Scoping a Biomimicry Challenge

The first step in any design process is to frame the problem or opportunity that you want to address. This is called “scoping.”


“A problem well-defined is half solved.”

— John Dewey, educational pioneer


During scoping, a design team becomes familiar with the design situation and the needs that must be met in order for a solution to be successful. These needs include the goals or functions that the design must accomplish, as well as the context and constraints it must work within and user or stakeholder considerations. A scoping process might also address system boundaries and identify potential leverage points for intervention.

In biomimicry, scoping also includes “biologizing,” or translating, the design challenge into search terms that can be used to look for biological models.

Scoping is preparatory work, done before any actual design work begins, and is a period of exploration, questioning, and goal-setting. While there is no magic formula for good scoping, this section of the Toolbox will provide some guideposts and suggested activities that will help you get on the right track.

Define the Challenge

At the outset of your design process, it’s important to define the challenge and make sure that you and your teammates share a common understanding of what you want to achieve with your design.

Define the Challenge Worksheet

Use this worksheet to outline and define your challenge.

At this stage, the goal is NOT to decide what you will make or design, but rather to clearly articulate the problem you want to solve, and the impact you want to have. If you are working on a very complex issue, this is a great time to break it down into components and select the area that you feel has the greatest opportunity for impact or the strongest probability of success for your team. For example, each year the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge focuses on a broad theme, to encourage a wide diversity of solution types. However, participating teams need to narrow in, select a specific aspect of the theme, and define their own challenge within it.

State the challenge as a question

Once you have an idea of what you want to work on, try stating your challenge in one sentence. In order to avoid jumping to conclusions about what you will design, it can be helpful to state the challenge as a question that begins with, “How might we…?”

Examples:

  • How might we… help corn farmers in Iowa reduce their dependency on synthetic fertilizers?
  • How might we…reverse desertification affecting orchards?

Consider context and refine the question

Notice how the examples given include the context for the desired impact. Context provides specificity and constraints with which to work. Context can include many factors, but it is especially helpful to identify stakeholders (who will be impacted) and location. Without context a design challenge is often too broad to be meaningfully addressed with one design. On the other hand, be careful not to define the context too narrowly. Applying too many constraints before beginning the design process can limit the number and variety of potential solutions. Asking the right question at the beginning of your project will guide you in your research and give you a better chance of arriving at an innovative and impactful solution.

Sample design questions

A good design question is neither too broad nor too narrow. Consider these examples.

Too Broad
Just Right
Too Narrow
How might we end hunger?
How might we connect institutional food surpluses to those in need?
How might we design an app to help food pantries get more donations?
Hunger is a huge multifaceted problem and this statement doesn’t target a specific area of intervention.
This statement provides enough specificity while remaining open to a variety of possible solutions.
This statement presupposes too many details about the solution (an app) and doesn’t leave enough room for innovation.
How can we make cycling safer?
How might we make urban cyclists more visible to drivers at night?
How can we make better lights for cyclists?
What aspects of cycling? This is too broad.
This statement provides enough specificity (urban, night time visibility) while remaining open to a variety of possible solutions.
How do we know lights are the best solution? This statement doesn’t leave enough room for creative problem solving.

 

Biologize the Design Question


Biologize: To take a human need or function and rephrase it so that an answer may be found in biology.


 

The next step in biomimicry is to analyze the design question and reframe it in biological terms. We call this “biologizing” the design question.

This is an important step, because it makes the process of looking for biological models–organisms or living systems–to draw inspiration from much easier. The goal is to arrive at one or more questions to guide you as you look for biological models.

Identify function and context

A “biologized” design question typically begins with the phrase “How does nature…?” If we simply used the original design question to complete that sentence, it wouldn’t make any sense. “How does nature make urban cyclists more visible to drivers at night?” wouldn’t help us begin searching for biological models.

For a detailed discussion of function and strategy, refer to the Core Concepts section of the Toolbox.

In order to complete the sentence “How does nature…?”, in a way that makes sense, you need to extract or translate the function(s) your design needs to accomplish, and the context in which those functions occur, into biologically-relevant terms. Chances are your original design question already contains this information (either explicitly or implicitly). You may simply need to tweak how you state the function(s) and context(s), so that “asking” nature makes sense. Think critically about the functions at the heart of the outcome/impact your design question is getting at.

Sample biologized questions

“Biologizing” translates a design question into search terms that can be used to look for biological models. Consider these examples:

Design Question:
How might we keep buildings cool in the summer?

Biologized Question:
How does nature regulate temperature in hot climates?

Design Question:
How might we reduce stormwater runoff and flooding in cities?

Biologized Question:
How does nature manage excess water?

Design Question:
How might we reduce the use of toxic substances in paints?

Biologized Question:
How does nature create color?

Consider many possibilities

As you examine your design question, you might discover that there are multiple functions at play and multiple ways to define the function and context of your challenge biologically. That’s ok! Having multiple ways of framing your function gives you more options and search terms to work with in the research phase.

Here’s an example showing a variety of ways to break down a design question into functions and contexts from which multiple “How does nature…” questions can be derived.

Design Question:
How might we make urban cyclists more visible to drivers at night?
Functions: enhance visibility; produce light; reflect light; sense/send signals
Context: dark, low light; chaotic, busy environment; moving quickly
Biologized Questions:
How does nature …
  • …enhance visibility in low light environments?
  • …enhance visibility in chaotic environments?
  • …sense movement in the dark?

Think creatively and don’t rush!

To broaden the range of potential solutions, it can be helpful at this stage to turn your question(s) around and consider opposite, or tangential functions. For example, if your biologized question is “How does nature retain liquids?”, you could also ask “How does nature repel liquids?” because similar mechanisms could be at work in both scenarios (controlling the movement of liquid). Or if you are interested in silent flight and you know that flight noise is a consequence of turbulence, you might also ask how nature reduces turbulence in water–since air and water share similar fluid dynamics.

Biologize the Question Worksheet

Use this worksheet to biologize your design question. Save it for reference during your design process.

Defining and biologizing your design question is one of the more difficult parts of the biomimicry process. But it’s a critical step that makes it possible to look to nature for solutions. Don’t rush this process. It is well worth spending the time you need to get your questions right. This will lead to more success when looking for biological models and will ultimately save time in your whole design process. Also, be prepared to revisit these steps to further refine your challenge and your question if you uncover new insights once you begin researching.

Other considerations

The process outlined above focuses on the unique elements of scoping in a biomimicry design process – translating a design challenge into a question that we can “ask nature.”  Naturally, there are other important considerations relevant to a scoping process, and each design tradition has its own particular focus. For example, engineering design scoping tends to emphasize detailing of technical constraints. Within the human-centered design and design thinking approaches, the scoping phase is largely concerned with listening to, empathizing with, and even collaborating with the users and stakeholders that will be affected by a design solution. These activities all support good design outcomes and an ideal  biomimicry scoping process should include these consideration as well. Check out the Design Kit from IDEO.org and the d.school at Stanford University for free resources that can enhance your scoping process.

Learn how to begin the research process to find biological models in the next section of the Toolbox.
Image Credits

Team working: Yandle CC-BY-SA via Flickr
Fern in hand: (c) Biomimicry Institute
Air conditioners: Ze’ev Barkan CC-BY via Flickr
Woman standing in puddle: Frédéric Poirot CC-BY-NC-ND via Flickr
Paint cans: LukeDaDuke CC-BY-NC-ND

 

GIVE FEEDBACK