The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development




"(Biomimicry) Introduces a concept worthy of wide exploration in a world dazzled by the industrial artefacts around us... Over the millions of years, nature's life forms through natural selection have had to live with the constraints of the entropy law on a solar budget."
Wes Jackson, The Land Institute





Principles and Practices in Sustainable Development for the Engineering and Built Environment Professions 


Unit 3 - Biomimicry/Green Chemistry

 

Lecture 10: A Biomimetic Design Method & Information Sources

         

This concept of sustainability is best illustrated by natural ecosystems, which consist of nearly closed loops that change slowly… If humans are to achieve truly sustainable development, we will have to adopt patterns that reflect these natural processes. The role of engineers and scientists in sustainable development can be illustrated by a closed-loop human ecosystem that mimics natural systems.

World Federation of Engineering Organisations, Submission to the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development[1]

 
Educational Aim
 

To present a methodology for applying Biomimicry principles to designing engineering solutions. To also provide details about sources and networks available to seek information about natural systems and Biomimicry design innovation examples. The method provided in this lecture builds on from conversations with Janine Benyus and is based on the evolving methodology developed by the Biomimicry Guild in 2005[2] adapted to fit the engineering design context.

 

Required Reading

Biomimicry Guild and Rocky Mountain Institute (n.d.) Biomimicry Database, Introduction to the Database. Available at www.asknature.org (1 page).

Hargroves, K., Smith, M. and Paten, C. (2007) Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program, Critical Literacies Portfolio – Role of Engineers in Sustainable Development A, The Natural Edge Project, Australia, Unit 2 Lecture 7.

Birkeland, J. (1997) Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Ecological Design Solutions, Earthscan, London, Chap 8: Where will we go from here? (13 pages), pp. 285-297.




Learning Points

* 1. As we look to nature for advice in design, it is critical to manage business pressures (time and resources) in the process of design innovation – we need to be sure that we have a clear design method; that we ask the right questions at the right time.

* 2. In the field of Biomimicry, engineers and designers have the opportunity to ask questions of nature, to help integrate natural systems knowledge with our knowledge of human systems as part of the design process. For example, ‘How can engineers design cities to be as sustainable as a mature forest ecosystem? How would nature clean water? How does nature store energy?

* 3. The design process is enhanced by the opportunity to look to nature for organisms with a similar problem and context to see what they do, and then to translate the useful forms, processes, and systems within the design context.

* 4. As this is an emerging field, the challenge is for professions to understand their role within their context. Based on an evolving methodology developed by the Biomimicry Guild,[3] the following list proposes how a Biomimicry methodology would work:

  • Step 1: Identify the Real Challenge

  • Step 2: Translate the Challenge into Biology Language

  • Step 3: Define the Habitat Parameters/ Conditions

  • Step 4: Re-ask ‘How does Nature do that Function Here, in These Conditions?’

  • Step 5: Find the Best Natural Models (literal and metaphorical)

  • Step 6: Mimic the Natural Model

  • Step 7: Evaluate the Solution – ‘Nature as Measure’

  • Step 8: Pay Respect to the Inspiration

* 5. Each of these steps has a sub-set of questions and tasks for the engineer and designer to help focus in on the design solution (see ‘Brief Background Information’ for the method overview).


* 6. Further to the commonly known examples of Velcro®, Gecko Tape® and the Vortex Generator covered in the previous course,[4] additional examples of commercialised Biomimetic design outcomes that have followed some or all of these steps include:

  • Energy conversion inspired by the swaying motion of sea plants in waves (BioWAVE)

  • Molecular-sized light sponges inspired by leaves (Dyesol)

  • Efficient motor blades inspired by seaweed moving in ocean currents (PAX Impeller)

  • Self-cleaning paint inspired by the surface structure of a lotus leaf (Lotusan)

  • Anti-fouling treatments inspired by bio-film free ocean plants (Biosignal)

* 7. When working through the design method, it is likely to be more difficult to locate information about natural systems than human systems. There are a number of initiatives underway, in various stages of development, to assist designers and engineers in their searches, including:

  • Biomimicry Guild Database (prototype for alpha-testing): A moderated open-source database of natural organisms that have already developed strategies to solve problems relevant to human society (http://database.biomimicry.org/).

  • TRIZ Database Development: A project aiming to establish a system into which all known solutions can be placed, classified in terms of function (www.triz-journal.com/whatistriz.html).

  • Biologists at the Design Table: A global network of ‘biologists at the design table’ to help quickly find species and organisms that might assist in design solutions (http://www.biomimicryguild.com/guild_badt.html).

  • Green Chemistry and Green Engineering Hubs: There is now a global network working on Green Chemistry and Green Chemical engineering that can assist those who have bio-mimetic ideas.


Brief Background Information
 

Biomimicry Design Method
As this is an emerging field, the challenge is for professions to understand their role within their context. Based on an evolving methodology developed by the Biomimicry Guild in 2005, the following list proposes how the methodology may be adapted to fit the engineering design context:

Step 1: Identify the Real Challenge

a. What is a statement identifying the actual issue being addressed?

  e.g. The water filters in our plant clog often and are expensive to replace.


b. Ask ‘What do you want the design to do?’ (not ‘What do you want to design?’)

  - Using the Challenge statement, ask ‘why’ multiple times.
  e.g.

  Why do the filters clog? Because they must filter all the particulate from the water and algae grows on them.

  Why do they filter everything? Because the toxic molecules are the smallest.

  Why does algae grow on them? Because it’s a wet medium and the tank is outside in the sunlight.

So, you want a design to remove small toxic molecules from the water?
  - Interrogate the design challenge to pinpoint the mechanism/s of interest.
  e.g. We want a design to remove small toxic molecules from the water


Step 2: Translate the Challenge into Biology Language – ‘Biologise’ the Question

a. Identify the functions required of the solution (i.e. purpose, role or use)
  eg. Removing the molecules from the liquid


b. Ask ‘how does nature do that function?’


c. Ask ‘how does nature not do that function?’


d. Reframe the question/s with additional keywords.


Step 3: Define the Habitat Parameters/ Conditions

Using simple adjectives, describe the Challenge’s parameters for the following conditions:


a. Climate Conditions
  e.g. wet, dry, cold, hot, low/high pressure, highly variable, low/high UV etc.


b. Nutrient Conditions
  e.g. nutrient poor (e.g. no funds), nutrient rich (e.g. lots of available materials)


c. Social Conditions
  e.g. competitive, cooperative


d. Temporal Conditions
  e.g. Dynamic, static, growing, aging etc.


Step 4: Re-ask ‘How does nature do that function here, in these conditions?’

a. Given the results from Step 3, reframe the question/s in Step 2.

 

Step 5: Find the Best Natural Models (literal and metaphorical)

a. Amoeba-through-Zebra Perspective: Organisations such as the Biomimicry Guild specialise in creating taxonomies of nature’s strategies relevant to the specific Challenge faced. They ask, ‘what are the design processes and technologies that we can learn from to mimic in this solution?

  - Find champion adapters – ask ‘Whose survival depends on doing what I want to do?

  - Look for the truly challenged: Find the organisms that are most challenged by the problem you are trying to solve, and yet remain unfazed by it. For example, find the marine organism that lives among hoards of microbes, yet its surface is free of bacteria.

  - Look in extreme habitats (at both ends of the spectrum, i.e. both swamp and desert): turn the problem inside out and on its head. For example if you are looking for a way to dry out humid air, don’t look in the tropics; look in the desert where cockroaches drink water from air. When looking for a way to retard fire combustion, look for oxygen-scavenging in bottom-dwelling pond midges.

  - Find naturalists and biologists at your local university, natural history museum, nature centre.


  - Consult the Nature’s Solutions Database (http://biomimicryinstitute.org/case-studies/) created by biologists for designers and engineers and explore biological citation databases at university libraries.

b. Go for a walk outside: Find organisms/ ecosystems that are doing what you want to do and observe closely - note all the strategies you can find.

c. From this organised list, choose the most promising strategies for emulation given habitat conditions and design parameters.

 

Step 6: Mimic the Natural Model

Go back to the Challenge and try to emulate the natural strategies (i.e. ‘borrow the recipe rather than using the organisms’), based on what has been learnt.


a. Are you mimicking Form?

   - Find out details of the morphology
  - Understand scale and size effects
  - Consider influencing factors on the effectiveness of the form for the organism
  - Consider ways in which you might deepen the conversation to also mimic process and/or ecosystem

b. Are you mimicking Process?
  - Find out details of the biological process
  - Understand scale and size effects
  - Consider influencing factors on the effectiveness of the process for the organism
  - Consider ways in which you might deepen the conversation to also mimic the form and/ or ecosystem

c. Are you mimicking Ecosystem?
  - Find out details of the biological process
  - Understand scale and size effects
  - Consider influencing factors on the effectiveness of the process for the organism

 

Step 7: Evaluate the Solution – Nature as Measure

In the development of a solution inspired by nature, we need to ask ourselves a series of questions about the impacts of the innovation in the biosphere - Does the design create conditions conducive to life? We can ask ourselves the following questions:


Form:

   - Are the materials safe and the production process/es safe for the environment?

   - Is shape designed to minimise material?

   - Does it use recycled materials? Is it recyclable?


Process:
   - Is the manufacturing benign? Does it use toxic catalysts?
   - Does it use self-assembly?
   - Is the system optimised rather than maximised?
   - Is the design cyclic - does it adapt to cycles?
   - Does its manufacture and use renewable energy? Abundant materials?


Ecosystem:
   - Is the design locally attuned?
   - How does the design coexist with other systems?
   - Can the design detect feedback? Can it adapt? Evolve?
   - Does the design promote appropriate behaviours by users?
   - Does the design embrace diversity and redundancy?


We can also use the nine Biomimicry observations:
[5]
   1. Nature runs on sunlight.
   2. Nature uses only the energy it needs.
   3. Nature fits form to function.
   4. Nature recycles everything.
   5. Nature rewards cooperation.
   6. Nature banks on diversity.
   7. Nature demands local expertise.
   8. Nature curbs excesses from within.
   9. Nature taps the power of limits.

 

Step 8: Pay Respect to the Inspiration

Acknowledge the source of inspiration for the Biomimicry innovation.


This may include acting to conserve habitat for the organism, and promoting the Biomimicry Design Method.

Table 10.1. Biomimicry Methodology (evolving)
Source: Biomimicry Guild (2006)[6]


Natural Systems Knowledge Hubs
Many design professionals globally are actively engaged in Biomimicry research and applications, whether in universities, companies or government funded research institutes. However, most designers are faced with tight deadlines and budgets on their projects, potentially limiting their enthusiasm for considering innovative alternatives to old economy technologies.


The following examples summarise initiatives currently underway to help the transition to new economy technologies by assisting the process of enquiry (including information filtering) and problem-solving within the design profession:

  • Biomimicry Guild Database (Prototype for alpha-testing):
    The Biomimicry Guild and the Rocky Mountain Institute are creating a moderated open-source database of natural organisms that have developed strategies to solve problems relevant to human society (http://database.biomimicry.org/). The Biomimicry Database is intended as a tool to ‘cross-pollinate’ natural systems knowledge across discipline boundaries - a place where designers, architects, and engineers can search biological information, find experts, and collaborate, to find ideas that potentially solve their design/engineering challenges. The database also attempts to bridge the gaps of terminology and specialisation that separate biologists, chemists, and other researchers from engineers and other developers in industry.

    The Biomimicry Database has six types of information:

    1. Challenges: Challenges are human design problems that need solutions.

    2. Strategies: Strategies are potential solutions to those problems; almost all are biological solutions, but some human-invented solutions are also listed.

    3. Organisms: Organism records describe specific organisms, listing their taxonomic categorisation, a description of what the organism has/does that might be inspiring, and data on the organism's environment.

    4. People: People/User records contain a description of a person/group relevant to a topic, contact information, an image, profession / field of study and whether they are an expert in their field(s), and a listing of the user's database entries.

    5. Citations: Citation records contain basic bibliographic information and abstracts for papers referred to in Challenges, Strategies, or other records providing sources for further research on their respective topics.

    6. Products: Product records have descriptions of biomimetic products, including company names and contact information and product availability.

The developers hope the system will prove useful to many researchers and designers as well as engineers, which would lead to more cross-discipline knowledge sharing and more biomimetic inventions and research.

  • TRIZ Database Development:
    (www.triz-journal.com/whatistriz.html) Solutions to problems can move very slowly between different disciplines, but the transfer can be accelerated with suitable abstraction and classification of problems. Russian researchers working on the Teoriya Resheniya Izobretatelskikh Zadatch (TRIZ) method for inventive problem solving have identified a systematic means of transferring knowledge between different scientific and engineering disciplines. The project aim is to establish a system into which all known solutions can be placed, classified in terms of function. With over 1,500 person-years of invested time, it represents the largest study of human creativity ever conducted. At present, the functional classification structure covers nearly three million of the world’s successful patents and large proportions of the known physical, chemical and mathematical knowledge-base. Unfortunately the resultant database currently contains little biological knowledge - an analysis comparing the compatibility with man-made and natural systems identified an overlap of a mere 10 -12 percent. However Genrich Altshuller, the instigator of TRIZ, believes one day it will.[7] As Janine Benyus puts it, ‘in most of the places we look in Nature, we will be surprised!

  • Biologists at the Design Table:
    (http://www.biomimicryguild.com/guild_badt.html) The Biomimicry Guild is creating a global network of ‘biologists at the design table’ offering research services to engineering designers to help them quickly find species and organisms that have already developed successful and effective strategies to solve problems.

  • Green Chemistry and Green Engineering Hubs:
    There is now a global network working on Green Chemistry and Green Engineering that can assist those who have bio-mimetic ideas. Currently there are over 25 research institutions across the globe whose research focuses on the development of green technologies for chemistry. Among these are several key hubs and networks. For example, the USA Green Chemistry Institute
    [8] now works with affiliates in over 20 countries, including the Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash University, Australia.[9] Its goal is to ‘promote green chemistry research, education and outreach’. The Green Chemistry Network in the UK,[10] the Green and Sustainable Chemistry Network of Japan, and the INCA in Italy have similar goals. The American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry also publish a popular Green Chemistry journal.[11]


 

Key References


- Benyus, J. (1997) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Collins, New York.

- Kelly, K. (1995) Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, Perseus Books Group, Jackson, TN.

- Rees, R. (1998) The Way Nature Works, Macmillan Publishing, London.

- Thompson, D. (1992) On Growth and Form, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY.

- Vincent, J. and Mann, D. (2002) Systematic Technology Transfer from Biology to Engineering, University of Bath, UK. Available at www.bath.ac.uk/mech-eng/biomimetics/TRIZ.pdf. Accessed 5 January 2007.

- Vincent, J. (1990) Structural Biomaterials, Princeton Book Company Publishers, Princeton.

- Vogel, S. and Davis, K.K. (1998) Cats' Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

 

Key Words for Searching Online


Biomimicry Guild, Biomimicry Database, Rocky Mountain Institute.

 

[1] World Federation of Engineering Organisations (2002) Report to the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, WFEO. Available at http://www.wfeo-comtech.org/ch2mEngAndSustDev.pdf. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[2] Summarised from Biomimicry Methodology (evolving). Accessed 26 November 2006. And through conversation with Janine Benyus. (Back)

[3] Ibid. (Back)

[4] Hargroves, K., Smith, M.H. and Paten, C. (2007) Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program: Critical Literacies Portfolio - The Role of Engineering in Sustainable Development A, The Natural Edge Project (TNEP), Australia. (Back)

[5] Benyus, J. (1997) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Collins, New York, p 7. (Back)

[6] Summarised from Biomimicry Methodology (evolving). Accessed 26 November 2006. And through conversation with Janine Benyus. (Back)

[7] Vincent, J.F. and Mann, D.L. (2002) Systematic Technology Transfer from Biology to Engineering, University of Bath, UK. Available at www.bath.ac.uk/mech-eng/biomimetics/TRIZ.pdf. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[8] Green Chemistry Institute (n.d.) Homepage. Available at http://www.chemistry.org. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[9] The Centre for Green Chemistry in the School of Chemistry, Monash University (n.d.) Centre for Green Chemistry Homepage. Available at http://www.chem.monash.edu.au/green-chem/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[10] Green Chemistry Network (n.d.) Homepage. Available at http://www.chemsoc.org/networks/gcn/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[11] RSC Publishing (n.d.) Green Chemistry. Available at http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/Journals/gc/index.asp. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

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