The more I think about the challenges facing us (humanity) and the opportunities to use biomimicry for innovation in the built environment, the more I believe that we can come up with super cool solutions using biomimicry for any challenge, but unless the fundamental assumption of everyone at the design table is that our built environment is dependent upon, participates in and can support thriving local ecosystems, we will produce solutions that will ultimately fall short of embodying the shift we want and need to see in the way we live life on this planet.
I also believe that once designers come to the table with a basic scientific understanding of our entwinement with the life around us, a whole new world of creative opportunity opens up to not just design and build a structure that solves for human needs, but rather design and build a multifunctional, responsive structure that is a participant in a complex web of life. The next question then becomes, what else can the structure do?! Biologists at the design table can help work with designers to answer that question.
There is incredible thought leadership and work being done around the world to try to reconcile how we can put into words and practice these ideas of shifting a built environment designed to sit upon a landscaped into one that lives within it. The related articles at the end of this post were shared with me by biomimicry colleagues (thanks Josh Stack, Jane Toner and Norbert Hoeller!) and are on my reading list to help me wrap my head around how these ideas fundamentally change our approach and how we move forward.
My thought is, imagine if a region could get together to establish that fundamental assumption for itself – bringing together designers and decision-makers from all functions and scales of the built environment to agree that all design should strive to support fundamental ecosystem functions using local native ecosystem metrics. Each participant in this collective leadership could influence their own piece of the puzzle (playing out in various industries and scales) while at the same time considering and building in mechanisms for how their piece fits into, can respond to and support the whole. Can it be done?
At Biomimicry Chicago we are boldly imagining such a future for the Chicago region through our Deep Roots Initiative which we are kicking off with our Deep Roots Workshop April 21. We want to explore these ideas and see if/how we can put these ideas to practice. There is incredible work being done in Chicago in trying to address multiple challenges having to do with various ecosystem functions at multiple scales. We have an opportunity to come together to understand how they are all interrelated from an ecological perspective, define what is ecologically “sustainable” for the region and set an overarching framework of goals to strive for. Our subsequent measures of progress as we intentionally restore ecosystem functions in our built environment will then have a scientific basis for assessing whether or not we as a region are truly on the path toward “sustainability.”
The more minds thinking about this, the better. I encourage you to feel free to share more resources in the comment thread below. Only together can we change our story!
When I launched into my #SystemReset series last fall, I felt pretty good about the information I had about the context of three product categories (plastics, flame retardants and anti-bacterials). But some systems are more complex than others, and certainly the fire retardant industry is complex and technical – I’ve been slowed by research that leads me into ever-deepening circles of inquiry! And, of course, me being me I want to make sure I’ve got it right. So, instead of sharing my own work this week, I wanted to share with you great work by other people – a super helpful video shared this week that helps to expand our understanding of the biomimicry process, as well as a couple of fascinating books coming out this spring. Check them out!
Biologically Inspired Design for Industry: An Evolving Practice
I found this webinar to provide a thorough and helpful case study example from Kimberly-Clark of how this team has been shifting biomimicry from idea to implementation, and the lessons learned. Of course, I’ve included a permanent link on my Resources page.
The Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) at Georgia Tech, in combination with Kimberly-Clark Corporation, recently completed two biologically inspired design projects. These projects successfully generated two new active research lines for improving product performance. Join Michael Helms, PhD, from Georgia Tech, and Marsha Forthofer, Kimberly-Clark, to learn more about the projects and discuss the conditions that enabled (and inhibited) the success of the projects including:
expectation setting across different design domains
design team knowledge and skill requirements
translating biological concepts into actionable, funded research
New Books Spring 2017
Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World
My friend, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD, has authored a book about her area of expertise – superorganisms – and what we can learn from them. Drawing on fundamental lessons learned from multiple superorganisms, she provides insight into how organizations can restructure to be adaptable, resilient and integral to the functioning of a system.
The most successful species are those that adapt to change, and the same is true in business. But there are limits to vertical growth, and our hierarchical structures can only grow so tall before complexity and instability overwhelm them. Today’s global organizations need a new way to sense and respond to change. Earth’s most ancient and successful societies – the ants and termites, and vast fungal networks underground – have already solved the problem. For hundreds of millions of years, they have worked in huge cities – tens of millions strong – compounding their wealth from one generation to the next with no management whatsoever. With just four simple principles – Collective Intelligence, Distributed Leadership, Swarm Creativity, and Regenerative Value – Teeming shows how these simple individuals pool their diverse and independent experiences to create rich hotspots of abundance and exquisite resilience to change. We can do it too.
Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming
Not biomimicry per se although the premise of the idea is that we need to balance our carbon cycle like the rest of life does (and Dayna Baumeister of Biomimicry 3.8 is a Scientific Advisor!), but I am excited to see what comes out of the research Project Drawdown has done over the last few years in the book that will summarize it all, Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming. Considering the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge focus is on climate change, it will be fascinating to learn from the winners of the competition what biomimicry might add to the list of approaches we can use to balance our carbon cycle. Let’s do this!
To be clear, our organization did not create or devise a plan. We do not have that capability or self-appointed mandate. In conducting our research, we found a plan, a blueprint that already exists in the world in the form of humanity’s collective wisdom, made manifest in applied, hands-on practices and technologies. Individual farmers, communities, cities, companies, and governments have shown that they care about this planet, its people and its places. Engaged citizens the world over are doing something extraordinary. This is their story.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard there are serious challenges to the status quo in United States politics and the social fabric of our country. In the abstract, this is, of course, a disruption to a system (a topic I’m always interested in!). The clear million-dollar question at the moment is whether not only our system of democracy, but also our cultural norms of decency, can withstand the assault. The U.S. is an incredible experiment in human diversity coming together under one roof, and while some people fear diversity will tear us apart, lessons from biology tell us that diversity is critical for system resilience. Can our diversity actually save us?
My high-level foray into understanding how diversity plays a role in system resilience leaves me unsure but hopeful that the foundation of diversity to increase resilience is there. Can we harness it?
Our Age of (Increasing) Diversity
The context of the slew of offensive rhetoric directed at an incredible swath of the American public that has surrounded the ascension of Trump to the presidency of the United States, and Trump’s fascist and authoritarian style, have drawn comparisons of Trump to Hitler. There are dire warnings about the threat to our democracy should no one hold Trump accountable under the law, and should the Republicans, holding majorities in both the House and Senate, be complicit in letting Trump run roughshod over the rights of U.S. citizens. These warnings often come with a reminder of the slippery slope towards a state of affairs similar to that of Nazi Germany.
This comparison raises questions for me about the realities of today versus the realities of Germany in the 1930s. There are obviously many, many factors that shape a system, but the one I keep thinking about is the diversity of our population. In the 1930s, Jews made up less than one percent of Germany’s population – this translates to just over 500,000 people in a population of about 67,000,000. As far as I can find through online research, the populations of other targeted groups were also small in comparison to the total population. Thus the racial and ethnic diversity of populations in Germany was relatively low compared to that of the United States in 2017 – at least 36 percent of our population identifies itself as not white (including Hispanics or Latinos). That is over 115,000,000 people! And that block of people is made up of citizens from an incredible variety of backgrounds and religions and languages. (It’s also fascinating to look at the diversity of voters that make up political parties in the U.S. In 2016, whites made up only 57 percent of the Democratic party, compared to 86 percent of the Republican party.)
Diversity in our population isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact by the 2040s, it’s estimated that “minority populations” combined will make up a larger percentage of the U.S. population than whites. Fear about this change from some portions of our populace seems to engender fierce resistance in some people (check out this 2013 graph “Composite index of openness to diversity” here – it’s like reading the tea leaves for Trump’s election).
So if the diversity of our country is decidedly different than the last time someone like Trump came to power, my question then is, how will the striking diversity of our population shape our system’s response to this disruption? Does it make our democracy more resilient? Is it sufficiently diverse to create a buffer? What can we learn from the lessons of diversity in nature (non-human systems)? I thought I’d look up how biodiversity increases the resilience of ecosystems, and if there might be lessons learned that can help us understand how our diversity might help us through this current disruption. Here are my initial thoughts, which give me both hope and a reality check – a diverse population is only half the story.
How does diversity translate to resilience?
Being “resilient” is another way of saying that you have systems in place that allow you to recover after a disruption (whether that disruption is sudden or chronic) to a state similar, if not better, to that you were experiencing before the change. Diversity is an important component to resilience. High diversity in natural systems, whether with respect to species, ecosystems, genetics or functions, provides a kind of insurance against disruption.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) identifies two critical elements that diversity brings to a system. Functional redundancy is “the presence of multiple components that can perform the same function” – if one component of the system fails, another that performs the same function will fill the void. They liken it to the common phrase, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
The second element is response diversity. Response diversity is the range of reactions to a disturbance among species that provide the same function within a system but at different scales or sizes. In other words, a disturbance might pose a risk to one group of species performing a function while not affecting another – their responses to the disturbance are different. SRC uses the example of seed dispersal – small mammals such as mice might be impacted by small local disturbances, while chimpanzees may be unaffected and continue to perform the function of seed dispersal. If both chimps and mice (and all other mammals in between) were equally negatively affected by a disturbance, seed dispersal would no longer take place and the ecosystem would start to degrade if sustained over time.
Another factor I came across is functional diversity. Essentially, this refers to the the diversity of functions between species within a system. Say you have 20 species on a savanna. If they are all grazers of grass the ecosystem would look very different than if there were 10 grazers that eat grass, 5 grazers that eat tree leaves and 5 predators, with additional variations between those groups that affect different parts of the ecosystem.
In biomimicry, diversity is addressed in Life’s Principles as:
Incorporate diversity – include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need. (functional redundancy)
Embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization – maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together. (response and functional diversity)
What this all boils down to is that diversity has the greatest impact on system resilience when:
You have different components (i.e., species…or ethnicities, races, religions, sexes, political parties, you name it) each fulfilling different functions (i.e., seed dispersal, fertilization, decomposition, and carbon sequestration…or get out the vote, calling representatives, protesting, running for office, etc.) in the system.
For each function, you have a high number of different kinds of components (i.e., many different species…or many political groups, many get out the vote campaigns, etc.) that can perform the same function.
Each of these components that perform the same function do so in a different way and maybe in a different place in the system, so that in the event of a disturbance, some may be affected and go away, but others not affected will still perform the same function, allowing the system to continue generally how it was (which is resilience).
Are we diverse enough? A focus on function
Based on the information I provided above about demographics, it appears that we have great diversity in our population – a large number of different “components” in the system. But what I’ve learned from natural models is that it’s not just the number of components, it’s also what they are doing (their function) that matters. For example, if we have great diversity of people but they all serve the function of “non-registered (or purged!) voter”, then that diversity contributes little to the resilience of our political system.
So how can we leverage our incredible diversity – of all kinds including race, ethnicity, religion, political ideas, class, etc. – to shore up our democracy? If we are to learn and benefit from the lessons of nature (non-human) systems, it might be that the focus of those who want to defeat this potential threat to our democracy need to at a minimum:
Determine what functions are critical to the survival of the U.S. democracy at all scales while making sure that the functions identified are diverse (they don’t just address limited parts of the system): i.e., come into alignment on what makes for a strong well-rounded democracy. Important to note here that “function” is not synonymous with pushing a political ideology – rather just the “verbs” of democracy – what people need to actually do to make it work – such as vote, communicate, educate, etc.
For each function identify multiple existing, and develop new where necessary, components that perform each function to create redundancy at all levels of the system (be sure to identify areas without redundancy and address them by adding components that also perform the same function!). (Planned Parenthood comes to mind here – while not political, it is politicized and the fact that there are few if any organizations that can fill the void for the function of providing affordable, accessible medical care to women that would exist should Planned Parenthood not receive federal reimbursements for services rendered means that this aspect of the healthcare industry is not resilient.)
For each function, make sure that all the components performing that function are not all subject to the same risks (so they don’t all fail at the same time, undermining the system).
Applications of these lessons can be applied to all levels of our political system, no matter how big or small. All you political experts out there, how does our system of democracy and our political parties stack up with respect to these system design principles? Are these questions already being asked and addressed? Will we be resilient in the face of this challenge to our democracy? What are our strengths and weaknesses? Can we harness our diversity to write a new ending to this story? Biologists, what more do we need to know about diversity and system resilience? Let’s see where we can go from here.
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.
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?
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.
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.