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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s collaborate, have fun, use our collective expertise to help valuable movements like this one. Let’s change our story together!
Think “flame retardant” and your next thought would not likely be “cellular respiration” and “food”. Yet it turns out a process occurring all the time in our cells (in you right now!) has invaluable lessons that have the potential to radically shift the flame retardant industry through not only new technology, but a completely radical supply chain based on raw materials from food. Yes, that’s right, food. I’ll discuss the hows and whys in Part 3 of my #SystemReset series, and demonstrate the potential paradigm shift this solution represents.
As I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions in nature as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem and beyond but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functional needs of the product category.
Nobody’s dream of the future includes their house burning down. But the fact is there are gadgets and appliances and lights throughout our homes that have the potential to catch fire, and enough accidents occur that fire is a top five leading cause of accidental death worldwide. What burns? Homes, cars, airplanes, communications equipment…you name it. The response of course is to incorporate into or douse materials with flame retardants to slow the spread of fire to enable people to escape in time. Flame retardants can be found in mattresses, couches, carpet padding, curtains, flooring, composite materials, packaging, insulating materials, glues, fabric finishes and surface coatings, plastics (oh, so many plastics) and electronic components (think computers and TVs, including cords). Great news, right? Yes and no. While they can present a clear benefit in reducing the severity of a fire and increasing the time for escape from fire in our homes and places of work, some of the major classes of conventional flame retardants can pose significant human and environmental health risks.
Your mind might now be full of questions: So how is nature’s approach different from conventional flame retardants? And why do we even care? What alternatives are already out there and how is a biomimetic solution different? If a new group flame retardants shifts the flame retardant industry, what are the potential range of impacts? Let me tackle them one by one, and as always, leave a comment below to share thoughts, ask questions and continue the discussion!
The Dominant Design in Flame Retardants
The flame retardant industry is complex. The market is dominated by three major manufacturers of flame retardants – Israel Chemicals, Chemtura and Albemarle. The largest portion of the market demand comes from the construction industry and related building materials and interior finishes. Additional demand and anticipated growing markets include construction products, electrical and electronic products, wire and cable, motor vehicles, textiles, aircraft and aerospace (check out this report I drew this information from for more info on the industry). Flame retardants are used in an incredible variety of materials from foams to plastics, wood, fabrics, paper, insulation, paints, etc. Certain families of flame retardants are typically used on some types of materials and not others, depending on the material and flame retardant properties. This is no small industry, and the variety of applications is overwhelming.
Depending on the type of flame retardant and material being protected, flame retardants can make up anywhere from less than 1% to 30% of the content of a material. For example, cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. One of the challenges in creating a flame retardant is developing one that can be added to a host material without altering the properties of the host material. Because of this challenge, flame retardants are often added without chemical bonding to the host material. In addition, as some flame retardants contain volatile organic compounds, the chemicals off-gas during decomposition and evaporation (e.g., while they are sitting in your home, car and office). These challenges result in the potential for the flame retardant particles to migrate out of the host material and/or release gases into the environment.
If you’re like me, this all makes you wonder, how often and to what degree do you come into contact with flame retardants everyday? And, more importantly, what is your risk?
What are the risks?
People are primarily exposed to flame retardants in two ways – breathing it in (inhalation) or inadvertently eating it (ingestion). The flame retardants migrate out of the materials in our homes and collect in dust, which we breathe in and put in our mouths without knowing. Young children who are often on and/or close to the floor are particularly at risk of ingesting or breathing in dust containing flame retardants and are consistently found to have the highest levels of flame retardants in their systems, particularly in the Unites States. In a 2014 study of 40 child care centers in California, researchers discovered 100 percent of the centers contained both PBDE and non-PBDE flame retardant compounds, including tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)-phosphate, which was named as a presumed carcinogen in 1970 and banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977 (but not banned for other uses – facilities with foam furniture “significantly higher levels of PBDEs compared to those without foam products”).
These flame retardants not only contribute to development of cancer but are also linked to endocrine disruption, diabetes and hyperthyroidism; developmental problems for children such as decreased birth weight; neurological defects such as antisocial behavior, memory loss and lower IQ; undescended testicles; infertility in adults and DNA mutation (for information, check out these articles from the New York Times and Washington Post). (Anecdotally, it also makes me think about all the dogs I’ve known – you know, the ones with their noses sniffing and licking the floors of our houses – very few have died of anything other than cancer.)
When combusted, flame retardants can also degrade into even more highly toxic compounds such as dioxins, furans and formaldehyde. Primarily, it is the toxic smoke released by fires that kills or causes harm by attacking the respiratory systems of humans, posing the most significant risks to firefighters who breathe in the toxic smoke. A 2010 study in the UK revealed that at the same time that the increased use of synthetic polymers since 1955 was accompanied by an increase in fire deaths and injuries (peaking around 1980 at double the number of deaths and declining back to 1955 levels in the 2000s), the ratio of deaths from smoke and toxic gas inhalation increased by a factor of 20. As summarized in Chapter 4 of the book Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014), the conclusions drawn from the study were that the increase of deaths from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases occurred “at least in part by the higher fire toxicity of certain polymers, and particularly those containing gas phase flame retardants.”
The broad impact of flame retardants on human health due to the pervasiveness of fire retardants in homes is unknown, particularly in the United States where measurement of the amount of flame retardants in a typical United States home is measured in ounces and pounds. Despite the known toxicity of these chemicals, due to the structure of our political and regulatory system these flame retardants are placed onto the market without a thorough study of associated health risks. Several of the halogenated flame retardants (e.g., PBDEs, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and Tris-dibromopropyl phosphate) have been banned in the US and Europe, although they’ve been replaced by similar but unstudied organohalogen compounds. In the case of PBDEs, it “took nearly 40 years of exposure to PBDEs to accumulate sufficient evidence for action to be taken” (Chapter 4, Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014)). The question then remains, why should we wait for other flame retardants to be banned – why not replace them with safer alternatives?
Much information can be found on the internet regarding more information on health risks associated with flame retardants and preventative measures that can be taken in the home, car and workplace. A good resource is the Green Science Policy Institute, which conducts scientific research and focuses on reducing the use of flame retardants. They provide easy-to-understand information on their website. In addition, two books I referenced in this section and found useful (although highly technical) were Polymer Green Flame Retardants edited by Constantine D. Papaspyrides & Pantelis Kiliaris (2014), and Fire Toxicity edited by A. A. Stec and T. R. Hull (2010). Wikipedia also has a summary and list of major studies regarding the health risks of flame retardants.
Another good thing to know – California passed Technical Bulletin (TB) 117-2013 which went into effect January 1, 2014. TB 117-2013 states that manufacturers may transition from the open flame test process adopted and mandated in 1975 to the new methods for smolder resistance of cover fabrics, barrier materials, resilient filling materials, and decking materials for use in upholstered furniture. This means when you buy new furniture, you can find a tag on it that states whether or not the manufacturer used flame retardants to achieve compliance with flammability regulations.
The search for alternatives
Because of the known health risks of the aforementioned flame retardants, some in the flame retardant industry have been researching and moving towards more benign alternatives in recent years. In fact, according to an industry report, “Halogenated retardants, represented by bromine- and chlorine-based products, are being phased out across the globe due to their perceived environmental and human health risks, creating an opportunity for suppliers of alternative flame retardants to replace them.” Now is the time for market disruption.
As mentioned above, alumina trihydrate now makes up almost 40 percent of the US market demand, and this report also indicates that “non-halogenated phosphorus compounds and other types with more environmentally friendly profiles will benefit from industry efforts to forestall increased regulatory scrutiny.” (note, that quote was written pre- the 2016 U.S. presidential election). While more eco-friendly flame retardants can be less toxic in their use and during combustion than those mentioned above, many still have human and environmental health and safety impacts.
For example, alumina trihydrate is produced during aluminum production. Aluminum is found in bauxite ore which is found throughout the world in tropical and semitropical zones. Bauxite ore is largely mined in open cast mines (strip mines). This type of mining consists of clearing vegetation then stripping and storing the top layer of native soil, mining the top few meters of bauxite ore, replacing the native soil in the (now depressed) land and replanting vegetation (the last two steps are best practice but not always completed). Approximately 40-50 square kilometers of new land are cleared each year for bauxite mining.
Alumina is then refined from bauxite ore in a process known as the Bayer process. The Bayer process includes heating the ore in a solution of caustic soda, water and other chemicals depending on the ore, and precipitating out the aluminum from the rest of the ore. The crystallized alumina are chemically bonded to water, so the crystals are then heated to 2000 degrees F to separate the water from the alumina. The byproduct of the process is bauxite tailings. For every ton of alumina produced, approximately 1 to 1.5 tonnes of bauxite tailings are generated, or approximately 150 million tonnes in 2015.
While alumina trihydrate is found to be relatively benign as a flame retardant with respect to human health during use and combustion, the production of alumina trihydrate is less than benign. While the aluminium industry for many years has been trying to address environmental challenges throughout the industry, the reality is that production of new aluminum requires open cast mining which destroys habitat, creates dust and erosion, disrupts hydrology, and can have social justice issues; and processing which requires large amounts of water and energy, produces bauxite tailings which can pollute water and land, and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, if looking up the supply chain, the use of caustic soda presents its own problems – the process to produce caustic soda is energy intensive and can use significant amounts of mercury (depending on the process used), and necessarily generates equal amounts of chlorine, the majority of which is used to manufacture organic and inorganic compounds.
Therefore, while the industry and potentially health experts may be satisfied with the use of alumina trihydrate as a flame retardant, the negative environmental impacts associated with the product’s life cycle render the flame retardant as far from benign. The same might be true for other “eco-friendly” flame retardants such as one based on resorcinol bis(diphenyl phosphate). Many eco-friendly flame retardants are not yet on the market and need ongoing research to find scalable production and application methods, such as those made from dopamine, milk proteins or other bio-based materials.
Significant research is going into more eco-friendly flame retardant alternatives. But considering the significant health risks associated with conventional flame retardants, we need alternatives in the market sooner rather than later. And those alternatives that are not only eco-friendly in use but also in raw material production and manufacture could significantly shift the industry for the better.
Note – some efforts to find non-toxic flame retardants include research on using natural flame retardants sources from plants or animals. For example, one research effort discovered that milk proteins (caseins, found in whey, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing), when applied to certain fabrics, are effective flame retardants and do not produce toxic off-gassing during combustion. (A commercial application of this type of product, however, is not yet available). While this research uses natural chemicals and could possibly have potentially similar effect on the entire supply chain for the flame retardants it could possibly replace, this example is not biomimicry. However, all approaches that provide this type of paradigm-shifting research are valuable in the overall effort to shift away from flame retardants that are harmful to humans and/or the environment.
How would nature fight fire?
Nature deals with fire all the time, so many plants and animals have developed defenses to protect themselves against fire. What the function of fighting fire comes down to is avoiding combustion – by either sacrificing some part of their structures, deflecting, or slowing down and/or cooling a fire. One place you probably wouldn’t even think to look for knowledge about thwarting combustion is within each cell of our bodies. Cells need to convert nutrients into biochemical energy in a process known as metabolism – it’s how we grow. During metabolism, energy in the form of heat is generated basically rendering it a combustion reaction, and yet we don’t spontaneously combust! (Or at least melt into a puddle of goo.) Why is that?
It turns out that metabolic chemical reactions occur in separate steps in our cells, and while some steps generate heat (exothermic reactions), other steps absorb energy (endothermic reactions). During a key stage in the process – the citric acid or Krebs cycle – energy is generated through the oxidation of (or binding of oxygen to) acetates which is then captured as chemical energy in a molecule (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) and stored for later use as an energy source for other metabolic processes.
There are three main processes of the Krebs cycle that are applicable to the properties necessary for stopping fire. During the initial generation of energy in the Krebs cycle, carbon dioxide is released when acetate molecules are oxidized – thus taking away oxygen (fuel) and producing carbon dioxide (which does not burn). In addition, the process of capturing chemical energy in the formation of ATP is endothermic, meaning it absorbs energy, which results in cooling. Another relevant aspect of the Krebs cycle is that during the formation of ATP, water is formed which also has a cooling effect. Thus both functions of cooling and extinguishing are present in the Krebs cycle.
The “Flame Retardants from Food” solution
The Kreb’s cycle was an exciting revelation for innovation scientists and engineers working on an eco-friendly flame retardant at Trulstech, Inc. They had before them a proven, working example of a process in which oxygen and energy (e.g., heat) were consumed – just the steps that are necessary for putting out fires. So they asked, if this chemical process is happening all the time in our bodies, can we not only emulate the citric acid cycle chemical processes, but also develop the solution emulating the life-friendly chemistry so that the flame retardant is non-toxic and biodegradable? The answer is a big fat exciting YES!
Trulstech developed Molecular Heat Eater (MHE)®, a non-toxic, environmentally friendly and biodegradable flame retardant containing only food grade chemicals (in approved concentrations). Based on innovation technology emulating the Krebs cycle transfer of energy processes, MHE® both cools and extinguishes flames to stop the spread of fire in polymer, plastic and fiber materials. The MHE® technology solves key challenges posed by traditional flame retardants.
MHE® functions in multiple ways to slow or extinguish a fire. MHE® is specifically formulated according to the material physics of each host material (polymers, plastics, fibers) and its transfer of energy; specifically, MHE® is formulated according to what chemicals are released from the host material and at what temperatures this chemical breakdown occurs. The MHE® technology uses weak acids in combination with strong alkalis to create acidic complex salts. Additional carbon compounds are also added. When exposed to high heat, the salts are oxidized (meaning oxygen binds to the salts), effectively taking away the fire’s fuel (oxygen); carbon dioxide and water are released from the reaction. Carbon dioxide is a non-flammable gas and water has a cooling effect. In addition, MHE® is designed to bind to the host material at the specific temperature at which the host material starts to break down; this chemical binding is an endothermic or cooling reaction which absorbs energy, thus also lowering the temperature. For all materials, MHE® causes an intumescent or charring reaction in which the material swells as a result of the release of carbon dioxide and heat exposure, increasing in volume and decreasing in density. The char (carbon) is a poor conductor of heat thus retarding heat transfer to the unexposed material. The result is that the retardant can break the chain reaction, pyrolysis, which is a precondition for starting fire. The strategy of binding MHE® to the host material significantly reduces migration of the flame retardant into the environment.
MHE® is produced in biodegradable micro-sized particles that are applied in the form of a liquid, gel or powder. Trusltech does not produce powder below 2 microns in size because they do not want to make nanoparticles with potential health issues. The size range of 2 to 10 microns reduces the weight load because it increases the surface area of the flame retardant, thus speeding up the chemical reactions during exposure to heat (so less retardant is required). MHE® currently can be applied to most types of materials such as polyester, polyamide, PVC, polyurethane, bitumen, rubber, polyolefines, latex, cellulose-based materials, PVAc, PVA and lacquer. MHE®-treated materials have met flammability standards in markets around the globe.
True to the solution found in nature, life-friendly chemistry is used to produce MHE®. MHE® is manufactured using food grade chemicals in quantities acceptable to applicable regulatory entities and manufactured from raw materials such as grape pomace and citrus fruits. In the quantities used, these chemicals are harmless to humans, completely biodegradable in the environment, and do not break down into harmful substances when exposed to fire. In addition, because the raw materials are plant-based, the raw material life-cycle is carbon neutral. Food grade chemicals are also widely available in all markets, challenging the chemical industry’s grip on pricing and barriers to market entry. In this way, MHE® solves the risks to human health and the environment posed by other flame retardants on the market, and provides a completely alternative supply chain solution that is better for our environment. MHE® is currently on the market under the name Apyrum sold by Deflamo in Europe and the former Republics of the Soviet Union.
Impact on the flame retardant product category ecosystem
As noted above, raw materials for MHE® are sourced from food products, the products are harmless when used in approved quantities during raw material sourcing, production, manufacture, use and disposal – the MHE® alternative literally provides a different approach or indirect impact on pretty much the entire product category ecosystem and associated goods and services.
Raw materials are sourced from food, even waste products of food that can be sourced local to the production facility – a far cry from the supply chain needed for producing the raw materials for flame retardants with mineral, organic and inorganic compounds. Industries affected by this shift would include the aluminum mining industry, chlorine producers (who also happen to produce caustic soda), petrochemical manufacturers and their supply chains…you get the picture. The supply chain for this type of flame retardant has the potential to shift value from the conventional supply chain players to local farmers, adding value to local communities.
Worker safety is improved and exposure to toxic chemicals is reduced at all stages of production. As MHE® is mixed into the host material at the chemical manufacturer plant, material manufacturers have lower costs because they no longer require the equipment to mix the flame retardant and material on site, store toxic flame retardant and catalyst chemicals, maintain associated complex environmental regulatory compliance or pay the high cost for disposal of toxic chemicals.
Of course consumers benefit greatly by this type of flame retardant due to decreased health risks – reduced long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and even more toxic gases in the case of exposure to smoke from a fire. In complementary goods and services, the health industry would be impacted in the long run as costs associated with care for the significant health impacts associated with conventional flame retardants would be non-existent. Flame retardants in this family of chemicals that are combusted in a fire remain non-toxic when they turn to into a gas phase, and health impacts associated with smoke inhalation go down. In addition, if a product never catches fire, the flame retardant will eventually biodegrade, leaving no negative impact on the environment.
Not surprisingly, Trulstech has had limited success in gaining the interest of well-established, vertically integrated flame retardant manufacturers. With a racially disruptive technology, Trulstech is searching for different leverage points to disrupt the market. It can’t happen soon enough!
With an estimated 2.8 million metric tons of flame retardant produced annually by 2018, and with halogenated products being phased out due to their human and environmental risks, there is an opportunity for disruption as alternative flame retardants fill the void. Adoption of flame retardants like MHE® thus has the potential to radically shift the flame industry landscape with completely new science that enables effective resistance to combustion at a competitive cost without causing harm to humans or the environment. Talk about a complete #SystemReset!
I would love to see the life-cycle comparison of MHE® with conventional flame retardants, including alumina trihydrate, to understand the full economic and environmental impact at an industry scale of this paradigm shift if taken to scale. Check out this example of LCAs on flame retardants – the last few slides referencing the UK study I understand to include an LCA of MHE – would love to see it! But while this is fantastic, I want to try to grasp the full impact of shifting the entire industry. What would this world look like? Can we paint a clear picture? Any takers?? Let’s put real numbers to this #SystemReset.
While walking in the grocery store last Sunday, the shelves were empty in several places where they hadn’t been restocked. The bare shelves were just a reflection of a busy day, but the thought crossed my mind, what if access to choice in foods was like this everyday? I am lucky – spoiled rotten really – but for many in my own country, let alone around the world, food insecurity is a reality. (Food insecurity is the set of circumstances that prevent your access to food such as lack of money, unemployment, lack of access to transportation and health problems)
Can you imagine being hungry everyday? Or knowing that you can buy food now, but at the end of the month when your bank account runs dry, you may have to send your kids to school hungry? Or choosing between (for the same price) a box of processed mac ‘n’ cheese that could feed your family and a healthy apple that could only be a snack? Or stand in a long line to pick up free food from a food pantry two days after you ran out of food? Food insecurity has no race, ethnicity or class. This is happening to people in your own community, maybe to your unemployed neighbor who lost their job 6 months ago. It breaks my heart and nags at me. So I thought I’d share my experience with using biomimicry to develop solutions to this problem in the hopes I might inspire you to do the same with something you care about.
Art of Science Learning Innovation Incubator
To someone who loves food in a country with an excess of it (approximately ⅓ of our food goes to waste), the fact that approximately 1 in 6 people in the US aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal will come from is simply abhorrent. For this reason and to expand my skills in the innovation process for a good cause, I participated in the 2014 Art of Science Learning (AoSL) year-long Chicago Innovation Incubator focused on urban nutrition challenges.
The innovation incubator was a lesson in the innovation process, but even more than that, I increasingly realized through the weekly presentations by a wide variety of people working on this issue in Chicago that extremely well-intentioned knights riding in on white horses with solutions aimed at helping communities most often really don’t change anything in the long term. Change must be fostered, generated and supported from within communities to be sustained. Bringing in fresh food into a neighborhood doesn’t change the neighbor’s employment status, transportation options, nor the food choices that person makes. In short, the underlying challenges that cause food insecurity and sustainable affordable access to fresh foods are still there, even after the knights ride off into the sunset.
How would nature…?
It just so happens that I started my Biomimicry Professional program in the fall of 2013, and started my first biomimicry thinking course in January 2014. To, as Dayna Baumeister likes to say, “feed two birds with one scone”, I used my biomimicry thinking homework to find natural models that might inform and inspire my brainstorming around urban nutrition challenges in the innovation incubator. I was not disappointed.
I started out with the question, How does nature self-organize to create a complex ecosystem? After my biological model brainstorming, I settled on mychorrizal fungal networks. Mycorrhizal fungal networks (“mycorrhizal networks “) provide the foundational structure in which feedback loops allow diverse species to interact and direct resources where needed, resulting in a complex self-organized ecosystem. Mycorrhizal networks consist of interconnected mycelium of any number of fungus species that also connect the roots of different plants. The mycorrhizal network fungi obtain part of all of their carbon from the plant species linked into the network, while the plants obtain and the nutrients the mycelium take up through the soil, resulting in a mutualistic relationship.
A prime example of this relationship between the networks and plant species is the presence of mycorrhizal networks in the interior Douglas-fir (Pseudostuga menziesii var. glauca) forests of North America. The networks play an integral role in these self-organized complex, adaptive systems. The mycorrhizal networks, which connect most trees in a dry interior Douglas-fir forest, provide a shared infrastructure through which the network shuttles carbon, nutrients or water from older to young trees according to need through positive and negative feedback loops. The largest, oldest trees serve as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Survival of these establishing trees is greatly enhanced when they are linked into the mycorrhizal network of the old trees as seen particularly after a disturbance in the subsequent self-organization that occurs to regenerate the forest facilitated by the foundational mycorrhizal network. (1)
The example of the mycorrhizal network’s role in the Douglas-fir ecosystem can be extrapolated to other ecosystems as well – the networks provide an incredible tool through which distinct species can interact and share resources according to need.
The deep function of this network that I focused on for the urban nutrition challenge was the redistribution resources. In a nutshell (design principle), the use of positive and negative feedback loops to facilitate efficient exchange and redistribution of resources according to need to diverse entities via an interconnected network that contains dispersed resource-rich hubs results in the emergence of more stable, resilient communities and allows for rapid regeneration after periods of disturbance.
The biomimicry-based solution
Understanding mycorrhizal network design principles in combination with Life’s Principles gave me a unique perspective on the challenges that no one else in the program came to on their own. Being a systems thinker, the ideas I brainstormed from this design principle were grand, and included an internet-based platform that facilitated transparent real-time exchange of fresh foods (aka, resources) from a wide variety of producers to a wide variety of consumers (diverse species) on a regional scale (ecosystem). (To be more aligned with ecosystem functions, I also think facilitation of movement of organic materials for composting within the same regional scale on the same platform would help to close the material loops!).
I focused on the idea that seedlings have a better survival rate when tapped into the network, and that feedback loops signaling the need for resources to resource hubs and subsequent delivery of those resources improves chances for survival. The platform could benefit different scales – business startups and individuals needing to tap into the system. The platform would enable startups to find and tap into resources from and develop relationships with established resource hubs within the region. At the individual level, the platform would provide the link to enable people to find where fresh food is being sold within a defined area when they are looking for it, rate fresh foods at different locations, alert people when food had run out (if earlier than the stated time of sale), etc. Further developing how this communication platform would work at all levels would allow for self-organization of the system to efficiently distribute resources – the development and growth would come from within the system.
Many, many people are working to reduce food waste on the delivery side and are making impressive strides in this area. But we figured while it’s great to make more food available for free that would otherwise be wasted, if few people know it’s there, have you really achieved anything? So to meet our goal of developing a minimally viable product within the incubator’s timeframe, we focused in on one critical aspect of the food system that most looking to solve urban nutrition challenges and food waste do not focus on – the consumer’s ability to know where food is when they need it.
As indicated above, survival of young trees is improved when they are tapped into the mycorrhizal fungal network. If, using this metaphor of the the internet as the fungal network and individual people as trees, being tapped into the network that serves as the pathway for getting resources is critical to one’s survival, especially in hard times. The reality is that many people living with food insecurity and hunger do not have the means or access to be tapped into our food system, and therefore suffer the consequences.
After our team dug deeper, we found out that there is not a viable quick way to let these same people know where food will be, and when it will be there. Word of changes to food pantry schedules, new urban farm stands and farmers markets, new businesses, must mainly be spread through word of mouth and through community bulletin boards. This inefficiency in communication hinders people’s ability to know if and where food is available when they need it. It also potentially hinders food pantry and urban farmer’s ability to give away or sell all their food, resulting in a loss of potential to reduce food waste or grow local homegrown businesses. In addition, the fact that for most people food insecurity is cyclical, meaning it might just be a few months that people need help spread out over a year. So being up-to-date about opportunities to access free or affordable local fresh food can be difficult when the person is only looking for resources on a sporadic basis (due to a “disturbance” in his/her life).
Our idea targeted this disconnection and provided a way to bring people back into their local fresh food system using technology already available to the targeted group. A real-time communication platform that facilitates the distribution of information (instead of the distribution of food itself) from those who have it to those who need it, enables users to meet their own needs on their own parameters. Again, looking at two scales, it facilitates the establishment of businesses such as urban farms or facilitate the ability of food pantries to fulfill their mission by increasing their ability to communicate directly with consumers previously outside of their communication channels, increasing sales or people reached. At the smaller scale, individuals increase their ability to find food when they need it in their local area, supporting local added value. The communication platform does not dictate anything, but enables the community to self-organize, strengthening feedback loops around who is providing food, who is looking for food, what kind of food they are looking for, and when they need it. This presents the opportunity to create conditions to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system (the “Self-organize” life’s principle).
For this reason we developed a MVP for a communication platform that enables people to get updates and reminders about where food will be and when it will be there, using existing technology currently available to a majority of people in this situation (e.g., if we developed a mobile app, and only 20% of our target audience had smart phones, we would fail to bring our target audience into the system). The tool would be flexible and allow people to create their own parameters for what and when and how they wanted to receive information. After talking and working with food pantries and consumers to beta test our idea, we realized we had developed a prototype that hit upon a real unmet need in the market.
The reality of the innovation process
So what happened? Our team did not have the time (for reasons specific to each of us – existing careers, school, family, etc.) to put into making this product a reality, and figuring out viable funding scenarios was difficult. Without a dedicated champion to move it forward, the idea and work we did fizzled.
I also found that being the only person who understood the biology and method I had used to generate the initial ideas, it was difficult to continue to use the biomimicry methodology and science to further inform, develop and expand upon the idea. I think if I had worked with a team receptive and interested in using biomimicry, we could have arrived at an even more well-rounded solution. As I have said before, using high-level design principles is great for ideation, but really understanding the biology from the beginning – taking the time to be very specific about each piece, particularly when working with system challenges – creates a depth of understanding and true potential for innovative ideas that might change the world. This gives me hope.
Were I to go back and revisit this effort (with a willing team!), I would begin again with doing a deep dive into exactly (as far as scientists currently know) how these mycorrhizal fungal networks work – what resources are being shared, how signaling works, how the interface between the roots of plants and the fibers of fungus functions, etc. I would then compare that to the work I did to understand our food system components and their interactions and be very detailed about the metaphors I would draw between the two systems. In doing that, the differences in functions, strategies and mechanisms – and the potential for our system to function differently and perhaps better for all involved – would emerge. It would then of course be up to us to make it happen.
So if you are thinking of using biomimicry to help solve a challenge such as for the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge on Climate Change, I encourage you to find a team from the start that is on board with using the biomimicry methodology and start with and stick to the science as you develop your idea. It’s not easy, and certainly factors way beyond the innovation methodology can and do scuttle a project. But if we keep trying, we just might change our story.