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Biomimicry & Dynamic Non-equilibrium: Prepare, leverage and bounce back

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons: Crowthorne Forest, Timo Newton-Syms from Helsinki, Finland and Chalfont St Giles, Bucks, UK. CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Dynamic non-equilibrium means things change unpredictably, at times more drastically than others, but change nonetheless. To the non-biomimic, it’s easiest explained by the common phrase we can all relate to – shit happens. You don’t know when, but you know at some point all your best laid plans…yep, gone to hell in a handbasket. Well, not only has shit happened, but it’s hit the fan, so I thought I’d acknowledge it, write about, and hopefully get motivated.

In biomimicry we consider dynamic non-equilibrium a fact of life for any system and it must be taken into consideration in any design (because as we all know, all designs live within a larger context!). Dealing with change is no easy matter. More often than not, the human response in the face of change is to hold on tighter and ignore the increasing warning signals, eventually resulting in huge releases in the system. Fires? Don’t let them burn. Until you’ve built up so much fuel you can’t stop them anymore and the fires kill everything. Floods? Channel them. Until you can’t control the water anymore and entire cities are under water for months. You get my drift.

Image Source: Wikipedia

A current acknowledgement of this phenomena in human systems is the addition of the concept of “resilience” to the sustainability conversation. Resilience is the ability to successfully respond to and recover from acute shocks (think floods, earthquakes, disease outbreaks, spike in oil prices) and chronic stresses (think high unemployment, continuing crime and violence, chronic water shortages, uncertain regulatory climate). The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative is an outgrowth of this conversation for helping cities deal with what we biomimics call dynamic non-equilibrium. Businesses’ increasing attempts to come to grip with system risks is another outgrowth of recognition of the need for “resilience.”

There is also the potential to develop elements within your system to take advantage of disruption, to actually accelerate growth of the system in a new preferred direction. It’s not always the case that the preferred direction is to the benefit of the entire system (think the strategies and outcomes covered in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). What outside events might disrupt your systems? And how do you plan for responding to and recovering from them? And what are the opportunities for new growth that arise out of a disturbance?

And then…boom!

I’ve been experiencing dynamic non-equilibrium lately. Illness, holidays, work deadlines, and a sick babysitter are the elements of chaos (acute shocks) I’ve been grappling with. Hence the lack of posts for several weeks. I’m still figuring out how to make the blog work with the uncertainty that each day/week brings. It’s on my list of 2017 New Year’s resolutions!

I’m also recognizing that I was ill-prepared for the most recent mega disruption in my life and that of pretty much every other life in this country – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States (whether one is happy about it or not is beside the point, it’s still a disruption). I have been inexplicably unable to get myself to do anything beyond what I need to. I feel unmotivated and consumed by something I cannot put a finger on. It’s not just the daily barrage of news about Trump’s latest tweet or cabinet pick and the doom it spells for our country. This feeling started a couple months before November 8 actually, although it’s gotten worse since (a chronic stress as it turns out, and one that is just beginning since we have at least 4 more years of this disaster).

The closest I can come to understanding how I feel is this New York Times opinion piece by Neil Gross, in which the author discusses collective trauma.  “The concept of collective trauma was rooted in the thought of Émile Durkheim, a turn-of-the-20th-century French sociologist and an architect of the field. Durkheim argued that norms, values and rituals were the linchpins of social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.” In the article, Gross suggests that the (chronic stress of) loss of jobs in manufacturing and production resulting from globalization and automation is one trauma a group in our country is experiencing, while Trump’s win is another trauma (acute shock) to a different group of people. Gross concludes that, “If research on other collective traumas is any indication, it may take years, and a great deal of political imagination, for us to figure out where to go from here.”

I don’t know where to go from here. A good friend of mine from Biomimicry Australia, Jane Toner, suggested that perhaps those of us in biomimicry are already on the regeneration path of the adaptive cycle, while the old world is trying to conserve the status quo – a last grasp or gasp. Just like suppressing fire until a spark ignites that kills everything, or a waters that are channeled for so many miles that when the levees break the floods are catastrophic, I think we are in for one hell of a collapse and release stage of the cycle. The way we have been ignoring significant consequences of our current economic and social systems with the thought that future generations will brilliantly and seamlessly somehow figure it out, I’m guessing that Trump’s election and the other rumblings happening around the world (such as Brexit) are just the beginning of the current dynamics of increasing non-equilibrium. Forget the relative steady state. The question is, how will we prepare ourselves now to come out the other side of this cycle? What do we need to do to make sure our efforts at regeneration become the alternative?

How would nature do it?

Life deals with dynamic non-equilibrium all the time in a way that allows species to adapt to changing conditions, rebound from disruptions, and often take advantage of change. One Life’s Principle sums up nature’s overarching design principle (employed at all scales) for achieving resilience in the face of change – “embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization.”

But if we look to life more specifically regarding how to respond to, recover from or actually take advantage of disturbance, we can find numerous strategies at all scales. I’m thinking along the lines of my potential options – the urge to flee or or the reality of staying put. If you think of a fire in an ecosystem like a forest or a prairie, you have two general overarching scenarios that species have to deal with – those that can’t move (plants) and those that can (most everything but plants!).

We could all be animals that flee our homes. Perhaps I should migrate to another country for at least four years and come back when the system has rebounded enough that the resources I need are restored. Or maybe I flee and just don’t come back – make a new home somewhere else. But neither of these is easy, or even that appealing. Starting over somewhere new is really hard – new people, new cultures, new jobs, new systems and the risk that those systems may not be able to support me. And considering that the disruption we are facing will spill over beyond our borders, I’m not sure fleeing will work anyway.

Of course, for animals that can’t go far the reality of a charred landscape presents significant limitations – food gone, home possibly gone, cover vegetation gone. Risk of being picked off by predators? Waaaaaay up. It’s a dangerous world out there. But these animals aren’t the only ones staying put. Plants also can’t get up and run or fly away or hide, so they’ve developed an incredible array of adaptations to deal with and recover from a disturbance. So if we stay put and realize we can’t hide (even though we may want to!), what can plants teach us about dealing with and taking advantage of disruptions? Well, without going too in depth while still providing inspiration to keep keeping on, here are a couple thoughts.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons: A cypress prairie burns during a early spring prescribed fire, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
1 – Protect your roots.

Prairie plants have been dealing with fire for thousands of years. They have massive, deep, interconnected roots that store and share resources with wider communities within a rich soil. Those roots aren’t affected when fire burns off the exposed stalks, leaves and flowers. Thus they have sacrificial parts. But the part where life comes from – their roots – are protected underground where they continue to access stored resources and draw support from their community of plants, fungi, worms, ants and other microorganisms. Thus, it’s not just the individual plant roots that are protected, but their community and the associated life-giving resource flows are safe too. So in the face of this disaster, what can we sacrifice? And what must we as individuals and communities protect at all costs to continue living such that we can rebound from disruption?

2 – Have resources ready to sprout new growth in the sudden opening.

Whether it’s a new light gap in a forest or a fire in a prairie, disruption brings a new abundance of resources. The question is, how do plants prepare to take advantage of sudden new resources made available by disruption?

Some, such as pioneer tree species in the tropics, produce a boatload of small seeds that spread everywhere in the hopes that they will be there when that abundance of light occurs in a light gap – being in the right place at the right time. By increasing the number of seeds, the plant increases the chances of getting lucky…so, not so much leaving it to chance.

Others, like the giant sequoia, produce seeds that are triggered by disruption – in the giant sequoia’s case, fire – so that they initiate growth right away and beat others to the punch. The giant sequoias have fire resistant bark to protect the trees, and the rising heat from the fire causes the tiny cones high up in the canopy to open cones and litter seeds to a freshly cleared ground. Fires clear out underbrush and thus reduce competition for sunlight for the seedlings as well as a nice bed of fertilizer (ash).

And still others, like the aspen, have adapted to changing conditions by developing strategies that allow an aspen stand to actually benefit from disturbances such as fire, mudslides and avalanches. After a disturbance in which trees in an aspen stand die, the root system, which is continuous and protected underground, is untouched and able to immediately send up new suckers for rapid regrowth and recolonization, beating out other trees that may have been encroaching on the aspen stand. In addition, because one organism’s tree stand may cover a large area, portions of the mature tree stand may remain untouched by the disturbance. Lastly, seedlings from fertilized seeds will often germinate and grow after a disturbance.

So what are the opportunities with this disruption? What is our “sunlight”? What is our “ash”? E.g., what are the abundant resource(s) that will come out of the disruption ahead? (This is a tough one to imagine for me at the moment.) What are the low-investment “seeds” we can spread to increase the chance (and not rely on luck) that they will be in the right place to flourish after this disruption devastates our systems? How can we develop “seeds” or “suckers” that are triggered by disruption so they are ready to take advantage of the new opportunities, and how and what do we need to feed them to make sure they succeed?

3 – Finally, support diversity.

Invasive species often have more success in systems that are in decline or are disrupted, but it’s harder to get established in diverse, stable and thriving ecosystems (see Invasion Ecology by Julie L. Lockwood, Martha F. Hoopes, Michael P. Marchetti). Perhaps our institutional bureaucracy, while sometimes maddening because of its…bureaucracy, is perfect for thwarting quick change from sudden invasions like Trump. And perhaps the very diversity of our country’s citizens that Trump and his supporters seem to revile will provide significant enough resistance to make it less likely Trump will succeed in shoving unwanted and uncontested change down our throats. This diversity also forms the basis for something potentially totally new – in ecosystems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts are diverse and connected in myriad ways. In preserving and being grounded in our diversity, not only might we stop the inferno, but perhaps we might come up with something the world has never seen.

Where do we go from here?

Of course the above thoughts are relatively superficial. The next questions to take biomimicry to the next level are, how do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?

Any biologists out there who can help? We need you! Understanding how it’s done by fellow species is where the rubber hits the road and the really interesting learning begins. I’d love to hear your thoughts and have answers at the ready to take advantage of the pending abundance of resources after the crash. Let’s plan for regeneration.

Unleash the Warriors

…Still processing this week’s events. So I thought this week I’d share a video clip my good friend Mike shared today about a Tibetan prophecy I was unfamiliar with, in which I found inspiration and a bit of centering in thinking about my role as we shift into an uncertain future.

I also thought I’d share again the end of my biomimicry manifesto I wrote over a year ago. The time of an uprising has come sooner than I thought and probably from a place I wasn’t expecting.



I also love this image and quote –  it also inspired me today as it did when I first saw it.


In biomimicry we are all warriors on this path toward change, using our compassion and our knowledge that a life-centered approach is the only approach for the future if we are to make it through to the other side. If we act, we have a voice in determining the direction of our shared story. Let’s find strength in moving forward together. Are you with me?

How do I use #biomimicry?

Biomimicry is a concept so big that the possibilities seem endless. For this very reason, it might be hard to know where to start. Yet it turns out that for each and every project, the biomimicry processes are really the same. Of course there are varying depths to which a project team might go, and some examples of biomimicry really just scratch the surface while other more robust examples embody exactly why people get so excited about biomimicry.

In this post, I discuss two general general ways in which biomimicry is used. However, I feel I can’t proceed without first touching on how biomimicry at its core demands more than just pick-and-choose technology transfer from biological to human design.

Going Beyond the Technology Grab

I previously wrote about how biomimicry is the “emulation of nature’s genius” – i.e., learning from and applying the solutions embodied in other organisms to solve our own challenges. Per Biomimicry 3.8, captured in that simple statement are really three elements – the “Essential Elements” of Ethos, Reconnect and Emulate – that define what the term “biomimicry” encompasses.

Used with Permission from Biomimicry 3.8.

And while “Emulate” gets all the glory in the news media through reporting of research or commercial product innovations, the other elements of Ethos and Reconnect bring the conversation around from just emulation to the questions of, and solutions to, how we live on and in relation to this Earth. The biomimicry Ethos and Reconnect elements guide how we proceed during emulation. In other words, while it can be very impressive, it’s not enough to copy a “technology” from an organism and apply it to a product. It’s also a matter of taking the additional steps of learning and applying how that “technology” is achieved and why – learning from and emulating the materials, processes, systems – so that the interactions and relationships within and between human and non-human systems become more sustainable and resilient as well. Only then will we really begin our journey towards changing our human story, not just creating a headline-grabbing innovation.

This additional possibility that then hangs in the balance – this juxtaposition of what is now versus what could be – is what I think really ignites people’s imagination when they learn about biomimicry. Ceramics that are harder than anything we can make but are made at low temperatures with abundant materials using life-friendly chemistry in water? Whaaat? Can we do that? How do we do that? When can we do that? Why don’t we do that right now? Who’s working on that? Do you realize the energy savings? The human and environmental health benefits? Do you realize that entire supply chains will no longer exist? The complete shift in thinking it would require to understand how that manufacturing system would be structured?…” And the mind explodes… It’s powerful. And that’s just one example!

Thus biomimicry demands that the implementation methods described below must include not only a discussion about innovative technology, but also how sustainably that innovation can be sourced, produced, brought to market and brought back into the fold.

Implementation Methods

There are really two ways in which biomimicry is usually implemented. Most often, it’s presented as an innovation methodology, providing access to a treasure trove of untapped resources for inspiration. Another way it can be used is as a sustainability evaluation framework, although this is rarely, if ever, discussed in articles about biomimicry that I have read.

Innovation methodology

As an innovation methodology, the concept is relatively straightforward. This is the “emulate” portion of the Essential Elements wheel – you are trying to apply solutions found in nature to human challenges (not using the organisms themselves, but their strategies for solving for the problem). The process might start with a human challenge, or it could start with unique biological strategies that might solve any number of human challenges. In any example, at some point you are taking biological strategies and mechanisms that describe how the organism achieves that function, and translating that information into language designers/engineers/etc. (in any relevant field) can use and apply to their solutions. (Learn more about the biomimicry innovation methodology here).

I’ve found in my experience that many examples of biomimicry focus solely on form to achieve function. This is the most direct way to use biomimicry. It doesn’t require new materials or supply chains, and it often allows you to continue doing what you already do, but just do it much better (though it still can take years of research and development!). For example, a water bottle that is still a water bottle with all the issues that plague that topic, but a bottle nonetheless that uses less plastic. Or the often cited Shinkansen Bullet Train which is much quieter and efficient too. Examples like these are also visually appealing for people new to biomimicry because you can see the form translated to human design, achieving a function more effectively and efficiently. For some of these biomimicry applications, the jaw-dropping leaps in efficiency of some products can make them seem unreal. As Jay Harman described in The Shark’s Paintbrush – no one believed the science behind the products he presented because it was so radically different and more efficient, it didn’t seem possible to trained engineers.

But while impressive, many of these applications of biomimicry only get us so far towards disrupting our current unsustainable paradigms. It’s when you start getting into not only new forms but the materials that go into the form, and then the systems that support those raw materials and supply chains, that you really start to see completely radically innovative paradigms emerging that can deliver the same function, but in a completely new and much more sustainable way. The vaccine stabilizers from Nova Labs and the flame retardant from Trulstech are both examples of biomimetic products that not only rethink the technology, but present new paradigms for delivering the same services (functions) by also using totally different materials, supply chains, delivery mechanisms and product end-of-life health risks. Then you also have examples like the Sharklet technology that completely redefines our approach to bacteria management – shifting from often toxic chemicals to changing the micro surface structure!

“Sharklet is the world’s first technology to inhibit bacterial growth through pattern alone. The Sharklet surface is comprised of millions of microscopic features arranged in a distinct diamond pattern. The structure of the pattern alone inhibits bacteria from attaching, colonizing and forming biofilms. Sharklet contains no toxic additives or chemicals, and uses no antibiotics or antimicrobials.” – Sharklet Technologies, Inc. Photo credit: Ellas Levy on flickr (CC by 2.0)

This gradient of use of the biomimicry methodology is important. Innovation and design teams from startups to established companies have different constraints and opportunities to consider during the innovation process. But if given the opportunity, use of the biomimicry innovation methodology in which whole systems are considered and emulated can result in the types of striking paradigm shifts we need. The Nova Labs, Trusltech and Sharklet innovations are radical technologies. These and others like them are the promise of biomimicry.

Evaluation Framework

Throughout any design process that uses biomimicry, Life’s Principles (B3.8) or Nature’s Unifying Patterns (The Biomimicry Institute) should be used as an overarching set of design principles that help to evaluate a design against the rules for living sustainably and resiliently on this planet (the rules that say whether life will survive). They serve as guidelines for checking to see if, after all your translating of biology to design, your design really does hold up against the gold standard (because the natural model you’ve chosen by definition does exemplify these principles). Thus, in using these deep patterns in the biomimicry process we start to round out the discussion to bring in concepts of sustainability and resiliency into the design or project – the “ethos” portion of the Essential Elements wheel.

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

This step is important because it can drive a design team to dig deeper not only into the design, but also the context surrounding the design, including the materials going into it. Take the LP “Recycle all materials.” This applies not only to the materials going into the product, but the product at the end of its life cycle. Can you design it to be easily taken apart at the end of its useful life and recycled if there is more than one material involved? Can you get rid of materials in the design that can’t be recycled? Can you just use one recyclable material and change its properties to achieve function through structure? If there aren’t systems in place in cities to recycle your product, can you take it back and recycle and reuse it yourself? If you start to collect your products, are there others you can take as well? If you are using a recycled material like fishing nets collected from the ocean, what programs can you also put into place to change the system to disincentivize dumping of fishing nets into the ocean in the first place? And the questions go on!

There are 25 other LPs! They can really broaden your thinking if well understood and used throughout the process. They can also be used as a stand alone evaluation tool for any type of project, regardless of if you are using the innovation methodology. The LPs hit the usual sustainability points like using low energy processes, less material and non-toxic chemistry. But they also bring in many many other aspects of sustainability and resiliency that we don’t usually consider, such as incorporating feedback loops and appropriate response mechanisms, incorporating diversity, leveraging cyclic processes, building from the bottom up, and embodying resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization. All of these deep patterns contribute to sustainability, not just efficiency (which is what dominates the sustainability discussion today). Use of the deep principles as an evaluation framework can help broaden and strengthen the sustainability and resiliency of any project and product design.

It’s worthwhile to take the time to understand each LP or Unifying Pattern. At face value many are self-explanatory and you can easily begin to think about how they can inform your design. But others not so much! In later posts I’ll talk about the LPs. In the meantime, here is a great introductory blog post from Denny Royal at Azul 7 that covers how three LPs can start to inform design for user interactions.

When to use biomimicry

The biomimicry innovation methodology and evaluation framework can be used on any number of projects in any field. Within this broad range of course there are differing levels of complexity – trying to design a silent fan blade at high speeds is a completely different type of problem than trying to design a more resilient organization, redesigning a city’s water management systems, developing an education curriculum, creating a marketing strategy or trying to build ecosystem functions into your home and property. The translation of the biology to design in the innovation methodology process might be applied in a literal or metaphorical way. The possibilities are endless.

If you do not have a design or innovation project on hand but rather want to use a new evaluation framework based on the deep patterns that make life on Earth sustainable and resilient, the LPs are a great place to start. Bringing up sustainability issues that often are not considered when evaluating a project, the LPs can illicit a much more thoughtful conversation about how a project or service might be improved.

So while your use of biomimicry might be unique in the type of project or design you are looking to improve, the processes described above are the same.  

And always, the deeper your design team can try to go with emulating not just form, but also processes (like material manufacturing, product manufacturing processes, and delivery mechanisms) and systems – even redefining an approach to the entire paradigm – and can adhere to Life’s deepest patterns, the better chance your team will have of coming up with something radically new. Something that could change our story.  

So what’s your challenge?