Innovation, creativity, sustainability

This article has been published in Norwegian (nynorsk) in the managazine Naturfag 1/17: Kreativitet by Naturfagsenteret under the title ‘Å vekka sansane’ April 24th, 2017.

Awakening the senses

Her eyes were closed. Her face shows an expression of mixed curiosity, concentration and joy as her fingers explore the object in her hands, almost the size of her paws. She turns and flips the object, not leaving any surface unexplored. The object feels spiky on some of the edges, smooth in what she describes as the inside, slightly bumpy and a bit rougher on the outer surface. It feels light, yet hard and strong. There seems to be some kind of pattern on the edges, and apparently a symmetry as well. May be it is the shell of some animal, but the point of the exercise is not to discover what the object is, rather discovering it with all her senses except for sight, at least for now. Her neighbor at the workshop table picked an object among the natural artifacts laying on the table and put it in her open hands while her eyes were closed.

It was a new experience for her, most of the time her other senses would mostly be influenced and informed by what she saw. This time around she did not have a chance to see what she was touching, and her brain was slowly tuning in in the other senses, trying to associate adjectives to what she felt. Now she is approaching the object to her nose. At first she doesn’t smell anything particular but then focusing a bit more, something vaguely familiar, reminiscent of the sea comes to mind. It is very subtle though. Approaching the object to her ear now, she taps it with her fingernails. It sounded hard and a bit hollow. The instructor said the objects were safe to taste if anybody fancied putting their tongue on it but she was reluctant to do that. As she explores the artifact, she says out loud all the adjectives that comes to her mind and her neighbor writes them all down.

She then opens her eyes and discovers that the object is in fact the shell of a crab, the kind she used to find on the coast nearby her summer hut. Her smile becomes brighter now, both because of this new experience and the memories this shell brings up.

In the classroom a dozen of other students in design do the same ‘blindfold exercise’ in pairs. One closes his eyes and opens his hands while the other picks an artifact and puts it in the first person’s hands. Adjectives are at first a bit hard to come by, but gradually they start to flow. We’re so heavily influenced and stimulated by sight that we tend to describe things by the way they appear, obliterating a good part of the information coming through the other sense. After opening their eyes, the pairs switch roles and the one who chose the object becomes the blind one.

Photo credit: Alex Asensi

All these adjectives characterize a function. There is a reason why the shell is hard yet light, spiky in places, smooth on the inside. Understanding these functions, and then understanding how nature is realizing them, is key to being able to learn from nature. What we want to do is to take out the principles from nature’s solutions and implement them in our designs. Nature is after all facing many of the challenges that we humans encounter. We’re all subject to the same laws of physics, facing the same elements and adapting to them. Nature is a master at ‘creatively’ using the laws of physics at its own advantage. In addition, nature is sustainable. Life creates conditions conducive to life. What would it look like if our designs were creating conditions conducive to life? Can we design sustainably? Yes, we can. Doing it while taking inspiration from nature is what is called biomimicry. We define it as the conscious emulation of nature’s successful strategies.

Photo credit: Alex Asensi

Innovation and creativity

How does nature innovate? How does nature come up with new ideas? Creativity functions a bit differently for us than it functions in the rest of nature. Nature is not per se creative. The diversity we find in all living things is the result of both random gene mutations and the evolutionary process that filters these mutations through the survival of the fittest. There is no intent behind this diversity, there is no intelligent design. The result is nonetheless interesting for us humans because nature forms a giant library of solutions to various challenges. And for each challenge there are many solutions that we can get inspired by.

Let’s take an example. Temperature regulation is a common challenge for all living things. We need it to preserve our food, to feel comfortable in the places we live and work or in most of our transportation vehicles. Now let’s look at how regulating temperature happens in nature. Closest to us: our body. It tries to keep a roughly constant temperature, and the ways this is solved happens for instance through sweating or shivering.

In hot climates, many animals use large body surfaces to create a heat exchange for their blood vessels. Take the ears of the elephant for instance. The desert fox also has very large ears compared to the arctic fox that has tiny ones in order to not lose too much body heat in the cold. Cactus use shade for instance: the zig zag pattern on their cross section allows them to generate shade no matter the angle of the sun’s rays, and as you may know, it’s cooler in the shade. The black and white stripes of the zebra may also be a cooling strategy: the black stripes get warmer than the white zones, creating convection and thus the moving air cools slightly the skin. In some places in Africa, termites build mounds several meters high and given that they are directly exposed to the sun they should have a very high temperature inside. This is actually not the case as termites have created an ingenuous ventilation system that allows them to regulate the temperature. In addition the nest in the mound is below the ground at a depth where the ground temperature remains constant no matter what the temperature outside is.

A good norwegian example is the polar bear. Under the white fur, the skin is black. The hair in the fur is hollow, like a tube, dimensioned in a way that guides the sunlight in it and brings it to the black skin, heating it up. Under the long hair of the outer fur is a dense underfur that keeps air trapped near the body, this serves as insulation. In addition the layer of fat behind the skin acts as another insulation layer.

So many strategies can be found just for this simple function of regulating temperature. Go have a look at this fantastic website: www.asknature.org and search for ‘regulate temperature’. It will come up with a list of many more strategies. This website is based on a database of more than 1600 strategies by different organisms, a great source of inspiration when you are trying to solve challenges.

A concrete application of biomimicry based on the strategies mentioned above is the Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. Architect Mick Pearce got inspired by the ventilation system of the termite mounds and implemented the principles of their strategy in the ventilation system of the building, thus saving 90% on its energy bill for the air conditioning. This is a good example of how nature can help us innovate and bring us closer to sustainable solutions.

EastgateCenter — Credit: ehp.niehs.nih.gov.png

The blindfold exercise I described at the beginning of this article is the way we start almost all of our biomimicry workshops. In addition to being fun, it puts students in a mindset that is much more creativity prone. We have an innate connection and attraction to nature, this is called biophilia, the ‘love of nature’. According to Terrapin Bright Green there are 14 patterns of biophilia, all well documented in their eponymous white paper. In there, they list scientific research, some of it showing that non-visual connection with nature positively impacts cognitive performance (Mehta, Zhu & Cheema, 2012) or that material connection with nature improves creative performance (Lichtenfeld et al., 2012).

The next step in that exercise is to take all those adjectives the students laid down and have them guess what function they might serve. From there we invite them to reflect on where, in our everyday life, in the objects we use or that surround us, those functions are present. How would they integrate in their design what they found?

For the non biologist, the process is often reversed: instead of starting with nature, it may start with a challenge. Taking that challenge, breaking it down to functions needed to solve it and looking at how nature achieves those functions is another way to do biomimicry. We ran a one day introductory workshop to biomimicry for masters students of product design at Arkitektur og design Høyskolen i Oslo (AHO) the other day. In the second part of the workshop the students were invited to project themselves in the future and think about how we would carry things around when traveling. It was amazing to see what examples from nature they came up with that then informed their designs. Inspirations came from how the uterus can adapt its shape to the volume inside, or how anacondas manage to open their mouth to gobble an entire goat for instance. Another group studied how armadillos can pack themselves into a solid ball that no predator can crack open and a third one got inspired by how fern leaves pack and unfold. So many ideas came to the table, all informed by nature, and all far from what the students would have come up with using other tools.

Armadillo
Armadillo in packed position to protect itself from predators

Creating conditions conducive to life

All these ideas need to be connected to sustainability. Biomimicry is just one of many ways to get inspiration from nature but what differentiates it from other nature inspired approaches is the necessary inclusion of the notion of sustainability in the process. Your design has for instance to use less raw material, less energy, be locally attuned, etc… Creating conditions conducive to life is a good definition for sustainability.

Life creates conditions conducive to life by following a number of deep patterns. The collection of these more fundamental principles (and this is based in scientific research) is known in biomimicry as Life’s Principles (see below). This is a good tool to use when designing new products, services or systems, the more principles you integrate, the closer you get to being sustainable. Your design should also be evaluated against these principles so that when you iterate on it you keep the focus on the principles that were either poorly or not implemented at all.

Biomimicry is most often used in product development, but the past decade has also seen an increase of activity on the social innovation front. After all, sustainability is not confined to products, production and raw material usage, it is also very much a social matter. Looking at how social insects function or, at a bigger scale, a whole ecosystem can give us clues on how to improve our societies. Without going in the details, we can for example learn how to take better group decisions by looking at how bees do that. This is the topic of the book Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley. Mature eco-systems like forests rely mostly on collaboration and looking at how this is structured may improve the way we shape our companies, markets and societies.

Much is still to be learned about nature, but what we have already discovered can be a major contributor to making our species sustainable.

The author, Michel Wolfstirn, is the co-founder with Nina Havermans of the organization BiomimicryNorway. Together, they provide both to academia and the industry, workshops and consulting services on sustainable design practices based on biomimicry and the circular economy.