Bio-inspired Design & Regenerative Cultures — an interview with Daniel Christian Wahl (Zygote Quarterly, Issue 17, 2016)

Daniel Christian Wahl is an international sustainability consultant and educator specializing in biologically inspired whole systems design and transformative innovation. Daniel originally trained as a biologist (University of Edinburgh, 1996 & University of California, 1995), holds an MSc in Holistic Science (Schumacher College, 2001) and gained his PhD in Design for Human and Planetary Health from the University of Dundee in 2006. He has worked with local and national governments on climate change impact, foresight and futures. Daniel has published a wide range of articles and academic papers on ecological design and biomimicry since 2003. His first book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, was published by Triarchy Press (UK) in May, 2016.

What are your impressions of the current state of biomimicry/bio-inspired design?

More and more people are beginning to understand that humanity has lost a vital connection with the natural world – a connection that until recently informed and sustained our species. The scientific and industrial revolution brought us fantastic, almost miraculous, technological progress, but also a mindset where progress meant substituting the old with the new, and humanity and culture came to be thought of as being separate from nature.

More than once we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and declared vital wisdom as “primitive” in the rush for technological “progress”. We should have paid more attention to the guiding wisdom of place-based cultures co-evolved in intimate reciprocity with the bio-cultural uniqueness of their bioregions.

Many biomimics are indirectly perpetuating the entirely mind-made divide between humanity and nature by the way we use language to describe what we do. The boom in design and technology inspired by nature is – for the most part – still undertaken within a mindset that is based on learning from nature. It is time to recognize that we are nature and have to re-indigenize to fit our human cultures into the life-sustaining ecosystems functions of the places and regions we inhabit.

We have to learn to design as nature. The first step in this process is to accept that as biological beings we are participants in and expressions of natural processes. Culture does not have to necessarily be divorced from or in competition with the rest of nature. All action or inactions are interventions in the socio-ecological systems we participate in. This participatory worldview is both relatively new in science (second order science) and very ancient, as most indigenous cultures share a participatory awareness of nature as the ground of our being. I believe that learning from traditional indigenous wisdom — or what has also been called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) — is also an important aspect of biomimicry practice.

This interview was first published by Zygote Quarterly, Issue 17, pp.66–79

What do you see as the biggest challenges?

What puzzles me about our field is that with so many excellent people sharing such positive intentions, we still seem to lose too much energy exploring our differences and not enough time celebrating these differences as the source of the necessary requisite variety we need for rapid adaptive responses to a changing environment. Let’s care less about labels and brands: biomimicry, bionics, regenerative or ecological design — what matters are the shared intentions.

Copyright Bill Reed & Regenesis Group (with permission)

There are also some negative side-effects of sound-bite culture and the kind of oversimplification of the biomimetic process and practice that goes hand in hand with TED-talk story telling which was so important for spreading the passion for biomimicry widely. These side effects are setting recent converts to biomimicry up for disappointment when they realize that the translation process — from natural form, functions and process to creating technological and industrial innovation — is in fact hard work and often takes years of trial and error.

What areas should we be focusing on to advance the field of biomimicry?

I believe that we urgently need to become good at the practice of integrated regenerative whole systems design at the regional scale. Such a regenerative design approach weaves the production of food, materials and products into synergistic relationships with the generation of renewable energy and the regeneration of top-soils, forest and healthy ecosystems functions, while effectively (up-)cycling biological and technical resource streams. This is what we are talking about when we speak about systemic biomimicry. McDonough and Braungart’s The Upcycle is really a book about systemic biomimicry and regenerative industrial design.

The global biomimicry and bio-inspired design networks could play an important role in facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange to help apply Nature’s operating principles to re-regionalizing production and consumption. In order to play this role effectively we need to put aside the issues of semantic differences between biomimicry, bionics, biomimetics, bio-inspired design, regenerative design, and so on, which — at least in Europe — seems to have slowed down effective collaboration among already existing and broadly aligned networks of practitioners.

I worked with Forum for the Future and the Belgian company Ecover on exploring the feasibility of creating detergents and cleaning products for the tourism industry on Majorca almost entirely from organic waste streams generated on the island from agriculture, forestry and municipal organic waste. While the project was only a year-long pilot and has been put on hold since 2014, we did learn a lot from this hands-on exploration of the design of circular regionally focused bio-economies and decentralized manufacturing in action, in par- ticular which questions we needed to ask.

One conceptual strong point was linking the 35 years’ experience of a company like Ecover, selling to a global market, to the local chemical in- dustry and local production capacity in SMEs to not only innovate new products but a new busi- ness model for global-local collaboration and in- novation. This kind of innovation could pioneer a path for place-sensitive local design solutions that enable global companies to shift to distributed manufacturing (more).

What is your best definition of what we do?

Biomimics — at their best — aim to design as nature. To me, that means creating conditions conducive to life, aiming to create salutogenic or health-generating design, while pursuing whole systems optimization rather than the maximization of individual and isolated parameters.

It is time to go beyond sustainability and aim for a positive and regenerative impact. Our goal should be to contribute to the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures elegantly adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of the places they inhabit.

I believe that a vital skill for people who want to work with truly systemic biomimicry is to be able to facilitate multi-stakeholder and multi- disciplinary dialogue, and to do so by helping to “translate” between the disciplines and invite people to map out a multi-perspective based understanding of the complex and dynamic socio-ecological systems in which we participate at various scales. Once we learn to access the collective intelligence that comes from acknowledging the contributions of different perspectives and ways of seeing, we can more appropriately and wisely design as nature.

By what criteria should we judge the work?

In my seminars at universities and design schools, I often quote William McDonough’s important question “can anything be considered truly beautiful if it creates ill health, suffering, or ugliness elsewhere?” We should also ask:

How is the proposed design contributing to the regeneration of bio-cultural diversity and healthy ecosystems functioning at local, regional and global scale?

• In what way is the design creating conditions conducive to life?

• Can we communicate the story of this design in ways that dissolve the nature/culture divide and invite people into a biophilia-based relationship with nature?

• What aspects of the total life cycle of the design have potentially degenerative impacts on socio-ecological systems, and how is regener- ative activity designed into the entire supply chain necessary to create this design?

I believe that we have it wrong when we hope to create cultural guidance systems that help humanity into a sustainable or regenerative future based on set of recommended silver bullet “solutions”. How often in known history have yesterday’s solutions turned into today’s problems? How can we possibly presume that our solutions will not also reveal unforeseen side-effects or simply cease to be adequate responses to changing situations within a continuously transforming whole?

I believe that a more appropriate culturally regenerative compass to hand from generation to generation will be a set of questions we aim to improve and expand upon. We can better learn from our temporary answers and solutions by seeing them as transient means to ask better questions. Herein lies the path of transformative innovation and adaptation to life’s continuous exploration of novelty.

How did you get started in biomimicry/bio-inspired design?

I studied biology in the early 1990s because I wanted to understand how life works and what life does. As a fledgling marine mammal biologist I became very dissatisfied with the one-sided approach of a statistics-dominated science that seemed to only value the quantifiable and measurable, while practically ignoring systemic relationships and interconnections that were intuitively perceivable and could be mapped, yet — driven by qualitative relationships and systemic interconnections — were hard to narrow down to a p-value of statistical significance.

This eventually led me to turn my back on conventional research science, and — after a short period as a dive-master, scuba diving instructor, and environmental activist — led me to enroll in the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. During my time there, I read Janine’s book in 2002 and came to see ecological and bio-inspired design as the practice end of the holistic sciences.

How have you developed your interest in biomimicry/bio-inspired design?

At Schumacher College in England, I had an opportunity to include a three-week intensive on ecological design with John Todd, Nancy Jack-Todd and David Orr into my degree. They helped me understand that design was a much bigger and much more important activity than I had previously assumed as a biologist and systems scientist. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the relationship between holistic science and ecological design.

My PhD supervisor Prof. Seaton Baxter helped me to get a funded PhD scholarship at the University of Dundee’s Centre for the Study of Natural Design where I received my PhD in ‘Design for human and planetary health’ in 2006 and published my first academic paper on biomimicry.

In 2012, after moving back to Spain, I co-founded Biomimicry Iberia together with Theresa Millard, Andrea Monge, Manuel Quiros and others, and in 2015 we hosted the first Biomimicry Practitioners Camp of the European Biomimicry Alliance on Majorca, where I now live.

Daniel Wahl teaching at the Instituto Europeo de Diseño in Madrid, 2016

Design is an ongoing culturally creative conversation by which we are bringing forth a world together. Paying attention to life’s 3.8 billion years of distributed collective intelligence coded into a marvellous diversity of species and the relationships between them within an undivided continuously transforming whole can teach us a lot about how to design and act more wisely.

What are you working on right now?

I am promoting my book Designing Regenerative Cultures as an invitation to engage in deeper and broader conversations that I believe we urgently need to have in our communities, boardrooms, and government offices.

Designing Regenerative Cultures

In an ongoing collaboration with the Rhode Island based design firm Tellart and the Dubai Futures Foundation, I am helping to create an edition of the annual ‘Museum of the Future’ exhibition that will be focused on the kind of regenerative practices and technologies that we will have at our disposal in 20 to 30 years’ time.

I work part time for Gaia Education and have just completed a review and expansion of the four dimensions (social, ecological, economic and worldview) of its UNESCO endorsed on-line curriculum in ‘Design for Sustainability’. The feed-back from students logging in from all over the world is deeply rewarding and motivating. The next steps are to develop a 25-hour online course that will help communities take ownership of and play an active role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals at a local scale, followed by the development of a more regionally focused blended-learning program that will focus on bioregional, transformative innovation and social entrepreneurship.

I also work with the new S.M.A.R.T. UIB project at the University of the Balearic Islands. We are in the process of creating an international program in innovation, sustainability and design, and are partnering with diverse businesses and public authority to use the 18,000 people community and infrastructure of the university as a test-field for innovation within the wider bioregional test-field of the island of Majorca. We will run a seminar on systemic biomimicry and transformative innovation in June 2017.

What is your favourite biomimetic work of all time?

I very much love and respect the work of Jason McLennan and the folks at the International Living Futures Institute. I also look forward to seeing further development of Michael Pawlyn’s vision of re-greening the desert through the Sahara Forest Project. The whole ecosystem of innovations around morpho-mimicry of the sharkskin denticles make for a fascinating and inspiring case of biomimicry in action, as does the work of John Warner and Amy Cannon in Green Chemistry.

What book did you enjoy recently?

In the process of doing the research for my book I read many inspiring books. To name just a few of them: Giles Hutchins’ The Nature of Business, Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua’s Regenerative Enterprise, Jay Harman’s The Shark’s Paintbrush, Tom Atlee’s Reflections on Evolutionary Activism, Robert Steele’s Open Source Everything, Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons — A Patterning of Hope and, most recently, Transformative Innovation by Graham Leicester.

Who do you admire? Why…

I deeply admire my 99-year-old grandmother. She has taught me to never lose my curiosity for life and to always see the beauty in front of me in the little things many people tend to walk past every day, whether it is the colour or shape of a flower, the architecture in a blade of grass, or the warmth and compassion in a caring human interaction. She is a seemingly eternal practical optimist and her experience makes her a great mentor in the art of the long view.

What’s your favourite motto or quotation?

I have a number of favourite quotations:

Life creates conditions conducive to life. — Janine Benyus
The universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. — Thomas Berry
My life is a gift, from the whole of life, to the whole of life. — Tom Atlee
I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of Universe. — R. Buckminster Fuller

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Hiking in the Tramuntana mountain range on Majorca with my partner Alice, or chanting mantras on my stand-up paddleboard while gliding over the mirror-flat Bay of Palma as the sun rises. There are also good meals with friends, or the buzz on day two of a really creative workshop with a group of committed co-learners.

If not a scientist/designer/educator, who/what would you be?

I love stepping into all three of these roles and feel privileged to be part of a new generation of professional generalist who are specialized in many things but not to the depth where we are susceptible to extreme cases of silo-sitis. At some point I might reinvent myself as a documentary film-maker to reach a wider audience and respond to the sad fact that too few people have the time to read books anymore.

I also love carpentry and working with wood. Once I start working on my own home, I want to return to doing my own woodwork again. I also look forward to planting an analogue forest along the northern edge of the house and hope- fully I will live long enough to watch the trees grow to maturity.

[This interview was first published in Zygote Quarterly, Issue 17, 2016, pp.66–79]

NOTE: This year I am helping to organize the first Regenerative Practitioner Training taught by the team from the Regenesis Group in Europe. The training starts on-line — once a week for 2 hours from early September — and ends with a 4 day residential on Majorca between November 2nd and 6th 2017. Here is more info on the Regenesis Group website.