Monday, August 04, 2008

Biomimicry: Back to the Future for the BOP?

Last week I was invited to participate in a workshop by the The Biomimicry Institute (TBI) on education and biomimicry. The workshop was held on the shores of Montana's Flathead Lake and was a great chance to interact with educators and designers who are pioneers in this field. I was definitely the "newbie," having been asked to come give the group some background on designing products for the poor.

One of the big challenges is that as the poor move up the development ladder, the demand on the world's resouces increases... for all 6 billion people to live at U.S. standards, we would need several more Earths. Designing new planets seems to be a stretch, so it's probably better to figure out how to design products, organizations, industries and communities to be more sustainable. And biomimicry may be an important tool in doing this. As TBI points out "While humans have a long way to go towards living sustainably on this planet, millions of species – each with nearly 4 billion years of field testing – contain technological ideas to help us succeed in our all-important quest to become a sustainable species on a biodiverse planet."

Yes, Doc, "Design Inspired by Nature" has a definite Back to the Future feel to it! By looking back at how life has evolved over the millenia, we can gain insight into how we can make better, more sustainable products in the future.

Some highlights for me were hearing/seeing:

- Carl Hastrich talk about some of his students' projects at the Ontario College of Art and Design... including hockey gear inspired by a squirrel's seasonal coats (the summer fur is different than the winter). What do you expect from Canadian biomimetics, eh?

-Torrey McMillan show the project her students did in her elective science class for seniors at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire. As part of designing and building a living machine water filtration system, the students also needed to write a manual for science teachers who wanted to build one for their classes.

-Prasad Boradkar from ASU talk about his multidisciplinary Innovation Space program and the way he is planning to integrate biomimcry into this program.

-Tom McKeag and Margot Higgins discuss their upcoming graduate seminar at UC Berkeley "How Would Nature Do That?." If I were a Berkeley grad student (Luke O!) I would definitely check this one out.

As for my section of the program, TBI has identified the BOP as a strategic priority (along with Climate Change and Chemicals/toxics). Mitesh Gala and I have been doing some work on how biomimicry and "cradle to cradle" concepts might be used to improve BOP design, and I gave some background on BOP product design concepts. I told some stories from Enviofit, IDE and SELCO. I went through the evolution from the early models of large corporations' "repackaging for the poor" to IDE's "designing for extreme affordability." I shared my hope that we could come up with leapfrog designs for the poor, that allow them to bypass technologies that rely on existing infrastructure. For instance, many developing countries have better mobile telephony systems and leapfrogged over the copper wire systems. Perhaps it will be possible to leapfrog the electrical grid, or large scale water and sewage systems.

I also emphasized my belief that new design approaches must encompass not just the product, but also organizations, business ecosystem (industry and supply chain) and communities. I hope that some of the ideas helped the other participants expand their ideas on how to use their vast knowledge of design and nature to begin to look at applications for shelter, energy, and water treatment.

Kudos to Denise, Cindy and Sam for putting on a great workshop.

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