Tag: global design challenge

Inspiration to Brainstorming: Biomimcry Global Design Challenge – Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature's model

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

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

Human model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, so many more questions than answers! 🙂

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

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

Looking for Inspiration? Biomimcry Global Design Challenge: Climate Change

Photo: Half-Seeded Dandelion, Wikipedia

A couple years ago I did a project where I looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? In light of the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge focus on climate change, I thought I’d share what I found in the hopes it inspires the innovation we so urgently need in this area.

Aside from two weeks of frigid temperatures and snow in December, I’m not sure winter is coming to Chicago this year. People I talk to around the world have anecdotes that are similar – weather patterns are just not the same. And as we all know, despite our current government’s attempt to silence its own scientists, the notion of climate change does not rest on anecdotes but on solid science. And the science tells us that climate change is accelerating. Whether we choose to “believe” it or not is irrelevant. The question is, what are we going to do about it? (For a description of how humans are impacting global climate cycles, see my previous post.)

To be a part of the solution, the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge (currently ongoing – deadline April 30!) is focused on climate change. They have two general categories for which they are looking for innovations:

  • Helping communities adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts (i.e. those forecasted or already in motion), and/or
  • Reversing or slowing climate change itself (e.g. by removing excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere).

These are not small challenges. Where does one start?

Because these problems are so complex and will require systemic changes that are comprised of behavioral changes from the individual to system levels, breaking down the challenge into more specific areas of inquiry can help challenge teams focus on biologized questions that might give a team natural models that will inspire concrete results. When brainstorming natural models it’s important to look at all scales, from single organisms to ecosystems. Diversity in scale and context can begin to provide a better picture of how individual behaviors add up to system dynamics, and potentially give innovative insights into critical leverage points in the system.

A sampling of biological models for adaptation

A couple years ago I did a team project where we looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? I came up with the following natural models and design principles. I hope these might help you and your team in your challenge innovation process!

Click on the title of each box to link to summaries of the strategies and key references I used to develop these design principles provided farther below. Please feel free to reach out to me for more information on any of these biological models.

Photosynthetic Plasticity Enables Rapid Acclimation: CAM Plants

Biological strategy

Photosynthetic plasticity enables CAM plants to acclimatize in response to dynamic environments through a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible photosynthetic processes.

Design Principle

Employ a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible resource management methods that activate or deactivate in response to short-term variations in resource availability enabling survival during periods of scarcity and exploitation of resources during periods of abundance.

Phenotypic Plasticity Maintains Fitness: Dandelion

Biological strategy

Phenotypic plasticity of the dandelion maintains fitness across a wide variety of light intensity environments by modifying structural, chemical and reproductive traits in response to local light levels.

Design Principle

Modifying structural, chemical and growth mechanisms in response to energy intensity levels enables optimized access to and use of available energy resources across a wide variety of systems.

Plant Maximizes Water Utilization: Creosote

Biological strategy

The Creosote bush maximizes water utilization by adjusting growth patterns, chemical processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable water availability, enabling survival under severe drought.

Design Principle

Maximize resource utilization by adjusting growth patterns, vital functional processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable resource availability, enabling survival under severe resource scarcity.

Native Symbiotic Structures Increase Fitness: Fungi

Biological strategy

Plants and fungi co-adapted in nutrient-poor native soils increase their fitness by developing more expansive symbiotic structures to maximize uptake and exchange of scarce resource(s) most limiting to growth.

Design Principle

Local entities adapted to resource-limited environments increase success by developing more expansive symbiotic local resource uptake networks and exchange nodules specifically designed to maximize access to and availability of the local resource(s) most limiting to growth.

System Development Process Secures Scarce Nutrients: Ecological Succession

Biological strategy

The process of ecological succession secures increasingly scarce nutrients by establishing progressively complex interdependent structures and processes that increasingly minimize nutrient outflow and lock up nutrients in organic matter that stays within the system, resulting in a closed-loop nutrient cycling system.

Design Principle

Secure increasingly scarce resources by establishing progressively complex interdependent system components that increasingly minimize resource outflow and incorporate resources into system component materials that do not leave the system, resulting in a closed-loop resource cycling system.

CAM Plants

Diagram_CAM Plants_strategyWhile most plants open their pores during the day to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air to conduct photosynthesis (converting sunlight energy to sugars needed for growth) in a process called C3, CAM plants open up their pores and take in CO2 at night when conditions are cooler and more humid to reduce by approximately one-tenth the amount of water loss that occurs when pores are open. CAM plants then store the CO2 until daylight when photosynthesis occurs in sunlight behind closed pores. There are four phases identified in the CAM process, and depending on environmental conditions, CAM plants may employ all four phases including opening their pores in early and late daytime light (in times of sufficient water) or only one phase when the pores never open day or night (in severely dry conditions). CAM plants from desert habitats, such as cactuses and succulents, where intense permanent stressors are intense heat, sunlight and lack of water, have evolved very little variation in their use of CAM – even when moved to more humid habitats they still open their pores only at night.

However, CAM plants adapted to dynamic environments where conditions are variable, such as orchids living on tree branches in the tree canopy in tropical forests, have the ability to modify the CAM phase they are expressing in response to changing environmental stresses, sometimes within a matter of hours. Some CAM plants (CAM/C3 intermediates) are also able to switch completely from using the CAM process to using the C3 photosynthetic process in response to environmental conditions. Stressors in the environment which might trigger changes in process include interactions between temperature, sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, nutrients and sometimes salinity. The photosynthetic plasticity of tropical CAM plants allows fast, flexible and readily reversible responses to allow for acclimation in response to dynamic stresses enabling CAM plants to occupy many niches with high species diversity in a wide range of tropical habitats where resource availability is variable.


Lu¨ ttge U. 2010. Ability of crassulacean acid metabolism plants to overcome interacting stresses in tropical environments. AoB PLANTS 2010: plq005, doi:10.1093/aobpla/plq005. Epub 2010 May 13. doi:  10.1093/aobpla/plq005

Borland, et.a al. 2011. The photosynthetic plasticity of crassulacean acid metabolism: an evolutionary innovation for sustainable productivity in a changing world. New Phytol. 2011 Aug;191(3):619-33. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03781.x. Epub 2011 Jun 16.

Kluge, M., Razanoelisoa, B. and Brulfert, J. (2001), Implications of Genotypic Diversity and Phenotypic Plasticity in the Ecophysiological Success of CAM Plants, Examined by Studies on the Vegetation of Madagascar1. Plant Biology, 3: 214–222. doi:10.1055/s-2001-15197

Osmond, CB. 1978. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism: A Curiosity in Context. Annual Review of Plant Physiology. Vol.29:379-414 (Volume publication date June 1978) doi:10.1146/annurev.pp.29.060178.002115




Dandelions are able to survive under a wide variety of environments. Dandelions most often produce seeds without needing a pollinator, resulting in offspring that are clones (genetically identical) of the parent plant. Therefore, their ability to be significantly adaptive to local environments rests not in changes occurring at the genetic level but as a result of their phenotypic plasticity – i.e., their ability to change their structural and functional traits in response to the limiting (scarce) resources in a local environment. Trait changes may include altering traits such as photosynthetic processes, leaf angles, and flowering time. In response to decreasing availability of light in shaded understories, dandelions produce significantly longer, more rounded “shade” leaves with a greater surface area to collect scarce light resources; taller flower stems to increase access to potential pollinators; and they speed up the time it takes to flower, create and disperse mature seeds.


Molina-Montenegro, M.A., Peñuelas, J., Munné-Bosch, S. et al. “Higher plasticity in ecophysiological traits enhances the performance and invasion success of Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) in alpine environments.” Biol Invasions (2012) 14: 21. doi:10.1007/s10530-011-0055-2



Diagram_Creosote_strategyCreosote is the most drought-tolerant plant in North America, using a wide range of adaptations to live in harsh habitats where sometimes it is the only plant living. Creosote can live with no rain at all for more than two years and individuals can live to be thousands of years old. Creosote essentially maintains two mechanisms for growth and reproduction to maximize utilization of a scarce resource – through an annual growing season when rains are typically present (in the spring), and opportunistically when brief rains occur at other times of the year.

Under extremely dry conditions, Creosote is able to continue to grow and reproduce with minimal water loss. In decreasing water availability, the bush is able to adjust its osmotic potential significantly lower, meaning it increases chemical concentrations in its leaves which increases its ability to move water from soil to roots to leaves (but is also taxing on the plant). The extremely low osmotic potential enables the bush to draw water up to its leaves from underground sources through its deep “tap” root (up to about 10 feet in depth). With a low osmotic potential the leaf cells are able to maintain enough water to continue with reduced photosynthesis such that the plant continues to grow and even flower in drought, albeit in a limited capacity. In periods of water stress Creosote allocates resources to reproduction at a cost to vegetative growth.

However, the Creosote bush is also able to quickly capitalize on brief rains when they occur. Creosote has a second thin fibrous root pattern that exists just under the soil surface that can spread out up to 50 square yards from the base of the plant. New cell growth on these surface roots are incredibly efficient at soaking up surface water, appearing to grow inches in day. With the sudden increase in water availability, Creosote is able to adjust its osmotic potential appropriately and increase photosynthesis and thus growth, including a quick burst of flowering. In addition, the bush will continue at an accelerated growth rate while water is available, allocating additional resources towards vegetative growth. Because Creosote blooms both seasonally and opportunistically, plants during late summer monsoons can be putting out new shoots, blooming, and setting seed at the same time. Once the water is gone, the plant will again adjust growth and chemical processes to withstand drought conditions.


MEINZER, F. C., RUNDEL, P. W., SHARIFI, M. R. and NILSEN, E. T. (1986), Turgor and osmotic relations of the desert shrub Larrea tridentata. Plant, Cell & Environment, 9: 467–475. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3040.1986.tb01762.x

Sharifi, M. R., et al. “Effect of Manipulation of Water and Nitrogen Supplies on the Quantitative Phenology of Larrea Tridentata (Creosote Bush) in the Sonoran Desert of California.” American Journal of Botany, vol. 75, no. 8, 1988, pp. 1163–1174., www.jstor.org/stable/2444099.


Mycorrhizal Fungi

Diagram_Mychorrhizal symbioses_strategyPlants and fungi that co-adapt in nutrient-poor native soils improve their survival and reproduction by developing larger mutually beneficial structures to maximize uptake and exchange of the locally scarce resource(s) that are most limiting to growth. Fungi grown in the soils in which they have evolved grow larger fibrous branching growth structures for nutrient uptake and many more resource exchange nodules on the roots of plants also adapted to the same local nutrient-poor soils. These fungi structures are specifically adapted to maximize the exchange of the limiting resources in their local soil conditions. For example, if phosphorus is scarce in home soils, the fungi develop large structures to maximize the uptake and exchange of phosphorus with their host plants. However, if this same fungi were moved to a foreign soil location where nitrogen was scarce and most limiting to growth, the fungi would not only develop fewer growth and exchange structures, but would still maximize uptake of phosphorus, thereby not maximizing the survival and reproduction of plants deficient in nitrogen in the foreign soil. Therefore, survival and reproduction of plants and fungi is greatly increased when plants and fungi are grown together in their home soils because of their strategy to mutually maximize the uptake and exchange the locally limiting resource(s).


Collins Johnson, Nancy, et al. “Resource limitation is a driver of local adaptation in mycorrhizal symbioses.” PNAS, vol 107 no. 5, February 2, 2010, pp.2093-2098. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906710107

Klironomos, J. N. (2003), Variation in Plant Response to Native and Exotic Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi. Ecology, 84: 2292–2301. doi:10.1890/02-0413

Ecological Succession


Diagram_Ecological succession_strategy

Ecosystem development following a disturbance where no life is present (such as after lava flows) is called primary succession. At the start of primary succession, nutrients necessary for plant life are locked up in the bedrock (such as phosphorus) or in the air (such as nitrogen). Pioneering plants that are first on the scene are able to tap into these nutrients by fracturing and wedging into rocks with their root systems. As soils develop around the plant roots from a buildup of decaying plant and weathered rock materials, these pioneering plants also fix nitrogen from the air to the soils. At this stage, however, a high rate of decomposition due to higher temperatures from sun exposure breaks down nutrients in the system at a high rate. Many of the nutrients gathered on site are lost in surface water runoff and leaching as the soils are shallow and not well compacted. As additional abundant quick-growing, quick to seed plants are established, the increasing soil layer serves to reduce water runoff and promote the slow percolation of water, increasing the availability of water and nutrients. Decomposition (breaking down) of organic matter, plant roots and soil organisms add carbon dioxide to soils, helping to increase the acidity of soils which serves to break down minerals into nutrients available for uptake by plants.

Once enough nitrogen is present in soils, an additional diversity of plants start to grow on site. Increasing diversity of plant (and animal) life results in an increasing variety and density of physical structures including leaf sizes, height of plants, and roots structures. The more complex system structure is increasingly able to absorb additional gases from the air while also creating deeper, more compact soils that trap nutrients on site. In addition, with the increasing canopy of leaves and larger root volumes, water runoff is again decreased not only because the soils are able to hold more water, but because the plants also return water as vapor to the air, decreasing the amount of water making it down to the soil and flowing off site. Decreased runoff decreases the loss of nutrients. However, due to the high rate of nutrient loss (particularly phosphorus) during primary succession, and as more species colonize the site, fewer nutrients are available relative to the increasing organic matter on site. The increasing resource scarcity results in increasing competition as well as mutualisms between organisms to gain access to increasingly scarce nutrients. Plants that grow more slowly and are able to capture nutrients in their roots and mass, such as shrubs and trees, gain competitive advantage and push out the smaller, faster-growing, nitrogen-fixing plant species.

As ecological succession continues toward a mature state where species diversity is greatest but nutrients limiting to growth are scarce, nutrients become locked up in the soils and plant and animal matter, with the highest amount of nutrients locked up in decomposing matter like leaf litter. At this stage the ecosystem structure has mature trees that block much of the sunlight making it down to the forest floor, which slows the rate of decomposition as well as reduces water loss. The rarest of nutrients necessary for plant growth, such as phosphorus, are cycled tightly within the ecosystem’s physical and chemical structures. This type of nutrient cycling is considered “closed loop”, meaning the loss of nutrients is minimized and the diverse array of species in all niches of the ecosystem take part in the upcycle of nutrients throughout the system again and again. By locking up scarce resources necessary for life within the ecosystem structure, the system avoids collapse.


Allenby, B. R. and Cooper, W. E. (1994), Understanding industrial ecology from a biological systems perspective. Environ. Qual. Manage., 3: 343–354. doi:10.1002/tqem.3310030310

Gorham, Eville, et al. “The Regulation of Chemical Budgets Over the Course of Terrestrial Ecosystem Succession.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 10, 1979, pp. 53–84., www.jstor.org/stable/2096785.