Technology, a Different View
Today I want to tell you about two graphs that changed my way of thinking about technology. After working for 25+ years in business management and often for high-tech companies, I developed my own way to be an alpha between the betas.
I love science and technology, but I also realize that we need to use technology with a purpose. The graphs that I am talking about made me curious about what we humans can achieve if we think different.
If we approach technology by learning from nature instead of staying on our current path of energy-addicted, material-intensive, waste-generating technologies.
Inspired by a book
Let me first introduce the graphs to you. The graphs and their explanation come from the book ‘De natuur als uitvinder’ (Nature as Inventor) written by Ylva Poelman, a renowned physics and astronomy scientist, founder of the bionica centre in The Netherlands.
Sorry for my English-reading audience: the book has been published in Dutch. But for my Dutch audience: Ylva is an inspiring writer about technology and nature. She also writes weekly columns for newspaper Trouw, that can be found online as well.
The graphs I mean have been published on page 149 of the book. Let me explain them to you.
Left: human technology. Right: biological technology.
From bottom to top:
- light grey: substance
- dark grey: structure
- grey specks: space
- pink specks: time
- dark pink: energy
- light pink: information
Difference between human technology and biological technology
These graphs come from a study by the Russian scientists Olga and Nicolay Bogatyrev together with their British colleague Julian Vincent. They published a set of interesting articles that give insight into differences between biological and human technology.
The big challenge here was to find a method to compare those two kinds of technologies. They settled on a model with six parameters that can be used to solve a technical challenge.
They gave the model a motto: ‘things do things somewhere’. Things of a certain substance (light grey) with a certain structure (darker grey) do somewhere in space (grey specks) and time (pink specks) things that need energy (dark pink) and information (light pink).
Ylva explains the 6 parameters in somewhat more detail:
- Substance: weight, adding and removing materials
- Structure: construction, complexity, precision, grouping
- Space: length, width, height, surface, volume
- Time: speed, time-lapse, the order of succession
- Energy: power, pressure, temperature, light
- Information: measuring, arranging, adaptability
More depth, different scales
And to give the research even more depth, the scientists did it for different scales. From nanometre to a kilometre. In the nanometre solution, you can find the Van-der-Waals-forces that make the Gekko’s feet stick and our nanotechnology.
Cells function in micrometres just like our thin coatings to protect surfaces. Human organs and small products like the Swiss army knife operate in the scale of millimetres to centimetres.
In the scale of centimetres to metres, you can think of organisms such as guppies or whales and human inventions such as big ships. The biggest scale (km) describes the functioning of ecosystems, cities and distribution systems such as roads and electricity grids.
The scientists have compared thousands of examples of solutions for technical challenges. The surface of the colours shows in how many cases a certain parameter has been used to solve a technical problem.
So it gives the frequency of use of a parameter, not how much of a parameter had been necessary to solve something.
Wow, this conclusion changes my view on technology!
The conclusion has fascinated me since Ylva’s book came out in 2015: If you look closely at the graphs, you see that left (human technology) mainly uses energy (dark pink) and substance (light grey) to solve technical problems.
Biological technology (right) however, mainly uses completely different parameters. Biological technology mainly uses structure (dark grey) and information (light pink).
Wow, this research offers a completely new perspective on how to think about technologies for the future!
Practical applications, Blue Economy
Luckily, in my work since then, I have come across several inventors, scientists and companies now that use these insights to change the way we research, develop and apply our new products for the future. Below I will name a few.
In these Blue Economy cases, we find many technologies that might change the world. Some of them have found applications already, some not. I really hope we will find a way to bridge the gap from science to entrepreneurs and make these technologies work in reality!
Perhaps my article about business models might help to inspire the entrepreneurs among us?
Daniel Christian Wahl is an interesting scientist to follow. He writes about regenerative cultures and his article about materials fascinates me. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen (CHON) are the materials that nature uses to create products. They are the ones abundantly available. How can we use them to create the human products of the future?
Structure of materials
Direct applications of the parameter ‘structure’ can e.g. be found in a different way to look at designing components. Generative design uses materials out of the right butterfly wing as portrayed in Ellen MacArther’s circular economy model.
It goes into the technological cycle of the circular economy which I am not in favour of as I explain in the next paragraph. But it is a step towards thinking different and next steps will hopefully follow. Blue Engineering can tell you all about generative design.
Why a focus on the biological cycle?
People who know me realise I try to stay away from the technological cycle as much as possible. I think the time has come to think really radically different.
But I do realise that a lot of people are not ready for that yet. I focus mostly on the left butterfly wing of the circular economy. The biological cycle of the butterfly made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
I think the products we design should all be biodegradable, it is just a matter of time. This is the only way to proceed with our technology in line with nature.
But I also think that all people need their own entrance into the new paradigm, the economy that matters. And the circular economy does show good steps to companies that want to change.
I just hope they will incorporate the heart in their choices, as taught by the purpose economy. I hope everybody will think things through from many different angles, before locking themselves into new technologies that will not contribute to our main goal: designing a way to make people and planet thrive together.
Direct application of the parameter ‘information’ is applied by the mighty fascinating technical inventors Frank Collaris and Lilly Huis in ‘t Veld and their company Blue Earth Innovations. They use the power of nature to purify and vitalise water with a combination of biological and human technologies.
Quantum physics is being used for the purification systems, but also air pressure for pumps that use way less energy. Material choices are made in such a way that maintenance is kept at a minimum.
They use relay technology instead of software to make the buyer independent of the supplier in solving technical issues during the lifespan of a product.
Everything is thought about from a problem-solving perspective and the choices really consist of ethical, heart-driven decisions. Water is just the beginning for them.
I really hope many applications on free energy and other paradigm-changing technologies will follow. They really understand the power of nature and are able to translate it into products. I bow deeply for such inventive minds…
Take your role!
I hope more scientists, entrepreneurs, technical wizards and young, passionate activists will stand up and act! Together we can weave this forest floor of interactions that will make an abundant future on this planet a reality.
Let’s all take our own role. Let’s change education from transmitting our known paths into teaching how to be curious and how to invent with all unused technologies from physics, biology and smart chemistry.
Let’s be a creating species, that will find the solutions of our time. I will observe, initiate and help with the projects that matter in my humble opinion and I will keep you posted…
Extra info after publication
NB. After the publication of this article, Biomimicry NL-founder Saskia van den Muijsenberg gave me some more English information on the research and some links.
Saskia: “Note that when said that humans use mainly energy and substance for solving technical problems, it doesn’t necessarily refer to the ‘amount’ of energy but rather to the manipulation of energy. Another cool thing to know is that whilst engineering and biology solve the same problems, there is only 12 % overlap in the method how. So there is still a lot of potential to discover!” More background on the graphs and Russian research can be found here.
She also directed me towards Science in School, which published a great article with the views of Julian Vincent on the same two graphs that inspired me.
Julian starts: “Engineering is probably humankind’s greatest achievement. And like all high-profile activities, it is in danger of becoming our downfall. It’s not that we are too good at it, it’s that we hardly realise that there are alternatives. A new study which compares engineering and the living world as problem-solving systems suggests that we have the tools for sustainable living, but are not using them properly (Vincent et al., 2006).”
You can read the full article here.
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