people working on this issue in Chicago that extremely well-intentioned knights riding in on white horses with solutions aimed at helping communities most often really don’t change anything in the long term. Change must be fostered, generated and supported from within communities to be sustained. Bringing in fresh food into a neighborhood doesn’t change the neighbor’s employment status, transportation options, nor the food choices that person makes. In short, the underlying challenges that cause food insecurity and sustainable affordable access to fresh foods are still there, even after the knights ride off into the sunset.
How would nature…?
It just so happens that I started my Biomimicry Professional program in the fall of 2013, and started my first biomimicry thinking course in January 2014. To, as Dayna Baumeister likes to say, “feed two birds with one scone”, I used my biomimicry thinking homework to find natural models that might inform and inspire my brainstorming around urban nutrition challenges in the innovation incubator. I was not disappointed.
I started out with the question, How does nature self-organize to create a complex ecosystem? After my biological model brainstorming, I settled on mychorrizal fungal networks. Mycorrhizal fungal networks (“mycorrhizal networks “) provide the foundational structure in which feedback loops allow diverse species to interact and direct resources where needed, resulting in a complex self-organized ecosystem. Mycorrhizal networks consist of interconnected mycelium of any number of fungus species that also connect the roots of different plants. The mycorrhizal network fungi obtain part of all of their carbon from the plant species linked into the network, while the plants obtain and the nutrients the mycelium take up through the soil, resulting in a mutualistic relationship.
A prime example of this relationship between the networks and plant species is the presence of mycorrhizal networks in the interior Douglas-fir (Pseudostuga menziesii var. glauca) forests of North America. The networks play an integral role in these self-organized complex, adaptive systems. The mycorrhizal networks, which connect most trees in a dry interior Douglas-fir forest, provide a shared infrastructure through which the network shuttles carbon, nutrients or water from older to young trees according to need through positive and negative feedback loops. The largest, oldest trees serve as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Survival of these establishing trees is greatly enhanced when they are linked into the mycorrhizal network of the old trees as seen particularly after a disturbance in the subsequent self-organization that occurs to regenerate the forest facilitated by the foundational mycorrhizal network. (1)
The example of the mycorrhizal network’s role in the Douglas-fir ecosystem can be extrapolated to other ecosystems as well – the networks provide an incredible tool through which distinct species can interact and share resources according to need.
The deep function of this network that I focused on for the urban nutrition challenge was the redistribution resources. In a nutshell (design principle), the use of positive and negative feedback loops to facilitate efficient exchange and redistribution of resources according to need to diverse entities via an interconnected network that contains dispersed resource-rich hubs results in the emergence of more stable, resilient communities and allows for rapid regeneration after periods of disturbance.
The biomimicry-based solution
Understanding mycorrhizal network design principles in combination with Life’s Principles gave me a unique perspective on the challenges that no one else in the program came to on their own. Being a systems thinker, the ideas I brainstormed from this design principle were grand, and included an internet-based platform that facilitated transparent real-time exchange of fresh foods (aka, resources) from a wide variety of producers to a wide variety of consumers (diverse species) on a regional scale (ecosystem). (To be more aligned with ecosystem functions, I also think facilitation of movement of organic materials for composting within the same regional scale on the same platform would help to close the material loops!).
I focused on the idea that seedlings have a better survival rate when tapped into the network, and that feedback loops signaling the need for resources to resource hubs and subsequent delivery of those resources improves chances for survival. The platform could benefit different scales – business startups and individuals needing to tap into the system. The platform would enable startups to find and tap into resources from and develop relationships with established resource hubs within the region. At the individual level, the platform would provide the link to enable people to find where fresh food is being sold within a defined area when they are looking for it, rate fresh foods at different locations, alert people when food had run out (if earlier than the stated time of sale), etc. Further developing how this communication platform would work at all levels would allow for self-organization of the system to efficiently distribute resources – the development and growth would come from within the system.
Many, many people are working to reduce food waste on the delivery side and are making impressive strides in this area. But we figured while it’s great to make more food available for free that would otherwise be wasted, if few people know it’s there, have you really achieved anything? So to meet our goal of developing a minimally viable product within the incubator’s timeframe, we focused in on one critical aspect of the food system that most looking to solve urban nutrition challenges and food waste do not focus on – the consumer’s ability to know where food is when they need it.
As indicated above, survival of young trees is improved when they are tapped into the mycorrhizal fungal network. If, using this metaphor of the the internet as the fungal network and individual people as trees, being tapped into the network that serves as the pathway for getting resources is critical to one’s survival, especially in hard times. The reality is that many people living with food insecurity and hunger do not have the means or access to be tapped into our food system, and therefore suffer the consequences.
After our team dug deeper, we found out that there is not a viable quick way to let these same people know where food will be, and when it will be there. Word of changes to food pantry schedules, new urban farm stands and farmers markets, new businesses, must mainly be spread through word of mouth and through community bulletin boards. This inefficiency in communication hinders people’s ability to know if and where food is available when they need it. It also potentially hinders food pantry and urban farmer’s ability to give away or sell all their food, resulting in a loss of potential to reduce food waste or grow local homegrown businesses. In addition, the fact that for most people food insecurity is cyclical, meaning it might just be a few months that people need help spread out over a year. So being up-to-date about opportunities to access free or affordable local fresh food can be difficult when the person is only looking for resources on a sporadic basis (due to a “disturbance” in his/her life).
Our idea targeted this disconnection and provided a way to bring people back into their local fresh food system using technology already available to the targeted group. A real-time communication platform that facilitates the distribution of information (instead of the distribution of food itself) from those who have it to those who need it, enables users to meet their own needs on their own parameters. Again, looking at two scales, it facilitates the establishment of businesses such as urban farms or facilitate the ability of food pantries to fulfill their mission by increasing their ability to communicate directly with consumers previously outside of their communication channels, increasing sales or people reached. At the smaller scale, individuals increase their ability to find food when they need it in their local area, supporting local added value. The communication platform does not dictate anything, but enables the community to self-organize, strengthening feedback loops around who is providing food, who is looking for food, what kind of food they are looking for, and when they need it. This presents the opportunity to create conditions to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system (the “Self-organize” life’s principle).
For this reason we developed a MVP for a communication platform that enables people to get updates and reminders about where food will be and when it will be there, using existing technology currently available to a majority of people in this situation (e.g., if we developed a mobile app, and only 20% of our target audience had smart phones, we would fail to bring our target audience into the system). The tool would be flexible and allow people to create their own parameters for what and when and how they wanted to receive information. After talking and working with food pantries and consumers to beta test our idea, we realized we had developed a prototype that hit upon a real unmet need in the market.
The reality of the innovation process
So what happened? Our team did not have the time (for reasons specific to each of us – existing careers, school, family, etc.) to put into making this product a reality, and figuring out viable funding scenarios was difficult. Without a dedicated champion to move it forward, the idea and work we did fizzled.
I also found that being the only person who understood the biology and method I had used to generate the initial ideas, it was difficult to continue to use the biomimicry methodology and science to further inform, develop and expand upon the idea. I think if I had worked with a team receptive and interested in using biomimicry, we could have arrived at an even more well-rounded solution. As I have said before, using high-level design principles is great for ideation, but really understanding the biology from the beginning – taking the time to be very specific about each piece, particularly when working with system challenges – creates a depth of understanding and true potential for innovative ideas that might change the world. This gives me hope.
Were I to go back and revisit this effort (with a willing team!), I would begin again with doing a deep dive into exactly (as far as scientists currently know) how these mycorrhizal fungal networks work – what resources are being shared, how signaling works, how the interface between the roots of plants and the fibers of fungus functions, etc. I would then compare that to the work I did to understand our food system components and their interactions and be very detailed about the metaphors I would draw between the two systems. In doing that, the differences in functions, strategies and mechanisms – and the potential for our system to function differently and perhaps better for all involved – would emerge. It would then of course be up to us to make it happen.
So if you are thinking of using biomimicry to help solve a challenge such as for the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge on Climate Change, I encourage you to find a team from the start that is on board with using the biomimicry methodology and start with and stick to the science as you develop your idea. It’s not easy, and certainly factors way beyond the innovation methodology can and do scuttle a project. But if we keep trying, we just might change our story.
Beiler, K. J., Durall, D. M., Simard, S. W., Maxwell, S. A. and Kretzer, A. M. (2010), Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. New Phytologist, 185: 543–553. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03069.x
“Mycorrhizal networks and learning” by David Wiley. iterating toward progress blog. JULY 21, 2011. Accessed January 2014.