Author: Rachel Hahs

My Climate Action List, LP Style

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Sonoran Desert, Arizona

On this day of Climate Action, and in light of the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “pages relating to climate change, climate science, the impacts of climate change and what readers can do about climate change are all gone from the live site” to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt” (read: Koch brothers)…

[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.
  • And in line with that, clear indications of the crazy future we will face are everywhere along the coasts as cities are being inundated with sea water, and evidence points to climate chaos nearing at an alarming rate according to scientists. NOW is the time to act.

Cultivate Cooperative Relationships

Find value through win-win interactions.
  • 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.
  • Learn permaculture.
  • 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.

Self-Organize

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.
  • Hmm…I’m stumped.

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.

Replicate Strategies that Work

Repeat successful approaches.
  • Try to get community to use Project Drawdown strategies!
  • 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.

Reshuffle Information

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.

Incorporate Diversity

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).

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 brains 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 actually 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 participant 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!

Stories

Amy likes to tell stories about how things work (e.g., 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 get 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.

Bringing Biomimicry to Our Networks

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From my latest Photography Collection – My Not-So-Big Backyard

I want more people to think and do biomimicry – okay, I want a lot of people to think and do biomimicry in whatever it is they do whenever and wherever they are doing it. I want them to have a basic understanding of what biomimicry is, how it’s done and how it might apply to what they do. Then I want people to do a deep dive like this bee pictured above – to discover for themselves the potential for biomimicry to transform what they do. So I often ask myself, how does someone like myself go about doing that? Is what I’m about to do at any given time going to help me achieve that goal? And if not, how can I change my approach so that it does?

The Challenges

Let’s be real – there are a lot of challenges (which may also be opportunities!) to meeting this goal. I’ve been thinking about how to solve for (1) the broad appeal of biomimicry to people of vastly different backgrounds with vastly different interests, (2) people’s lack of knowledge on how to do biomimicry, (3) lack of capacity to spend time and money on learning the biomimicry methodology, and (4) potential inability to travel to “nature” (i.e., parks and preserves often well outside urban areas). These are not small challenges.

Biomimicry’s Broad Appeal

First, the reality of biomimicry is that it can be applied to every challenge in any context – it is at its core a tool for innovation, evaluation and measure at any scale. The concept itself is something that people seem to instinctively get – it makes perfect sense. This gets a lot of people from a lot of very different backgrounds excited because it is super cool – you can’t deny that the fact that making an LED lightbulb, which is already considered highly efficient, 55 percent more efficient (brighter) just by mimicking the firefly abdomen microstructure on the light cover is amazing and ignites a sense of wonderment and potential.

So after the excitement of discovery, the next question people always seem to ask is, “How can I do biomimicry?” We also have many people come to our Biomimicry Chicago network to say they want “to be involved.”  If we want to be locally attuned and responsive (Life’s Principle!) as biomimicry practitioners and leaders of the network, the next logical question is, how do we transform the interest and excitement about biomimicry into something. And what is that something? But with such a wide variety of people with equally widely varied interests and expertise coming to the table, it can be hard to focus efforts without cutting people out and turning them off. Is it possible to provide something for everyone?

Learning the Biomimicry Methodology

There are a growing number of opportunities in formal education settings to learn about biomimicry. And even where there are no formal biomimicry degree programs (of which there aren’t many), there are classes popping up in universities around the world, which is very exciting. There are also often opportunities to attend biomimicry workshops which seem to be increasingly focused on the application of biomimicry to a more specific challenge, such as resilience in the built environment.

However, most people are not going to take university biomimicry classes or get a degree in biomimicry. And it’s often hard to get away to attend a multi-day workshop that requires travel to a remote place, especially for people with families, and especially when the cost of the workshop and travel itself is high. These are serious barriers to entry for the majority of people interested in biomimicry. So what other opportunities are there? How can we bring people along where they are?

Time and Energy

I do think biomimicry, with its undercurrent of “doing good”, taps into people’s desire to help. Biomimicry solutions benefit people and the planet, and I do believe people definitely come to biomimicry with that hope and promise in their hearts – we all want to see better outcomes. Even more, we want to be part of the solution, a participant in creating better outcomes, especially if it aligns with our personal and professional lives.

However, the desire of people interested in biomimicry “to be involved” has caveats – the ability to be involved is limited by the person’s capacity to commit time and energy to something. And if that something doesn’t pertain to what they are interested in, either in their professional or personal lives, they will probably be less likely to find the capacity to contribute to that something, no matter their interest in or passion for biomimicry (and if they do, they’re probably seeking out formal education opportunities!). And certainly when we are passionate about something, we seem to be able to find greater motivation and energy to sustain us over the long run, even if/when the something is complicated and/or takes time.

Access to “Nature”

Last, I know I for one am not able to get much “real nature time” these days, and the lack of it makes me depressed (Chicago is not known for its nature to say the least). But this is the reality for most people in large urban areas – we are stuck with the wildlife, for better or worse, that lives in our neighborhoods, parks and places of work (some people have it better than the rest of us based on their location!). And while it’s nice to think about getting people out of urban areas and “into nature” to hold workshops, the reality is that on a day-to-day basis, the urban wildlife is the majority, if not the only, wildlife at least more than half the United States population ever sees. So how can we incorporate the reconnect to nature in our own backyards? If we strengthen people’s awareness of the life that shares their home, in the end will local nature experiences be a more powerful way to get people to recognize the need and reimagine the possibilities? I’m not sure, but for most local people we are likely to reach, this approach is a necessity.

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My Solutions (so far)

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that actions I take as a biomimicry professional/ practitioner, need to be attuned to these caveats (limited knowledge, time, energy and money), focus on local nature experiences, and also tap into this desire (and energy) to participate and be a part of the solution. So when I think about potential future projects, I think about how I might involve others, tap into and leverage their expertise to find solutions while also teaching them about biomimicry in their own backyard along the way. The benefits are twofold (or more) – the project gains invaluable knowledge from a diversity of people, and those same people gain experience with biomimicry (while gaining an appreciation of local wildlife) which they can then take back and apply to whatever they do (my goal!).

Consciously thinking about how to do this for projects has opened up new ways of thinking about the potential of projects.

  • Leverage the desire to help, participate in something larger than oneself. For example, to address the desire to participate, to “be involved”, I believe if possible every workshop should include a significant component (if it’s not the entire focus of the workshop) where participants are given the opportunity to learn and apply the biomimicry methodology to contribute their knowledge and expertise to real challenges. Even better if the workshops are set up to solve for challenges of, and therefore benefit, non-profit organizations or communities. How would your interest in a workshop change if you knew that not only were you going to learn biomimicry but at the same time you’d be contributing potential solutions to a good cause?
  • Meet people where they are. Combine that with the idea that these workshops need to be held at a cost, schedule and location that makes it easier for more people to participate (to meet my goal anyway!), and I’m really talking about holding workshops for people in the communities in which they (and I) live. Working with urban wildlife deepens respect for nature at home. Being creative about funding, timing and partners opens up all kinds of possibilities. IF you can work out the funding (always a challenge!), the end result would be a group of people who understand the biomimicry methodology better, understand the benefits of using the tool to come up with innovative ideas and approaches to real challenges, and are hopefully inspired to continue to work to actually apply the ideas resulting in improved outcomes for the nonprofits and communities in the place in which I live and work. That sounds pretty good to me.
  • Find out what people are most interested in! Use feedback loops to ask network members what brings them to biomimicry, what they want to get out of the network and or biomimicry, but maybe even more importantly, what really floats their boat. Because perhaps if we can tap into that energy the rest will fall into place.

Other ideas to get people involved include crowdsourcing projects and hackathons (similar to a workshop but much more fluid and experimental and perhaps a different crowd) where people learn how to do biomimicry while they are contributing to collective projects or solving for local challenges/needs.

I do think taking these ideas into consideration in the projects/programs I am working on will likely result in much bigger, messier projects because there are more collaborators and they include the x-factor of individuals giving their time (potentially even paying to give their time) to learn and participate. But isn’t that the point? Don’t we want more people involved? Don’t we want more people exposed to biomimicry? Don’t we want increased opportunity to have more people participate in creating beneficial solutions to real challenges? And don’t we want them to internalize this thinking and take it back home or work where they can continue to shift norms? Maybe it’s time to take the leap.

Of course doing what I’m trained to do – using biomimicry to help solve challenges – when I evaluate my current thinking against Life’s Principles I see this approach hitting on several LPs:

  • Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
    • Use feedback loops
    • Cultivate Cooperative Relationships
  • Integrate Development with Growth
    • Build from the Bottom Up

I’ll have to explore how other LPs might improve my approach. What do you see? How can I expand and deepen my ideas?

How do you address these challenges, and are you willing to share your solutions? What’s been successful or not? How can our community learn from you?

Just how do we tap the Genius of our Place?

Cherry blossoms, University of Washington

I’m lucky enough to spending the week in Seattle this week on vacation, perfect timing this year for the blooming of the cherry trees on the University of Washington campus. Unfortunately I don’t think I will be here in just over a month in May when Seattle will hum with the buzz around the Living Future’s Institute unConference.

Every year the conference includes activities and presentations that involve biomimicry, and this year is no different. Central to the application of biomimicry to the built environment is the idea that each geography faces specific challenges due to differing operating conditions – the amount of sunlight, rain wind, fire, etc. – and thus buildings should be designed and built to optimally deal with their location-specific challenges. What’s built in Chicago should not be the same as what’s built in Seattle. One way to understand how to modify designs is to look at life that’s well-adapted to the specific location – all life that’s native to the place! We call this Genuis of Place.

This year, attendees to the unConference will get a chance to do some deep dives into how a Genius of Place can be applied to design. Participants will have a chance to learn about the newest Genius of Place for the California coast region from Biomimicry 3.8 and HOK, and get to participate in a workshop specific to applying the biomimicry Genius of Place tool to a Living Building Challenge design by my good friends Joe
Zazzera, Jane Toner, Diana Hammer and Peggy Chu. A third place-based workshop specific to Seattle’s very cool Urban Greenprint project will teach participants apply nature’s lesson’s learned about water flow into their own designs here in the northwest. Their impressive SeedKit compiles the lessons learned and is available to any designer.

A list of freely available Genius of Place reports are included on my resources page. If you get to attend, let me know how it goes!

Our Built Environment: My Current Reading List for Shifting Paradigms

The more I think about the challenges facing us (humanity) and the opportunities to use biomimicry for innovation in the built environment, the more I believe that we can come up with super cool solutions using biomimicry for any challenge, but unless the fundamental assumption of everyone at the design table is that our built environment is dependent upon, participates in and can support thriving local ecosystems, we will produce solutions that will ultimately fall short of embodying the shift we want and need to see in the way we live life on this planet.

I also believe that once designers come to the table with a basic scientific understanding of our entwinement with the life around us, a whole new world of creative opportunity opens up to not just design and build a structure that solves for human needs, but rather design and build a multifunctional, responsive structure that is a participant in a complex web of life. The next question then becomes, what else can the structure do?! Biologists at the design table can help work with designers to answer that question.

There is incredible thought leadership and work being done around the world to try to reconcile how we can put into words and practice these ideas of shifting a built environment designed to sit upon a landscaped into one that lives within it. The related articles at the end of this post were shared with me by biomimicry colleagues (thanks Josh Stack, Jane Toner and Norbert Hoeller!) and are on my reading list to help me wrap my head around how these ideas fundamentally change our approach and how we move forward.

My thought is, imagine if a region could get together to establish that fundamental assumption for itself – bringing together designers and decision-makers from all functions and scales of the built environment to agree that all design should strive to support fundamental ecosystem functions using local native ecosystem metrics. Each participant in this collective leadership could influence their own piece of the puzzle (playing out in various industries and scales) while at the same time considering and building in mechanisms for how their piece fits into, can respond to and support the whole.  Can it be done?

At Biomimicry Chicago we are boldly imagining such a future for the Chicago region through our Deep Roots Initiative which we are kicking off with our Deep Roots Workshop April 21. We want to explore these ideas and see if/how we can put these ideas to practice. There is incredible work being done in Chicago in trying to address multiple challenges having to do with various ecosystem functions at multiple scales. We have an opportunity to come together to understand how they are all interrelated from an ecological perspective, define what is ecologically “sustainable” for the region and set an overarching framework of goals to strive for. Our subsequent measures of progress as we intentionally restore ecosystem functions in our built environment will then have a scientific basis for assessing whether or not we as a region are truly on the path toward “sustainability.”

The more minds thinking about this, the better. I encourage you to feel free to share more resources in the comment thread below. Only together can we change our story!

Inspiration to Brainstorming: Biomimcry Global Design Challenge – Climate Change

Following up on something I have been thinking about since my post on inspiration for the Global Biomimicry Design Challenge on climate change, I thought I’d share an example of my thought process on using natural models for initial brainstorming. This is my first pass and I haven’t dug deep into the science, but am testing the waters on a high-level idea. So bear with me as I try to wrap my head around this one – energy and associated system cycles. I have more questions than answers as my thoughts are only (maybe not even) half-baked – maybe you can help me out. Or feel free to use my ideas to add to yours!

Last week I was talking with my colleague about various major categories of ecosystem functions. Her diagram had five categories, including “energy” and “carbon”. In looking at the diagram however, I realized that this perspective separates out two components that are fundamentally part of, but not even all of, one system. Does combining the conversations of carbon sequestration and energy efficiency into a comprehensive discussion about the entire system around energy beyond just the carbon cycle, with a comparison to the natural model, provide an avenue to identify missed opportunities to balance things out?

When we talk about energy it is almost always purely in the mindset of procurement/consumption. Energy flow is one way – we dig it up/suck it up/soak it up/stick a turbine in it and gobble it up. What’s the result? We put that energy to work for us in various ways that fuel our activities – cooking, transporting, building, farming, etc. The end result is that that energy once used is gone, but the benefits we reap from consuming it might live on in the form of something made (cooked food, a product, a house, a road…). Doing more with one unit of energy is how we improve efficiency. In the sustainability realm the conversation about “energy efficiency” is sometimes shifted to “carbon management” in recognition of energy consumption (specifically when it’s carbon-based) as a component in the larger carbon cycle.

When we talk about carbon sequestration it’s often a kind of nebulous, unseen phenomenon that most people don’t understand. We know it’s part of the carbon cycle and is a component we have increasingly realized we need to address because there’s this vast amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere and changing our climate. So we also relate carbon sequestration to energy in the realm of the need to pull back out the carbon dioxide emitted during the burning of fossil fuels and organic matter to help balance the carbon cycle. But this discussion is not often expanded to be related to a comprehensive picture of energy beyond a discussion of carbon dioxide. And while carbon dioxide is our main concern, maybe an analysis of the whole system could identify opportunities we might otherwise miss.

In nature, energy procurement and consumption is fed by the sun, but the story of energy is not just about carbon dioxide. It involves an intricate dance of several inputs and outputs in the system enable it to stay balanced in perpetuity – everything is used and recycled with the exception of heat. Not true of our current human system. Even when we look to understand photosynthesis for the conversion of radiant heat to energy to try to replicate that natural model (solar panels), we choose to basically ignore the whole sequestering of carbon dioxide, use of water and releasing of vast amounts of oxygen, water and carbon dioxide thing that occurs in photosynthesis too – we’re just interested in the conversion of energy from one form to another. Are we missing vast components of a balanced system and thus opportunities to greatly improve our design? What if we tried to mimic the functions of the entire natural system of inputs and outputs to restore balance?  

I’ve already talked about how our energy systems have knocked the carbon cycle out of balance. So, using biomimicry, if we want to use the plant energy cycles – complete with the inputs and outputs – as a model for our energy systems, we need to understand nature’s energy system first and then draw metaphors. Easiest thing to do is to draw a picture!

The following diagram shows an overall simplified cycle of inputs and outputs involved in photosynthesis, plant growth and energy flows supporting the food web (that’s us in the “animal” block). (Photosynthesis is the process in which radiant energy is turned into chemical energy in the form of sugars, which are the building blocks for plant structure (starches) as well as immediate energy for plant growth. That stored energy in plants is the energy that gets passed up the food chain from herbivores to carnivores and everything in between.)

Nature's model

The above diagram shows how the byproducts of each step contribute to critical resources for other steps in the process, creating a closed loop with the exception of the renewable energy input of the sun and outputs of heat. It’s brilliant.

Contrast that with examples of our energy systems. The following diagrams also show simplified energy flows in human-designed systems.

Human model

Okay, so now we have an overall idea of how these both work. Notably for me, neither of the human-designed energy systems result in closed loop cycles of inputs and outputs. The solar obviously resembles more closely the procurement and conversion of radiant energy at a site, similar to a plant. I don’t know enough about energy systems to know how to wrap my head around the conversion of radiant energy to electricity vs. chemical energy – that’s above my pay grade for this blog post! So let’s keep it simple for now (but if you know, let me know a good resource to find out more!).

In looking at the coal-fired power plant example, you’ll notice that the inputs include coal, oxygen (O2) (oxygen needed for combustion of coal) and water. In looking at the energy cycle of the food web, you’ll notice that the inputs and outputs are similar to that of an animal – animals consume glucose (stored energy) from plants or other animals that have eaten plants. Animals also consume oxygen which is needed for chemical reactions that result in growth (for the metabolic process). So we might draw the following metaphors included in the above diagram:

  • Oxygen = oxygen (needed for a chemical reaction
  • Coal = stored chemical energy (sugars) (this is the fuel)
  • Power plant = animal
  • Use of electricity to build structures = metabolism (growth)
  • Battery storage = maybe ATP? (adenosine triphosphate, or “the ‘molecular unit of currency’ of intracellular energy transfer”)

(Since I have not spent more than today on this, my metaphors might be off. What do you think?)

If you agree for now that we might draw a metaphor between animals and our human-made power plants, what does that mean for our overall cycle? To me it means our current design is missing a plan for the majority of the system needed to maintain the required balance for stable system functioning (as evidenced through climate change). The question is, how can we think about our energy systems more holistically and model them after the original power plants and energy webs?

If we go with the above, and our current energy system design only includes the “animal” component of the larger system, what if we expand our discussion of “energy” to include the entire cycle of inputs and outputs to understand how we can design an energy system that fits within the natural balance to maintain climate stability? Who uses energy in the system and how? What do they produce as a byproduct of using that energy? What questions does that raise about our systems?

  • Need for balance of inputs & outputs: the consumption and sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) with the release of oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide and water. If fossil fuels and other biomaterials aren’t burned for energy at all, obviously this changes the equation and reduces the burden on the system to sequester carbon dioxide (once restored to a balance from the current state, and this of course ignores whatever inputs and outputs for making the product (e.g., a solar panel)). But since we aren’t flipping the switch on fossil fuels any day soon, we need to find ways to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. And what about the release of oxygen in the process – what part of our system might generate oxygen as a byproduct?
  • Forms of energy: What would a system look like that relies on local real-time renewable conversion of radiant energy to, and storage of, chemical energy that is in a form readily accessible for use (as opposed to use of non-renewable storage of radiant energy captured in fossil fuels and turned to electricity)? Lots of solar cells (produced with solar energy sources!) and batteries? Any other options?
  • If plants (real plants, not human power plants!) are the consumers of carbon dioxide in our natural model, what would be the equivalent of a plant in human energy systems? Manufacturers creating raw materials? Does that reveal the missing link in our system – manufacturers who convert radiant energy on site to fuel their own manufacturing processes (core needs) as well as build raw materials (which form the basis of structures) from carbon dioxide? If so, we clearly need to rethink the potential of a hugely (over) abundant (free!) resource – carbon dioxide – as a building block for materials. Some materials manufacturers are already thinking this way, but if this is the key to balancing the cycle, we need some serious widespread innovation using carbon as a fundamental building block of many more our materials.
  • Can we use the energy flow of a food web to think more about how the supply chain beyond materials manufacturers plays a role – what’s the equivalent of a herbivore (e.g., a manufacturer turning materials into some form of product?), omnivore or carnivore in human systems? Do they exist in the same type of balance we see in land-based food systems (i.e., does it turn out we have an overabundance of “carnivores” requiring high energy inputs?)? If so, by increasing energy efficiency are we creating more “herbivores” ??
  • We’ve cut down a lot of plants – trees to be more exact. Whenever you see green, you are looking at the sequestration of carbon dioxide in materials. It would be foolish to think we shouldn’t also be restoring natural systems to leverage their ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But to what extent? This thinking is reflected in E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth initiative.

Oh, so many more questions than answers! 🙂

My brain is spinning so we’ll have to leave additional pondering for another day. Next steps for me if I were to pursue this further would be to do a deep dive into the science to find out more specifically how this works each step of the way. Next I would then recheck my metaphors and make sure that everything actually makes sense – for every single part of the system. This is where the fun happens – you never know what you’ll find out.

What flaws do you see in my thinking? If any, how would you rewrite those metaphors in line with your thinking? What can you add? How can we build on this? How might you go deeper? What are the right metaphors? What is the natural model equivalent to “electricity”? Or am I totally off base? I’m excited to see what comes out in the Project Drawdown initiative to see if/how their recommendations line up (or not) with this thinking.