Function and Strategy

Fundamental links between biology and design.
In order to practice biomimicry, it’s important to first understand the concept of function. Function is an essential underpinning of biomimicry and is one element that distinguishes biomimetic design from biophilic and biomorphic design. Instead of looking simply at the visual and aesthetic qualities of the biological world, biomimicry focuses on learning from how living things meet specific functions.

What are functions and strategies?

 

A function, by definition, is the purpose of something. In the context of biomimicry, function refers to the role played by an organism’s adaptations or behaviors that enable it to survive. Importantly, function can also refer to something you need your design solution to do.

Organisms meet functional needs through biological strategies. A biological strategy is a characteristic, mechanism, or process that performs a function for an organism. It’s an adaptation the organism has in order to survive.

Example

One purpose of polar bear fur is to keep the polar bear warm. Stated in a more technical way, the function of the bear’s fur is to insulate or to conserve heat.

So, the polar bear’s fur is a strategy for insulation, but, more specifically, the characteristics of the polar bear’s fur are what make it especially good insulation. Studying how polar bear fur works could lead to the development of better insulation for human needs, such as outerwear, buildings, or other applications.

Fur absorbs infrared radiation

Learn about the polar bear’s fascinating strategy and some of the designs it has inspired on AskNature.

Identifying functions

Understanding the concepts of function and strategy will help you find biological information that is relevant to your design challenge. When beginning a design challenge, the most important thing to consider first is “What function do you want to solve for?” Rather than thinking about what you want to make, ask yourself  “What do I want my design to DO?

For example, you wouldn’t ‘ask’ nature how to make make a fan. That doesn’t make any sense. Instead you might ask “How does nature move air?” or “How does nature cool?” It is often helpful to come up with a few variations on your “How” question, if possible. Doing so enables you to explore the functional challenge from different angles. (Moving air is just one way of cooling, and can serve other functions as well.)

Asking “What do you want your design to DO?” is a key step in doing biomimicry. Carefully choosing the verb that completes the question, “How does nature…?” will set you up for success when you start looking for biological models. That verb is the function you are looking for in nature.

For example…

  • Do you want to design a bicycle helmet?
  • Or do you really want to design a way to protect a bicyclist’s head from impact?

Phrasing your goal the second way opens up your mind to new approaches to your challenge and also the possibility that your design may look nothing like a current helmet. Once you ask “How does nature protect from impact?”, you can search for organisms or systems in nature that perform the same function.

The Biomimicry Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the science of classifying life. Biologists name and identify organisms, grouping and categorizing them into a nested hierarchy of taxonomic ranks (domains, kingdoms, etc., down to genus and species) based on evolutionary relationships. Today the word “taxonomy” is also starting to be used to describe any system of classification, as it is below.

The Biomimicry Taxonomy is a classification system the Biomimicry Institute developed to organize biological strategies by the functions they serve. It is also the underlying structure for AskNature, the world’s most comprehensive library (in database form) of biological solutions applicable to human design challenges.

When identifying the function(s) your design needs to serve, the Taxonomy can be a helpful reference. It will help you better navigate the content on AskNature and also provide keywords that may help you understand your challenge differently or search more effectively for biological information.

Biomimicry Taxonomy Explained

AskNature is the world’s most comprehensive library of biological solutions. You can learn more about how to use this tool by downloading this supplement.

Recognizing Context

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Definition Check

Context in biology encompasses the surrounding environment and all other factors affecting the survival of the organism.

Context in design encompasses factors affecting how and where the design is used, and by whom.

There are many ways to accomplish a given function. Strategies vary depending on the context, or the conditions in which a strategy is used.

For example, a slow growing tree may use different sizes of leaves to optimize capture of sunlight for photosynthesis, while a vine may have leaves of all the same size but use rapid growth to best position those leaves for photosynthesis. Context determines how an organism or ecosystem successfully meets its functional needs.

In both biology and design, a strategy that works well to meet a function in one context, might not work in a different setting. To achieve the same function or outcome, a different strategy may be required. Furthermore, because contexts are complex, organisms and human designs often perform multiple functions and employ multiple strategies simultaneously.

 

Different contexts may or may not require different strategies for the same function

Leaves from a maple tree show different forms depending where they are found on the tree. Shown on the left is a sun leaf, on the right a shade leaf. Varying leaf forms is a strategy that helps the tree efficiently capture solar energy.

The leaves on a climbing vine are relatively uniform since the vine can position them as needed to capture solar energy.

A snail’s body is vulnerable to predators and must be protected. In this context, a hard shell that it can hide inside helps the snail survive. But the snail’s protection also needs to be lightweight and able to increase in volume as the snail grows. The spiral shape of the shell minimizes the materials needed to create an ever-expanding container and also helps to strengthen its structure.

In a crash, a cyclist’s head must be protected from impact in a fall. The helmet also needs to be comfortable while riding. In this context, wearing a lightweight shock-absorbing material does the job. In addition to protecting the rider’s head in a crash, the brightly colored helmet also alerts cars to the presence of the rider by making him or her more visible.

Function Self Quiz

Test your understanding of function and related biomimicry concepts by taking this self quiz and checking your work with the answer key provided.

Thinking in terms of context is important because it allows you to recognize biological strategies that could be relevant to human design. By understanding what it is you want your design to do, and under what conditions, you can “ask nature” how living things do the same.

The reverse is also true. As you observe the natural world around you, try to identify the functions, strategies, and contexts at play. Then see if you can think of similar functions and contexts in the human world and ways to apply the natural strategies you observe. It’s okay if you have to guess―you can always look up the answers later. The important thing is that you will be honing your skills of observation, looking at nature differently, and starting to think like a biomimic.

Image Credits

Polar Bear: modified after Jill Clardy CC-BY-NC-SA via Flickr
Maple leaves: Sherry Ritter, used with permission
Vines: modified after Chris Ford CC-BY-NC via Flickr
Snail: Sid Mosdell CC-BY via Flickr
Cyclists: reway2007 CC-BY-NC-SA via Flickr.

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