Considering the current political climate and state of affairs (like increasing inequality and a drive to pull out social safety nets for…everyone) in the United States, I thought I’d revisit Ecology of Commerce (revised edition) by Paul Hawken. The scenario playing out right now in our government perfectly embodies his statement that, “You cannot protect a system that is rigid and entrenched without sacrificing the interests of the people it intends to serve.” Our government and the corporate interests it loyally serves is sacrificing away. The gulf between “what might be” and “what is” seems wider than ever. Perhaps that is because we are at the precipice of a new age.
I’ve been experiencing cognitive dissonance between my privileged existence and the realities of an accelerating deterioration of our local ecosystems and climate and communities. As Hawken says, “We have reached a point where the value we add to our economy is now being outweighed by the value we are removing, not only from future generations in terms of diminished resources but from ourselves in terms of unsustainable sprawl, deadening jobs, deteriorating health, and rising crime.” I hear the warning sirens from experts like Bill McKibben (Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing) and see the unreal have to be pulled into the norm. It feels like a downward spiral, with a hope for the future based on something increasingly unattainable. The reality is that way I live, despite my attempts at minimizing impact, is part of the problem. But I’m not sure where to go with that knowledge. To a large degree (as evidenced by my lack of posts on my blog over the last several months), I feel paralyzed.
I can see why Hawken focused his efforts on Project Drawdown, as the solutions he posits in Ecology of Commerce are pie in the sky, while Project Drawdown focuses on making it real. There are concrete (for lack of a better word) steps to take to address climate change. They are right there – 100 of them – researched, served up and ready to be acted upon. One of Hawken’s hopes in Ecology of Commerce is that small businesses will pick up the charge should a “revitalization and revisioning of incentives…liberate the imagination, courage and commitment that reside within individuals who truly want to make a difference – ‘ecopreneurs’ dedicated to restoring the world around them for the world that comes after them.”
My worry, similar to experts like McKibben and Hawken, is that it just can’t happen fast enough. That the massive brakes needed to stop this freight train traveling at full speed with cars full of oil and coal as far as the eye can see just don’t exist and will never exist. Perhaps it’s just not possible to slow it down.
Of course, there is another option – destroy the tracks and derail the train.
While the US government seems to lack any ability to “revision” anything other than how to consolidate power and defend the status quo for the indefensible, it’s the small efforts by individuals, non-profits and small businesses – and many of them – that perhaps are my greatest hope. This hope actually emerges from biomimicry research I started in my graduate program and plan to pick back up in 2018 – research focused on how invasive species disrupt systems quickly.
In researching invasive species, I’ve learned that invasive species aren’t considered invasive until seemingly all of a sudden they have widespread economic and environmental impact (“impact”, of course, being largely defined through the lens of human enterprise). At that point, you might say the ecosystem goes off the rails – ecosystem interconnections and resource flows are changed, sometimes irreparably so. In some cases, the eventual result is a state shift to an alternative stable state, never to shift back.
But at the point of perceived sudden widespread impact it’s not that they came out of nowhere, it’s that their small, dispersed populations went undetected or seemed insignificant (to us) AND the ecosystems in which they got established had their weaknesses. Our current systems, while being shored up by governments and increasingly walled off from the masses by corporations driven by perverse economic incentives, have clear weaknesses. The increasing number of efforts around the world to establish a different kind of system based on different criteria with different goals perhaps will eventually emerge at a large overlapping scale and shift us into a new age, the “alternative stable state” Paul Hawken and others have been talking about for decades.
This shift will derail that freight train relatively suddenly, and as with the real thing, it probably won’t be pretty. I don’t know what will emerge on the other side, but it does give me hope that the groundswell of efforts around the world, while seemingly insignificant at the moment, do actually have the potential for widespread, fast impact. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But I hope together we can lay the groundwork to make sure that what emerges on the other side is restorative and generous. As Hawken writes, “Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we will organize the economy that follows.” So let’s get on with it. Let’s change our story.
Trying to give away or get rid of a Whole Host of Things from our house, I decided I should add a “Manager of Things” title to my resume. I have become a truly reluctant expert. This last round of Expunging of Stuff saw me spend literally an entire day trying to give a Carload of Things away (not to mention the time previously spent to sort and separate), only to come back home with a third of it. My goal was to not throw anything away. I failed.
As an Expert Manager of Things, I’ve learned what can and can’t be recycled (hint: not much can be easily recycled), what Things secondhand stores are willing to take and what they’re not (especially when it comes to Children’s Things) what Used Things people are willing to pay for – which have just enough value that people will come pick them up but not pay for them, and which have no value (unless you’re very patient with space and time to spare), and how arbitrary and relative price can be (how soon do you need to get rid of it, how badly do you need the money, how many people actually want the Thing, etc.).
For anyone who manages Stuff in their house, you know what I’m talking about when I say that the Shuffling of Things from one pile or shelf or room to another and eventually out the door to Somewhere Else is a perpetual pain in the rear. Particularly if you have children, the amount of Stuff is overwhelming and much of it is crap. My threshold for the Random Stuff that finds it way onto our counters and furniture and into our car is just about at its peak. This results in a less careful approach to disposal. I’ve become an expert at discretely putting Things into the free giveaway pile under our front porch (avoiding the watchful eyes of my children), but after learning that most Children Things can’t be recycled or even given away, more and more Stuff ends up in the garbage for a lack of any other option.
It’s stupid and stresses me out. The thing is, every Thing is a physical manifestation of something taken from the earth. Our economic priority to willfully ignore the full impact of each Thing is driving us (or already has?) towards irreversible ecological system collapse – mind you, these are the very systems that support the survival of our own species. Therefore, for every Thing that comes into my hand, I have a heavy heart for what it represents. But I also see huge opportunity. We have the ability to make choices, and there are opportunities at all levels of the system to change behaviors and processes. It does not have to be this way. At all.
But we’ve made it easy to forget this is a problem – you just put Things in the garbage bin and you never have to see them again. Off your conscience. It’s too easy. And it lets consumers, government and designers off the hook. We all have to do better. And this pile of garbage? It’s ripe for disruption.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) circular economy push is a step in the right direction. Aiming to “redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts,” the foundation looks to rethink and redesign entire systems. This is inspired by the fact that in natural systems there is no waste – all byproducts are raw materials for something else in the system, and any byproduct that isn’t used efficiently is an opportunity for innovation and a new niche to be established in the system. These niches add the value of complexity – diversity, redundancy and variation – that make systems resilient. Circular economy advocates ask, why can’t we do the same?
In October, I was fortunate enough to attend one of EMF’s CE100 member “acceleration workshops” in Chicago on behalf of the Biomimicry Institute. I was able to see firsthand how companies large and small – retailers, commercial goods manufacturers, government agencies, the food industry – are grappling with what the circular economy actually means in practice. It’s not clear to most of them, but the energy and interest in figuring it out is strong, from trying to figure out new retail and take-back models to overcoming the structural deficiencies of recycled plastic. Just check out the Disruptive Innovation Festival this year (DIF 2017) to see how people from across the spectrum are working to make it real.
Starting with The End
Going back to my recent failed effort to avoid throwing Things in the garbage, I can’t help but think that any effort to transition towards a circular economy (or something similar) must start with what happens to the product at the end of its life. The questions must be asked at a minimum:
What disposal options are available to the consumer?
How likely are they to use the option I am considering, and is it even available to the majority of my typical consumers?
How much time will they dedicate to disposal/handing off of my product?
What behaviors do they currently have around “waste” disposal?
If they must shift their behavior to do what I want them to do, what would incentivize them to do so? Is that realistic?
How can I make it as easy as possible?
How can I leverage behaviors they already have to achieve my goals?
Do I need to think bigger and change my business model?
Speaking of disposal options, I can’t help but wonder: what if all local governments mandated that all waste must fall into specific categories with no waste to landfill allowed? What if residents had to consciously think about what they brought into their house knowing they would be heavily fined or inconvenienced if they couldn’t recycle, compost or hand it back when they were done with it? What kind of bottom up consumer pressure would that put on retailers and back up the supply chain to the design table? Or what if municipalities made waste companies pay to pick up their valuable byproducts (which we currently call solid waste, but they should hire marketing professionals to change the narrative!) – would the companies still throw everything in the landfill? Talk about disruption.
A select version of that has happened in Illinois – electronic waste is no longer allowed in the garbage. The reality of this regulation is that informed residents are reliant upon municipalities to offer them options for disposal. If the municipality doesn’t communicate about the regulation, only offers a drop off window one day a year, or simply doesn’t offer any help because of budget issues, people may throw small Electronic Things in the garbage anyway. Maybe residents will find a local retailer willing to accept Select Electronic Things, but there are few, if any, incentives to go the extra mile. And that’s for those who are informed. Me? I put Electronic Things on top of my garbage bin and scrap collectors that roam our alleys pick them up.
But okay, let’s be realistic. Municipalities (made up of elected officials) aren’t going to all of a sudden turn the tables on solid waste for their own constituents. So what are our options?
We could encourage consumers to be obsessively vigilant about what they let into their homes to prevent having to throw as much Stuff away in the first place, and if it is something that will eventually be discarded, they can make sure the products they buy are made to be reused by someone else, recycled or composted. Oh wait, I said I’d be realistic. Scratch that…
Getting Down to Business
Okay, so let’s move onto business. EMF is focusing their efforts on businesses for a reason. There is incentive for businesses to try to tap into the circular economy craze. The amount of inefficiency in our current system designated as “waste” is obscene, and the potential to turn that “waste” into money is enough to set any businessperson off rummaging through one of the many Blue Oceangyre garbage patches or the nearest beach. But they might just have a look in their own garbage bin for inspiration.
Based on my own experience, there are clear opportunities to identify linear waste streams that are overly ripe for disruption, even if you just limit yourself to Kids Stuff:
To be clear, I wouldn’t have time to go to eight different places to properly pass on these eight different categories of Things (although, okay, I admit I might do it anyway, but the average person probably would not). Solutions need to make it easy for the consumer to pass Things onto their next phase, which is why I think often solutions might come down to changes in business models that incentivize behavior change.
Some companies looking to close the loop on waste generated by their own products that can’t be handled by traditional municipal recycling programs are partnering with TerraCycle. TerraCycle aims to make recycling easy, and has figured out a way to recycle most “non-recyclable” wastes. Their programs are free (funded by these partner companies) for generators of waste – individuals, schools, anyone – and even raise money for charity. Their efforts are impressive, and they clearly have honed in on a part of the market that is wide open. However, while the TerraCycle solution addresses “end of pipe” issues, we’re still talking about waste generation at a massive scale.
At an even larger scale before anything gets to my garbage can, the U.S. Materials Marketplace “facilitates company-to-company industrial reuse” where ” industrial waste streams are matched with new product and revenue opportunities.” The platform is growing and used by hundreds of companies to start to close the loop. The potential to leverage circular economy opportunities in business-to business scenarios is enormous. Yet most of these businesses are in the supply chain for and/or make products that eventually end up in our homes and offices. And there it still is, the pile of stuff in my home that I couldn’t do anything with but throw away. This has to be addressed at the front end of design.
Designing Value In
So we’re back to the literal drawing table. Unfortunately, businesses and designers that operate in a consumer-based linear economy in which business has no responsibility for waste and sees planned obsolescence – literally designing value out of a product by ensuring it’s useless after a short period of time so the consumer has to buy another – as a serious business driver might have insurmountable challenges conceptualizing and rethinking their products and business models within the circular economy. However, for those ready and willing to make the transition, using biomimicry tools can help jumpstart and guide the redesign process.
So how can designers design products or even business models to fit into circular economy models? (check out these EMF case studies for examples!) Using biomimicry in the innovation process can help with both understanding and identifying opportunities at the system and business model scales, as well as solving specific product design challenges that might arise, such as when trying to substitute materials or redefining how to deliver the same function as the old product, but in a completely new way.
A good place to start when thinking about how to deliver a product with the big picture materials systems in mind, we can look to biology to understand the strategies for how to design “products” that fit into it. At a high level when using the biomimicry methodology, we can look to Life’s Principles such as:
Use Life-Friendly Chemistry – This seems obvious, but understanding and deliberately designing products with materials that benignly interact with life throughout their own life-cycles is critical – green chemistry efforts bring us closer to making this a reality. Even Life’s un-friendly chemistry (like snake venom) decomposes into benign elements.
Break Down Products into Benign Constituents – Speaking of decomposing, every material created should break down into something harmless and useful for another purpose, non-toxic elements that won’t harm humans or any other life when recycled back into the environment. This must be an imperative from the outset when choosing materials in the design process.
Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements – Often times human-made materials are made with many elements of the periodic table, many of which life never uses and for good reason – they are often rare and/or hard to access, toxic, particularly when concentrated in large quantities. Instead, life creatively uses only a few abundant elements as building blocks to achieve an incredible array of forms and materials through variations in structure. Our materials too should be limited to life-friendly elements of the periodic table – what elements are avoided by life, and/or when rare elements are used, why and in what forms and quantities? How too can we take advantage of abundant elements to create diverse materials?
Do Chemistry in Water – Life uses water as a solvent and we should too. Water has incredible properties – if we can learn to leverage them, our chemical processes would significantly improve their impact. Biology has a lot to teach us about this!
Use Low Energy Processes – Life does chemistry at ambient temperatures. How can we rethink the way we process and manufacture materials and products to leverage existing energy flows?
Use Multi-Functional Design – Life’s designs are elegant, achieving myriad functions with one simple solution. How can we more effectively engineer designs that provide multiple benefits to the user with more than one use in mind, reducing the number of individual products needed? Smartphones have disrupted so many industries because they serve multiple functions in one easy-to-use piece of technology. Where can that strategy be replicated?
Recycle All Materials – This a no brainer when we’re talking about the circular economy. This is fundamental to the way nature works. Again, an understanding of the end game should happen during the design process. And to cycle back, at the outset of the design process finding opportunities to use “waste” materials in your own product starts to build that circular and self-supporting economy.
Fit Form to Function – Achieve function through elegant forms that require less energy and material (and are manufactured using low energy processes!). How can you achieve better results through intentionally using form to achieve function(s)?
Use Readily Available Materials and Energy – Products are often made of materials that are made with raw materials sourced on one continent, processed and or manufactured on another, then shipped to another continent (many even back to the same one!) to be put into a product that is then sold all over the world – a hugely energy intensive process that often relies on fossil fuels obtained who knows where. Birds don’t fly to Canada to gather materials, then bring those materials back to the Amazon to make a nest, then bring that nest back to Texas to have babies. We know that would be absolutely ridiculous. What materials exist locally at each of your manufacturing plant locations? Are there currently undervalued consistent “waste” streams that you might use? How might using local materials reduce risk and increase the resilience of your supply chain?
As we wrap our heads around what redesigning products for the circular economy looks like. biomimicry can be an important tool for helping design teams make these transitions – significantly broadening their thinking, providing inspiration with brand new ideas and science literally no one has seen before, and starting to shift concepts of what’s possible. But once we know the goals and think about how systems might begin to shift, it’s often hard to practically conceptualize and embody these principles in an actual product.
In addition to using Life’s Principles as a framework to think about design implications for the circular economy at a systems level, biomimicry also has a lot to contribute to the innovation process in looking to organisms to solve for specific, practical design challenges. Life has myriad solutions to kickstart and guide that redesign process, offering up a treasure trove of ideas that can help build a roadmap for short-term tweaks to long-term aspirational paradigm shifts. Critical to discovering design breakthroughs is ensuring that during the biomimicry process the design team digs deep into and stays true to the science they are mimicking including the system in which that organism operates – context, raw materials, manufacturing process and end of life.
How are (or might) you use biomimicry to transition to the circular economy? And please, start by looking at the piles upon piles of Things leaving our houses with nowhere to go – the pile is ripe for disruption! I’d love to hear about and showcase your efforts. Let’s change our story!
Brzzzzt! You know that sound effect of taking the needle off the record player? I’m pretty sure if you were in the room you would have heard that sound actually come out of my ears the other day. I’ve written about the biomimicry-inspired flame retardant MHE® before, but there was something that hadn’t fully registered in my brain before a couple weeks ago – MHE® is designed such that during a fire, the ONLY gases to escape from BOTH the host material and the flame retardant are water vapor and carbon dioxide. What?? Mind blown.
If you know anything about flame retardants, you might know that the gases released during a fire from the flame retardants (let alone the host materials) can be more toxic than the flame retardant themselves (which is saying something). When breaking down under the heat of a fire, conventional flame retardants, such as organohalogen and organophosophorus flame retardants, can release gases like dioxins which are incredibly toxic, threatening the health of the inhabitants as well as firefighters. So to have a flame retardant that not only itself is non-toxic (made from chemicals derived from food no less!), but also reacts with the host material’s gases so that the only gases emitted during combustion are water and carbon dioxide is nothing less than incredible. Talk about life-friendly chemistry!
With the terrible fires in northern California the last couple weeks – in wine country where the waste product from the winemaking process provides a perfect raw material for the manufacture of MHE® (I’m loving the circular economy potential here), and with flame retardants that may cause environmental health risks when dropped on forest all across the western United States, I can’t help but think the time is right to bring this technology to the U.S.
Trulstech is looking to bring MHE® to the United States market – they need a buyer for their patents in North America and the products are shelf-ready. Know of any interested parties?? I’d like to see MHE® completely disrupt the flame retardant industry for the sake of my health, your health, our children’s health, and the health of all life on this planet, wouldn’t you? Can you help? If so, email me at the link on the bottom of this page!
Biomimicry is super fascinating, awe-inspiring, fun, engaging and a great way to lose yourself down many, many, many rabbit holes…but it’s challenging. Just like when you’re going to have a baby, no one tells you how hard it will be! I’m telling you up front, practicing biomimicry is hard. But so worth it.
Biomimicry requires your brain to twist itself in knots trying to translate challenge to biology to challenge to biology to challenge…in a seemingly endless iterative process. And if it’s a metaphorical application, forget it. All your RAM is taken up and in the background your hard drives are being rewritten and somehow you have to figure out how to think again…in a world that hasn’t changed, but somehow everything is different.
And then you have to communicate it. No one knows what biomimicry is, so you have to start by educating your audience in a way that allows them to make the leap with you as you describe an idea unlike any they’ve come across before. Months or years of work reduced to an easily digestible two-minute elevator speech. And still you know you’ve only scratched the surface and the possibilities of your ideas are endless. How to decide where to take it next…
Full disclosure: no one said it would be easy.
A couple of years ago when I was completing my last biomimicry project for my professional certification/MS, I came to a point in the project where I literally had to step away from everything else so I could focus just on my project. And I had to go back to the basics – I needed to get those little hamsters running in my brain to shift the cogs and process months of research into coherent thoughts. By the time I finished my project, I was happy just to end up with a working metaphor. I had more questions than answers.
I’ve taken a hiatus from my blog over the last several weeks as my brain has been working overtime trying to figure out how to refine and communicate two very different and complex biomimicry-based ideas in bite-sized chunks to people with a wide range of biomimicry knowledge. All the while realizing and exploring the potential depth to which branching ideas expand upon the core idea without losing sight of that very idea. But see, the kicker is, the ideas could be game changers. And like so many other biomimicry-inspired ideas, the potential lies in actual implementation. So I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’ve got work to do.
[A direction, I would argue, that can only be described as dragging our collective heads into the proverbial sand – but actually literally Middle East sand, Canadian tar sands, sand at the bottom of the ocean – until we decide to bang our heads against the proverbial wall – that wall of oil shale rock that blankets the United States – anywhere where that black gold can be found and extracted at whatever cost (and let’s not forget to manipulate markets to make it profitable to extract no matter where it lies)…But, I’m getting sidetracked…]
I thought I’d post a list of quickly brainstormed ideas around climate-related actions I can take in line with Life’s Principles so I have less of, and in some cases a regenerative impact on the planet (because remember, it’s not about just doing less bad, it’s about finding ways to be a regenerative participant in life’s systems!). We will change our story through our actions, so paying specific attention to how we live our lives (walk the talk) makes a difference. Perhaps my ideas will inspire you to do something you hadn’t thought of, and I’m sure there are umpteen more things I could be doing – I’d love to know what actions you are taking!
So let me dive right in. (btw, this is the Biomimicry 3.8 Life’s Principles list and definitions, used with permission)
Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
Fit into and integrate with the surrounding environment.
Pay attention to the wildlife around me and do not get complacent about the changes I see.
Respond with actions to mitigate the climate change that is precipitating the changes I see.
Find ways to take action here at home and in my community.
Collect, pay attention and respond to feedback when community climate action proposals don’t pass, and adjust proposals accordingly.
Notice if plants in my yard aren’t attracting and supporting a diversity of animals throughout the year and insects and adjust plantings accordingly.
Identify challenges I have with material goods and see if these are opportunities for neighborhood community-scale responses (like finding second-hand sports equipment, sharing power and garden tools, etc.). (to reduce the amount of material goods needed and all the climate implications of those goods). Love the idea of a community tool library! And we have some email & online platforms for second-hand goods, but some things are more challenging than others to find.
Leverage Cyclic Processes
Take Advantage of phenomena that repeat themselves
Leverage my own cycles of purchasing and actions so that I can make myself successful in trying to change my behaviors (like remembering to take bags to the grocery store, remembering to think first about using materials around the house before going to buy new materials, etc.).
Use Readily Available Materials and Energy
Build with abundant, accessible materials while harnessing freely available energy.
Don’t simply buy things when a need arises – think about it first and use what’s available before heading to a store!
Reuse unused materials in our house for new project when possible.
Investigate the possibility of a solar water heater system, or even solar panels.
Use materials from our garden (like sticks) to built a trellis for our vegetables.
When we have to head to the store, find local second-hand goods where possible.
Bike or walk whenever possible. (I need to do better at this, but I try!)
Use scrap paper for grocery lists, kids drawings, etc.
Use reusable bags.
Use Feedback Loops
Engage in cyclic information flows to modify a reaction appropriately.
Participate in local community climate action discussions.
Understand and “speak the language” when trying to bring on board potential partners who aren’t necessarily thinking about these issues. What makes them tick, and how can that make a solution even better?
Learn more about how to most effectively participate in and use social media to effectively achieve goals.
A clear feedback loop is that the old guard is worried about losing its power as we transition to a non-fossil fuel based economy. NOW is the time to step up our actions exponentially.
Identify synergies between friends, businesses and communities for opportunities to work together on any of these ideas!
Join the Oak Park Environment & Energy Commission.
Use Life-Friendly Chemistry
Use chemistry that supports life processes.
Use non-toxic cleaning chemicals in my house.
Use methods in my garden that boost resilience against pests, and where needed don’t use chemicals to solve pest problems (use elbow grease!)
Buy goods that are responsibly sourced and manufactured (we try our best).
Buy organic everything.
Never buy anything with a chrome finish.
Drive my gasoline car as little as possible.
Reduce use of fossil fuel-based plastics (which are so insidious…sigh).
Break Down Materials into Benign Constituents
Use chemistry in which decomposition results in no harmful by-products.
See above. I’m not manufacturing anything, so my hope is that by adhering to keeping the use of toxic chemicals to a minimum in what I buy, when they break down they are benign in the environment. This is a hard one to control on an individual level with the exception of controlling what I purchase and use on a daily basis.
Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements
Assemble relatively few elements in elegant ways.
Hmmm…being creative with what I have and using my stuff in different configurations to achieve different results depending on needs (functions) without buying new stuff.
Do Chemistry in Water
Use water as a solvent.
Again, for me this is probably limited to my purchasing power and buying water-based products, such as the oil wax finish I just purchased to stain my reclaimed wood.
Use Low Energy Processes
Minimize energy consumption by reducing requisite temperatures, pressures and/or time for reactions.
All those energy efficiency things we are told to do – daylighting, LED light bulbs, turning off and unplugging electronics when not in use, energy efficient appliances, etc.
Buy renewable energy from the utility (we don’t have on-site renewables).
Walk and bike whenever possible.
Combine many errands into one trip to minimize mileage in car.
Use Multi-Functional Design
Meet Multiple Needs with one elegant solution.
Use furniture that serves multiple purposes.
Buy kitchen appliances or furniture that do multiple things, not just one (the number of single-function kitchen appliances is astounding, and you pretty much don’t need 90% of them)
Design spaces for multiple functions (like our playroom that is also a guest bedroom that is also a music studio that is also a…)
Recycle All Materials
Keep all materials in a closed loop.
Recycle all the materials I can – first in my home through reuse, and if we have no use for them, through our community recycling program.
Buy products with recycled content wherever possible.
Keep garden clippings in the yard, compost.
Incorporate circular economy thinking into any action I try to get done in my community!
Fit Form to Function
Select for shape or pattern based on need.
I think the key to this is “based on need.” Hardly anything in our consumer society is based on “need”, but rather “want.” I’ll continue to make sure whatever I buy is based on need and that it effectively and efficiently performs the function, and preferably more than one function.
Integrate Development with Growth
Invest optimally in strategies that promote both development and growth.
Keep my actions and learning opportunities aligned. Don’t go off in multiple directions! Make sure everything I do is rooted in my core goals.
Teach my kids age-appropriate lessons about climate change (and other related topics) to inform their actions and opinions, and continually add more complex information as they get older to further develop their understanding and actions.
Create conditions to allow components to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system.
I wish I could do this better personally. Haha!
Find groups that are interested in climate action and find common ground between them, so they can leverage each other to create better solutions.
Build from the Bottom Up
Assemble components one unit at a time.
Choose my battles/opportunities one at a time, and pick the next one to build momentum from the previous.
Combine Modular and Nested Components
Fit multiple units within each other progressively from simple to complex.
Evolve to Survive
Continually incorporate and embody information to ensure enduring performance.
Make sure to keep up-to-date on the latest science and actions to learn from others and incorporate their lessons learned in my own actions.
Learn from others and repeat successful approaches.
Take better stock of what does and doesn’t work for me and try to repeat those that do (like
how to trick myself into bringing reusable bags to the grocery store)
Integrate the Unexpected
Incorporate mistakes in ways that lead to new forms and functions.
Take the time to see my failures as opportunities for positive change.
Exchange and alter information to create new options.
Always think about the information I have through different lenses, and exchange ideas with others, to identify new opportunities for action and change.
Adapt to Changing Conditions
Appropriately respond to dynamic contexts.
Don’t bury my head in the sand! Grr.
Change my approach/actions with respect to climate change when the context demands it. Which means that because it is clear that the Trump administration is waging a war on science and actions to mitigate climate change, and because evidence of the acceleration of climate change is increasingly alarming, we need to step up our response NOW.
Include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need.
Try to engage people and organizations at all different scales (whether that’s at the individual, community, regional, national, global scales), taking different actions, responding to the problem differently, as it makes sense with respect to local actions.
Maintain Integrity Through Self-Renewal
Persist by constantly adding energy and matter to heal and improve the system.
I also need to work on this personally! Find ways to self-renew (through getting outside, exercise, hobbies, etc.)
Find out what makes people tick about this challenge – their energy will improve the effort
Always reach out to new people to bring into the effort
Embody Resilience Through Variation, Redundancy and Decentralization
Maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together.
The fight against climate change will take local actions across the globe. Help to make the local response more robust by creating programs that are diverse, redundant and decentralized, while finding ways to leverage our successes in the global movement (to share and help make other efforts also resilient).
My 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.
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.