Co.Design

Could Biomimicry Build a Better Company Than Your Boss?

In the final chapter in our Biomimicry Challenge, we ask the clients if they think nature can help solve their business problems.

A few weeks ago we published the three case studies in our Ask Nature Biomimicry Challenge, where teams from Taller de Operaciones Ambientales (TOA), IDEO and Smart Design tackled design problems for real-world clients alongside biologists from the Biomimicry Institute. We've covered the solutions, but we wanted to check in with the clients as well: Did they see biomimicry as a new tool that could help advance their businesses?

Richard Graves, vice president of community for the U.S. Green Building Council, said he was skeptical at first that having IDEO take a biomimetic approach to redesigning their organizational structure would prove useful beyond just theory. "To be honest, I was not sure how much we would get that would be usable, but I see many ideas that can be explored and developed," he says. "I was surprised at how many of the ideas seem very practical and implementable." One particular solution that stood out to him was an idea to signal the health of USGBC chapters that was inspired by a pink flamingo: The "health" of the flamingo—or how much shrimp it eats—is outwardly reflected in the shade of pink of its feathers. "Having a simple, clear characteristic that reflects the health of an organization would be very useful in the chaotic world we live in," he says. "How to achieve this?"

The partnership with IDEO and the Biomimicry Guild proved useful in other ways: The USGBC is organizing a panel discussion on biomimicry at this year's Greenbuild convention and the team is also discussing another charrette. Graves was impressed with the way biomimicry reframed their internal issues. "Biomimicry is a great tool to integrate into the design process of an innovative company or organization," he says. "We saw it as a way to have a different lens on challenges we have been working on for some time."

A second challenge focused on Smart Design's ideas for cities to conserve water as part of IBM's SmarterCity initiative. IBM itself is no stranger to a biomimetic approach, says Ian Abbott-Donnelly of IBM Big Green Innovations, pointing to a recent computer chip using the same self-assembling nanotechnology that builds snowflakes and seashells. But the fact that Smart Design was able to examine biomimicry at city-scale, using larger principles based on an ecosystem's feedback loops, proved that biomimicry can work for their initiative working at the civic level. "This work gives some well thought-out stories of how to apply biomimicry to cities which can easily be discussed with teams operating in cities," he says. "I am hoping that this new thinking will enable cities to explore and implement solutions which have the right insight to be effective."

Abbott-Donnelly also liked simple ideas proposed by Smart Design, like the implementation of micro-parks, whose lushness or dried-out looks could quickly show the city's water health to residents. "The next step is to get these ideas into the language of city dynamics. I will be discussing these with Smarter City teams to see if the ideas can be trialed somewhere or if they trigger further implementable ideas." He also hoped to see how the ideas could be applied to other city issues like traffic, waste, energy and economics. As far as using biomimicry in a business role, Abbott-Donnelly had some keen insight. "Nature has had 3.5 billion years of R&D to optimize its use of water and energy," he says. "This work gives some very understandable examples."

For the third challenge to restructure Portland's eco-districts, design firm TOA had a unique client: Erin Leitch, from Portland sustainable development company Brightworks, was also a recent graduate of the two-year Biomimicry Certificate program (she has recently left Brightworks to pursue biomimicry full-time). Working with TOA helped Leitch to illustrate the power of ideas that had already been discussed when it came to zoning various eco-district endeavors, she says, like the use of adding small clusters of development outside of eco-districts to spur sustainable growth in new neighborhoods.

When it came to equating nature with business, Leitch appreciated the analogy used by TOA that related the exchange of nutrients in an ecosystem to financial exchanges like funding. "The simple translation of money in a business scenario for nutrients in a natural system is a powerful way to shift the mindset of the working groups when looking to nature for design solution precedence," she says. Everything about the analogy makes sense, she says, especially the way changing environmental conditions relate to changing market conditions. "It broadens the solution space from a business perspective," she says. "Rather than a specific strategy, this money=nutrient concept has paradigm shift potential that could be introduced to the eco-districts working groups now."

While that direct correlation between biomimicry and business innovation is not central to the biomimicry approach, it is something that the Biomimicry Guild is hoping to address, says Christopher Allen, manager of the Biomimicry Design Portal project. That's why the Biomimicry Guild is working on a concept called the Biomimicry Innovation Process, which can help take the process from this charrette point into conception and into marketplace in the most sustainable way.

Another key factor in bringing business and biomimicry closer together will be due to the variety of participants in the Biomimicry Professional Certification program, an intensive biomimicry training program. The latest round of graduates in the two-year program included biologists, engineers, designers and even four people with business backgrounds, says Allen, and it's that kind of diversity that will ensure that biomimicry can be embraced by various walks of life. "We need a full range of interdiscipinary participants," he says. The deadline for applications for the next program is coming up on July 15.

But mostly, says Allen, a company needs to look at itself and ask how committed they are to biomimicry. "This is not something you can bring into a company during a three-day workshop," says Allen, who is currently working with the global architecture firm HOK Architects—one of the largest architecture firms in the world—in a multi-year engagement to bring biomimicry into every aspect of their process. "Senior leadership has to have the vision and work with us to make it their own," he says. "It's not easy, but it's exciting."

Photo by Jessica Jones

Special thanks to the Biomimicry Institute and the Biomimicry Guild for partnering with the Designers Accord on this challenge. See more solutions from the What Would You Ask Nature? Biomimicry Challenge
// If you have a design and sustainability story to share, let us know about it! Check out the brand new Designers Accord Web site. And follow us on Twitter @designersaccord to hear what the Designers Accord community is thinking about. Browse more Designers Accord Case Studies

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