Integrating Biology and Design

In this chapter we explore various ways to bring together the concepts and methods introduced in the previous sections into a coherent process. Like any creative process, there really is no single “right way” to do biomimicry. Each project and each person is likely to follow a slightly different path.  However the approaches described below can provide a good framework for beginning and ideas for how to integrate insights from biomimicry into a design process that works for you.

Phases of Design

In the introductory section of this toolkit we identified four overarching phases that all design processes tend to share—scoping, ideation, assessment, and iteration. Now that you understand some of the basics of scoping a biomimicry challenge,  finding biological strategies and crafting design strategies, let’s look a bit closer at Ideation, Assessment, and Iteration and how biomimicry fits in.

Ideation

 “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

–John Maynard Keynes, Economist

 

Keywords associated with ideation: brainstorm, research, explore, imagine, create, plan, select, ideas, concepts, possibilities, biological models, design strategies

 

Ideation is the formation of ideas. It describes an exploratory creative process that focuses on generating many potential solutions to a design problem. It is often a multi-faceted and messy process and it is closely linked with the assessment phase. In fact the best design outcomes typically arise when the design team cycles many times between ideation and assessment, improving the design concept at every step. The challenging and creative part of ideation is moving beyond obvious solutions and toward insightful and unexpected innovations. Our familiarity with “what is” can sometimes cloud our vision for “what might be.” Brainstorming, mindmapping and sketching are some common techniques to help trigger new ideas. Practitioners of human-centered design and design thinking have pioneered many other helpful ideation activities, too. Ideo.org’s Design Kit and Standford University’s d.School are two sources for free information.

Important Questions

Many ideation strategies use questions such as, “what if…?” and “how might we…?” to provoke new ways of looking at the design opportunity. Similarly, in biomimicry we ask, “How does nature…?” as a way to move beyond conventional solutions and explore concepts gleaned from biological strategies.

Biomimicry, of course, adds the natural world as a valuable source of design inspiration and knowledge. For this reason, contact with the natural world, research, and writing/drawing bio-inspired design strategies are an essential part of ideation within a biomimetic design process. These activities were discussed in the sections Finding Biological Strategies and Crafting Design Strategies. Nature’s unifying patterns are another tool for ideation in biomimicry. Finding ways to bring the patterns into your design will reveal some opportunities you may not have considered. These are especially valuable when looking for ways to make your design as life-friendly as possible.

Assessment

Early prototypes need not be functional. You can learn a lot from even simple prototypes.

Keywords associated with Assessment: make, test, measure, evaluate, interpret, prototype, model, feedback, results, well-adapted, life cycle analysis, nature’s unifying patterns

Ideas are great, but until they are tried and tested they are only speculation. Assessment is a process by which design concepts are evaluated. The goal is to identify areas for improvement and ensure that the final design truly meets the criteria outlined in the scoping phase. In biomimicry it is especially important during this phase to consider how “well-adapted” the design is compared to life on earth.

Assessment should occur cyclically throughout the design process, and with increasing rigor. Early in the design process, assessment may be as simple as pausing after an ideation phase to identify which concepts have the most potential and which seem like dead ends. As your team hones in on its top solution(s), assessment may involve more complex activities, such as creating models, testing technologies, or sharing prototypes with users or stakeholders to solicit feedback. Like ideation, design practitioners have developed a wide array of techniques and activities to evaluate efficacy, user feedback, and sustainability impacts.

Ultimately, assessment is an opportunity to learn about what works and what doesn’t and to challenge your assumptions. Insights from this phase can even sometimes result in reevaluating and making changes to the design brief from scoping. Almost always, assessment will result in going back to the ideation phase, to refine and improve some aspect of the solution.

Iteration

Keywords associated with iteration: revise, improve, repeat, reevaluate

 

“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”

— Thomas Edison, Inventor

Iteration is not so much a “phase” of design as a phenomenon that occurs when design teams move cyclically through phases and feedback loops of ideation and assessment (and sometimes back to scoping). Design is fundamentally an iterative process. One rarely gets everything right on the first try; we need to learn from what doesn’t work, and try again. Interestingly, one can also look at evolution as a process of iteration by which living systems have tested and refined numerous adaptive strategies over generations.

Biomimicry Design Pathways

 

Challenge to Biology

 

If you have a design challenge in mind and can determine the function(s) that you need your design to perform, you can “ask nature” how living things do the same. We describe this as a “challenge to biology” (C2B) pathway: you start with a design challenge and actively seek inspiration and models in biology to solve it. This toolkit focuses largely on the “challenge to biology“ pathway because that pathway is the most likely to be useful in our Design Challenges program.

Biology to Design

 

Another way that biomimicry can occur is when an innovator notices something interesting in the natural world, and then later identifies an application for it. We describe this pathway as “biology to design” (B2D): you start with an intriguing biological strategy and apply insights from that strategy to a design problem. Rather than beginning with a conscious effort to develop a biomimetic solution, this pathway describes a more organic process of discovery based on an “aha” moment, when seeing something in nature triggers an idea.

Pathway Examples

 

C2B Examples
Shinkansen train
Interface Entropy carpet

B2D Examples
Whale Power
PureBond
Ornilux

 

While the “challenge to biology” approach figures more prominently in discussions of “how to do biomimicry” (including this toolkit), the “biology to design” approach is equally valid. It’s just less predictable. One can’t easily dial up inspiration without a problem in mind. Yet a remarkable number of biomimicry case studies have originated in this way, with curious observers who noticed something interesting and found a way to learn from it.

Biomimicry Diagrams

A couple different resources are available to illustrate the C2B and B2D pathways. These tools were created to support those new to the biomimicry process and can be used as guides to follow as you approach a design challenge. It’s important to remember that both of these tools are simplified versions of what is in reality a non-linear and iterative creative process. Although the steps are listed sequentially, you should expect to repeat steps and revise your work along the way as new discoveries lead you to rethink previous conclusions.

Biomimicry Design Spirals

 

The first tool is a pair of diagrams, called the Biomimicry Design Spirals. They were developed collaboratively by the Biomimicry Institute and the Biomimicry Guild (now Biomimicry 3.8). There is a unique diagram for each of the C2B and B2D processes.

 

C2B Design Spiral Methodology

Download the C2B Design Spiral diagram and methodology outline to use as a reference with the video provided.

 

Watch this video for an overview of the challenge to biology design process, as captured in the C2B Design Spiral.

 Biomimicry Thinking

 

 

Another tool for visualizing the biomimicry process, is the Biomimicry Thinking diagram, from the DesignLens published by Biomimicry 3.8 in 2012. This single diagram is used to illustrate both the C2B and B2D processes.

The Design Thinking diagram and related collateral can be accessed on the Biomimicry 3.8 website.

 

Image Credits

Ideation: Sherry Ritter CC-BY-NC-ND
Assessment (paper prototype): d_jan CC-BY via Flickr

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