Category: Intro to Biomimicry

Biomimicry is Hard

Okavango Delta, Botswana

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.

While my brain is playing catch up, please enjoy Part 1 of my newest photography collection from Botswana. I promise I’ll be back soon.

My Climate Action List, LP Style

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.


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).

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!

Take My Biomimicry Life’s Principles Challenge!

Never have I been able to sit down with a design, go through the Life’s Principles (LPs) evaluation and check off every single box. Until last night.

I had the honor last weekend of seeing a screening of the film Sustainable as a part of the Chicago region’s One Earth Film Festival. In the filmmakers’ words, Sustainable is “a film about the land, the people who work it and what must be done to sustain it for future generations.” But to be more specific, the film follows a family in central Illinois who made the conscious decision to farm sustainably. They happened to meet the famous chef Rick Bayless as he was trying to find the type of high quality local food he found in Mexico, and you might say that the rest is history. This family now coordinates a group of family farmers to provide many of the top chefs in Chicago with sustainable local foods on a weekly basis, and there is significant collaboration between farmers and chefs all while significantly improving the farmland/environment – it is a win-win-win situation.

I am not a film critic, but in my amateur opinion I do highly recommend it to everyone and anyone – and fortunately it’s available to a wide audience as it’s available on Netflix and Amazon (yay!).

Of course, this is a biomimicry blog, so I was going to sit down to write about the film topic in the context of Life’s Principles (or Nature’s Unifying Patterns) – how we use biomimicry not just during the brainstorming creative phase, but also through the entire design process (and for existing designs) by using LPs as an evaluation tool.

Used with permission from Biomimicry 3.8.
Used with permission from Biomimicry 3.8.

At every step in the biomimcry process we can use LPs to ask critical questions that help us to think more holistically about the entire context of a design to identify opportunities for improvements that we might not otherwise see. And while many LPs are pretty self-explanatory, having someone on your team with a deep understanding of all twenty-six LPs can be incredibly useful during this type of evaluation. Being able to practice using LPs for evaluation forces you to realize what you do or actually don’t understand about each LP and only makes you a stronger biomimic.



When I sat down and took a look at my sheet of all twenty-six LPs, I literally could check off each one when thinking about how these pioneers of the sustainable local food movement in Chicago have grown (and continue to grow) and operate their farm, business and network – their sustainable food movement.

My challenge then to you is, after you watch the film Sustainable, can you come up with at least one example about the farm and the movement they are cultivating that demonstrates each LP (or Nature’s Unifying Patterns if that is what you are more familiar with)? (Find a quick guide explaining Life’s Principles here.) Can you brainstorm other opportunities/improvements?

I realize blogs are often a one-way street, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Will you share and contribute your thoughts and ideas to the evolving sustainable food movement? (caveat – your ideas have to have a rationale using at least one LP or NUP!) Please feel free to either leave them in a comment below or send them to me in an email at Let’s collaborate, have fun, use our collective expertise to help valuable movements like this one. Let’s change our story together!


Driving in the Dark

A sliver of moonlight dimly lit up the sides of a cargo train that slipped through the dark night along the highway in the sleepy middle of Illinois on New Year’s. The movement grabbed my eye and in a flash, the juxtaposition of my family in the comfortable bubble of our car with the often hidden mechanisms that make it all possible reminded me of the complexity of our modern lives.

Even while we sleep in the United States, the world is moving to bring us our every desire. Humanity’s vast global interconnected non-stop network is truly a marvel of modern engineering and ingenuity, political dances and pure grit. The pace of change only seems to accelerate, and the limits of the future appear to be constrained only by the limits of our imagination.

In Chicago we have bananas, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes in our grocery stores in January. We don’t worry about the lights going out or not having water flow from our taps. We don’t think twice about what it took to get the millions upon millions of products on shelves in stores across our city. Nor do we consider how those same products are replaced by newer models every season (and where the old ones will go). We put our trash to the curb and it disappears.

For years I have been visiting random commercial and industrial properties to do assessments as an environmental consultant. Before I started, I never thought twice about what it takes to put a label on a bottle of Gatorade, create a veneer of wood for cabinets, put a chrome finish on a bathroom faucet, smelt ore into metal rods, manage a train yard, put fresh fruit on shelves in the middle of winter, manage product inventories on vast scales, manage a landfill over the course of its long life, or turn a grassy field into a giant warehouse. But having seen all that and more, I have a deep appreciation for the complexity of systems that support our every day and I know that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Most people never see any of it.

It’s my belief that if more of us are able to begin to scratch the surface of our daily lives to understand even superficially the life cycle of our disposable coffee cups or our shoes or the journey of a banana in January, we will begin to realize that while our modern marvel is amazing, it’s not magic. With globalization and technology, the often dirty and messy and hot and smelly and toxic occur at points in the supply chain that are increasingly further from our view. But the consequences are coming back to nip at all our heels in the form of climate change in ways we are only beginning to understand. And as we begin to accept not only the benefits but also the magnitude of both the known and unknown ramifications of those systems, we will begin to shed light on the fact that not only are we all driving blind in the dark, but we’re hurtling at 100 miles per hour down on a poorly maintained road.

If we limit our imagination to only picture a future filled with technology that anticipates and satisfies our every whim, one in which we are the center of a world that caters and bends to fulfill our wants, we are missing the larger picture. This same world will no longer fulfill our needs as a living species dependent upon the non-human systems that support us. We will imagine ourselves out of existence. If we allow our imaginations to integrate our needs with our wants, the future is what we make of it. Of course this requires an acceptance and clear understanding that our existence is intricately tied to the survival of all life forms and the finely tuned systems that life relies upon and creates.

It’s no accident that a prairie soaks up and holds onto water like a sponge. It’s how it defends against summer drought. It’s no accident that rainforests have rain, and lots of it, year-round. They create their own weather patterns. This too, while magical, is not magic. In biomimicry, we look from the small form to system-wide examples to understand how life works – not just to find fancy new technology, but to understand how life creates technology and systems that allow life to grow, regenerate and thrive so that we too can do the same.

So in this time of year when we imagine how we’d like to move forward into the future, it’s important to understand and appreciate what we have and where we are starting from. And while we appreciate the systems that have gotten us to where we are today, it’s clear that our vision for the future must include a deep reconsideration for how we can continue to do what we do but do it better. Do it smarter. Do it in a way that not only minimizes the consequences but also generates compounding benefits. Do it in a way that begins with and works backward from the most fundamental goal of all life – to create conditions conducive to life, to take care of the place that takes care of us and will take care of our children. It’s time to ask new questions and answer them with completely new solutions. We can get started by looking to the wisdom inherent in the world around us.

Let’s change our story. Today.

FIRST LEGO League Biomimicry Guidance

What’s better than not only getting kids excited about biomimicry, but also giving them the opportunity to actually try to use biomimicry in innovation? Not much! In this year’s FIRST LEGO League challenges, Animal Allies and Creature Craze, which are focused on how humans and animals learn from, interact with and help one another, kids have the opportunity to do just that. The Biomimicry Institute was consulted in developing the challenge and biomimicry is listed as a (very cool!) option for teams to use as a way to learn from animals. Sign me up! But if you are team looking to use biomimicry, where do you start?

We were fortunate enough at Biomimicry Chicago to have a local FIRST LEGO team contact us for more information about how they might use biomimicry in their process. My cousin in Michigan also reached out to me as her kid’s team is also interested in talking to a biomimic. It has dawned on me that there are likely many more teams out there interested in using biomimicry but are perhaps struggling with how to start.

Fortunately, there are online resources to help you get started. Those, combined with the recommendations and biomimicry process outline below will provide you what you need to get your feet wet.

Next Steps

The following are next steps for FIRST LEGO League teams. Each link will send you to a section farther below for quick navigation each time you come back to this page!

1.  Find a local expert!

The Biomimicry Institute provides links to their Global Biomimicry Network, which is made up of local nodes such as Biomimicry Chicago. Search for one closest to you! Biomimicry Professionals and specialists will be able to guide you through the process and answer questions you have along the way. If you don’t have a local network, don’t be afraid to reach out to biomimics that are in your larger region. There are many like me who would love to help!

2. Understand what biomimicry IS and is NOT.

Understandably, any team looking to use biomimicry will go online and start searching under key terms and any number of things will pop up. Without any background in biomimicry, it can be hard to know what is what. So what is and isn’t “biomimicry”? In the simplest terms,

Biomimicry IS…
  • Learning from nature – Understanding the strategies, mechanisms and deep patterns used by Life to solve challenges in the wild, and applying that knowledge to our own designs.
  • All about function – Applying lessons learned at the form (shape), process and/or systems levels to achieve a function.
  • The ultimate sustainability and resiliency measure – Evaluating additional opportunities for each solution through the lens of Life’s deepest patterns (Nature’s Unifying Patterns or Life’s Principles – I’ll refer to Nature’s Unifying Patterns in this post since there is more information online about them; however, Life’s Principles provides a more detailed list).
  • Life-centered design – Making the conscious choice to solve problems in ways that benefit (not just don’t negatively impact) all species that interact with and are impacted by the design, including humans.

Many people think only of biomimicry as it has been applied to products. But biomimicry can also be applied at the systems level – for example, wildlife management systems or educational outreach programs. Depending on the challenge, you can use the biomimicry innovation process by looking metaphorically at systems level examples – ecosystems, food chains, social insect organizational structure, etc., and/or by using Nature’s Unifying Patterns to help shape your program. Nature’s Unifying Patterns is a powerful tool all by itself to help teams identify opportunities for improvement in a program. (A great resource for understanding where the best place to intervene in a system is the book by Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems.)

Biomimicry is NOT…
  • Using plants or animals to achieve a function (this is called bio-utilization, which is a very viable approach to solving many problems since plants and animals often are able to perform a task better than any technology we could invent…but it’s still not biomimicry).
  • Creating a technology (robot) that looks like an animal or plant.
  • Developing a bio-inspired technology without first understanding the context of the challenge and determining the best point of intervention in the system surrounding the challenge.

I think there are common misperceptions out there about biomimicry when it comes to animals and robots. This comes down to the misunderstanding that biomimicry is not about replicating animals (or plants) but learning from them. Making a robot that looks like a gecko is…a robot that looks like a gecko. Making a robot to perhaps try to find people trapped in the aftermath of a natural disaster that adheres to surfaces like a gecko, sees like a mantis shrimp, hears like a parasitic fly, and detects heat like a vampire bat AND is 3-D printed on demand using just the right amount (but not more) of local readily available non-toxic materials AND can be deconstructed and recycled at the end of the robot’s life to make a new one…now that’s a biomimetic robot! It may not look like an animal (who knows what it looks like), but it is able to perform the functions of climbing through variable terrain and detecting people, and the robot itself is made such that the materials can be recycled or reused at the end of its life (per Nature’s Unifying Patterns).

For further information about biomimicry, check out the links on my biomimicry resources page.

3. Get familiar with the biomimicry process.

Below I provide a quick outline for the biomimicry process, but you can also do more research online. A great place to start is the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge Toolbox. And if you have questions, ask your local expert! 😉

Here is the general process we follow when doing biomimicry:

  1. Define the challenge in terms of a function. Whenever you settle on a challenge, you’ll want to define it as a question with a function included. The function – a verb with a noun – might be something like “create diverse habitat”, “absorb water”, “sense movement”, etc. You’ll also want to clarify the critical context that surrounds that functional question like, How can we absorb water from the air in a dry environment? Your challenge will likely have more than one functional question. Being clear and specific about the challenge and context is critical to the rest of the process. (see #4 below). We then “biologize” the question which means we put the words in a format that makes it possible to ask, How would nature [absorb water from the air in a dry environment]? The scoping section of the Biomimicry Institute Toolbox has a good explanation of this process.
  2. The next step then is to look to biology to answer those questions. We cast a big net to find all sorts of examples in biology for solving for the function – we call this the “Biobrainstorm”. There are existing resources out there that are tailored to thinking about biology through function like We also brainstorm with experts! And read magazines, watch nature documentaries, etc. Then we choose among those brainstormed examples for the best biological examples that fit the challenge (this is where the context defined in the scoping comes in and is super important). We then do a deep dive into primary literature for a few examples to learn all we can about how the organisms do it. For each organism we want to know, 
    • Why is it doing it (what challenge is it trying to solve)? (context)
    • What is the organism doing to solve for the challenge? (strategy)
    • And how is it achieving the solution? (mechanism)
  3. Once we have the biological information, we then translate it back into design language. This can be tricky (ask your expert to review your design principles!)! That design language is then used to inspire and guide the design. A true understanding of the biology is important here so that you don’t just use it as a place to jump off, but to actually stay true to the biology as much as possible in the design, often revisiting the biology to see if you are doing it as close to the strategy/mechanism as you can, even if you are using it metaphorically. Staying true to the knowledge embodied in the biology is central to biomimicry.
  4. Another layer to this is that we use Nature’s Unifying Patterns/Life’s Principles (design principles based on deep patterns) found throughout life that constitute the equivalent of a rule book for survival. These provide a deeper level of evaluation throughout the design process – you can keep going back to them and use them to check what you’ve come up with. (Can I use more life-friendly chemistry? Can I use less energy? Can I optimize my design so I can use less material? etc.)

4. Do a very thorough job scoping your challenge.

For any design challenge, it is critical to do an effective scoping step to understand what you are trying to solve. It’s easy to jump into the solution space before truly understanding the problem (whether you are using biomimicry or not). But developing a clear picture of all the factors that play into your challenge will help you to ask the right questions upfront. Rushing to solutions without identifying a real need and the context around that need will most likely result in a design that misses the mark.

For example, what if you are looking to create a monitoring robot that moves along the bottom of a relatively shallow body of water, and you decided the best way to move would be to “swim” (not walk along the bottom). But you never considered that the body of water which usually has slow currents, will have significantly increased water flow in the spring and after heavy summer rains, and your robot is not equipped to handle these stronger currents? What if you decide it should walk on the bottom, but don’t realize the bottom is mucky and your robot constantly gets stuck? Or that the bottom is uneven with potentially huge obstacles that your robot can’t figure out how to get around with the algorithm you’ve created for it? Or perhaps that the body of water gets near freezing in the winter and your robot battery doesn’t last long enough in the cold temperatures? Or that the water carries a lot of silt that could clog up your robot? Understanding everything about what your robot will encounter will increase the chances it will be successful in all working conditions.

A final word about scoping and defining your challenge. It’s often tempting to jump to technological solutions to address challenges (because we can!) without first attempting to identify and solve the underlying causes of the challenge. Each problem has a context and system around it. Understanding where and how your team can and should have an impact within that system is important. Sometimes, the best solution might be not to design anything at all, but make management or process changes in a different part of the system.

For example, when looking at the question of dying bee populations, there are many places to intervene in the system. Top results for “bees pollination biomimicry” are focused on the Harvard Wyss Institute’s “Robobees” solution, which was first conceived as a response to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as described in a Scientific American article published in 2013 (fortunately the top Google result is a K-12 exercise that demonstrates why the robotic alternative is not a good use of biomimicry!).

But is this the best use of our resources? In a scoping exercise focused on the challenge of CCD, the first question we would ask is why the bees are dying in the first place. The resulting cascade of questions would likely lead us to the conclusion that the best place for intervention and focus of resources is up the system to change the practices causing bee deaths, not down the system to create an robot alternative that will never replicate all the functions of bees. It seems as if the researchers at the Wyss Institute now focus more on the other potential benefits of flying swarms of miniature robots and see the potential for pollination by their robots as a “stop-gap measure” that is “at least 20 years away.” I bring this up because we can get excited about technology and miss the boat about the human element of any design challenge.

5. It’s about the future.

Last but not least, it’s important when first introduced to biomimicry to understand that the sustainability and resiliency element of any design is front and center. We are always asking how to make our designs not just “sustainable”, but restorative and regenerative through all that goes into the design – the shape, materials and systems that define the “product”. The use of biomimicry when done with the conscious choice to design for the success of all life – not just humans but for all species that interact with our designs – will result in a better future for all those kids out there learning about biomimicry for the first time through the FIRST LEGO Leagues.