Scoping a Biomimicry Challenge
“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.
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.
Consider context and refine the question
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.
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.
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.
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
How does nature …
Think creatively and don’t rush!
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.
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.