Workshop Takeaways

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy Biomimicry Chicago partner, Amy, and I were fortunate to have a fantastic group of participants attend our workshop last Friday. They were incredibly diverse and all committed to sustainability with an interest in how biomimicry fits into the current conversation. My brain is still swirling from creating and organizing the workshop content and the feedback we received throughout the day.

Below is somewhat of a brain dump of my thoughts. While this is specific to me and our workshop, I think it’s important to realize that even those of us who are steeped in biomimicry and trying to get our ideas out there still have lots of unanswered questions, ideas to test out and many challenges that we face as biomimicry takes shape and evolves.

  1. The awesome power of diversity
  2. Science for designers, but what about design for scientists?
  3. What do people really need to know?
  4. Stories
The awesome power of diversity

At our workshop we had architects, engineers, scientists, landscape architects, sustainability experts, county agency representatives, community organizers and university researchers, many of whom have multi-disciplinary backgrounds themselves. Of course each participant brought a wealth of experience to the table about the challenges and opportunities in their respective industries, and a mindset of trying to understand how they can take our ideas back to what they do. At an individual level, this process is valuable. Get them all talking together about an idea and the interplay between everyone creates a space in which ideas have the potential take shape – this is invaluable.

Because biomimicry is an iterative process that requires translating ideas between vastly different disciplines to make sure both the design and implementation have a chance at success, having such diversity at the “design” table for our kickoff event means that from the start our initiative includes a brain trust thinking about how to make it successful at multiple scales and points in the design and implementation process. This is something Amy and I could never do on our own.

Science for Designers, but what about Design for Scientists?

A former researcher at Argonne attended our workshop. Her observation was that the workshop content was geared towards designers – educating non-scientists about the science that can inform their design. Her question was, how can we engage more scientists in biomimicry? They know the science, but they don’t know design at all. Her suggestion was to perhaps conduct workshops to teach scientists design.

Her comment has me thinking, what are the opportunities for scientists in biomimicry? Other than needing scientists’ expertise as it applies to understanding the biology relevant to a design challenge (the “Biologist at the Design Table” role), what would the desired outcomes be of flipping the discussion from science for designers to design for scientists? A clear advantage if you can find the right scientists would be more “Biologists at the Design Table” who understand why and how to translate biology to design. But what else? Research that can be written to more easily be accessed for the purposes of biomimicry and design? (e.g., explicitly identifying functions, using functions as metatags, etc.?) I’m not sure, but I’m sure scientists could tell me. 😉

What do people really need to know?

With biomimicry being new and exciting but also therefore unknown to most people, Amy and I constantly play with how to move an initiative forward while at the same time educating people on biomimicry as we go – without spending our time constantly doing Biomimicry 101 events.

Our workshop centered around a concept Amy and I are developing, meaning we were not simply holding a “biomimicry workshop”, but trying to get them to understand how we want to use biomimicry concepts, methods and tools to help work towards our goals. This presents a bit of a quandary – in a one-day workshop, how do you address participants’ likely gap in biomimicry knowledge? What do they really need to know to get started and engaged?

We had a group with a wide range of exposure to and knowledge about biomimicry at our workshop. It is a challenge to create content that both provides enough basic biomimicry information that those with zero background can participate in and add value to the day’s activities without having to spend a huge block of time doing Biomimicry 101. We also needed to address people’s lack of knowledge about the science we are using to shape our ideas. At the same time, we wanted to provide enough new content that the group would actually get somewhere with developing ideas around the challenge presented in the workshop.

In setting up the flow of events for the day, Amy and I went back and forth several times about what we would be able to achieve and what core ideas we could realistically get across to enable participants to explore our ideas. To some degree, we threw caution to the wind and decided to put some onus on the participants to educate themselves somewhat on biomimicry before the workshop. There is quite a bit of information out there on the web which can serve as a Biomimicry 101. (But of course, people have to read/watch it prior to the workshop – sometimes (often?) that’s not going to happen!) Instead we spent time at the workshop on educating people about the science that informs our idea by talking about it through the biomimicry function lens.

In the end, I think we struck a balance at our workshop. Certainly some people were left behind at times, but fortunately those with more knowledge were able to bring them up to speed enough to allow them to participate in the activities (again, thank you diversity!). We also got feedback from someone who had attended several biomimicry workshops before that she thought after this workshop the biomimicry concepts were finally starting to sink in and make sense for her.

My current thought is that we find ways to educate people on the biomimicry process as we go – we have people participate and contribute to the effort while also learning the skills for doing biomimicry – a win-win. As I said in my previous post, that might be a messy way to go, but in the end we could have an engaged and educated group who can go off and do great things in whatever they do. So maybe educating the masses first is not required – an “educate-as-we-go” model might work. The challenge will be to make sure we do things in the right order – build skills and knowledge that enable participants to be successful in our next steps. Wish us luck!


Amy likes to tell stories about how things work (i,e., strategies and mechanisms) to try to get biomimicry concepts across to designers who don’t have a science background. As I thought about how the workshop went after the fact, I think she’s right about stories, and I’d add to it that we need to spend time on crafting the right stories for each audience and project to further our cause. The value of a good story that gets across an idea well enough to get people really excited is key to getting people to take the leap with us.

In the day and age of constant access to information that details change at a fast pace, we are watching the “story of biomimicry” unfold. Biomimicry is promising, and the incredible products resulting from biomimicry innovation processes are impressive and inspiring to learn about. People get excited. News articles get written. But the reality is, as is the case with many new products, these promising products often don’t have widespread commercial success and the reasons are widely varied. Implementation seems to be where the story of biomimicry gets murky and needs to be addressed if we want better stories to share.

I’m thinking it’s critical to figure out just what stories are important to tell and how to tell them. We can tell all the stories we want, but if we aren’t talking about the parts that ignite people’s imaginations, if we aren’t telling it in a way that enables people to see the world we want to create, if we get the “why” wrong, we will leave a lot of potential on the table.

I think we need to tell the story not just about how innovations came to be through the biomimicry process and how they differ from other products in their category, but also about how those innovations change our world and what that looks like. Not just the percentage performance improvement, but the amount of energy saved and what that means for each of us, or what would happen if the whole industry switched. Not just that toxic chemicals aren’t being used, but the resulting improvements in a person’s health and well-being, and the cumulative impact if the entire system worked that way. Not just creating new community networks, but improving local resilience in the face of global uncertainty. We can’t assume that others have the background and expertise to know how to put the dots together and see the potential of biomimicry. We need to set up the framework of stories to enable people to get from where we are now to where we want to be. This vision can be a rallying point for people to come together to figure out how to make it happen.

You ready to sharpen your storytelling skills? Let’s change our story.

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