The Systems ViewApplying whole-systems thinking.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
– John Muir, naturalist and wilderness advocate
Designs, organizations, and biology are all composed of systems. Systems, in turn, are composed of interacting parts that, together, create a unique behavior or function.
Your body is a storehouse of systems. Listen to your heart, feel the pulse of blood in your veins, sense the electricity in your synapses as you observe the world. Each of these systems also contains smaller sub-systems, and all are connected together to form a whole—your body. In the same way, designs contain smaller systems and are also elements in larger systems.
Since the world is full of complex systems, systems methodology can be a very effective means to help understand a design challenge at a deeper level. Systems methodology allows a designer to explore a network, structure, or process of interest, understand its components and the relationship between components, and comprehend how that system connects to the world.
For a biomimetic designer, being knowledgeable about and aware of system interconnections can help you optimize design outcomes while considering Earth’s operating systems. Use a systems view to tie a design to nature’s cycles and improve a solution’s effectiveness by creating a better fit with its environment.
Organisms, Functions, and Systems
The discussion so far has focused primarily on the environment of the design and finding connections between the perceived situation and higher and lower levels of system. The same technique can be used from the biological perspective to enable a deeper understanding of a function and how it fits into its environment (Wiltgen et al. 2011).
Biomimicry can be done at the form, process, or systems level. If a match is made between a biological strategy and a design objective at the level of form (structure), it can be a static or fixed pattern (shape or surface), and might not consider the larger context in either biology or design. Velcro is a good example of this—the design solution mimics a biological shape but nothing more (e.g., material or how it’s made). Finding a match based on process (behavior over time) or system (interconnection of components) is more likely to consider the systems context in both biology and design (McHarg 1995). In all cases, it is advantageous for a designer or scientist to use a tool for exploring downwards, upwards, sideways, and within to determine system interconnections.
This is the essence of systems work: to perceive both the whole and the parts of the subject and the relationships that create the end product or process. Design and analysis are incomplete if they are performed at just one level or perspective. Consider the boundaries and resources in your design solution. Then step back, and describe how the flows of energy, material and information have changed as a result of your solution.