Life’s Principles: Optimization vs. Resource Efficiency

Just returned from Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, Ohio with a brand new treasure chest of inspiration and knowledge – ripe for exploration. Humbling connections, heartening speakers, challenging discussions.

I’m glad there was an activity with a Life’s Principles Circle, which turned out to be not a circle at all, but a linear pattern of nature’s strategies (Jawa, you would appreciate!):

Participants self-organized in four groups and arranged strategies into the most appropriate groups. Some new and modified ones emerged out of discussions.

I’m also glad this exercise took place, as many interesting debates were put on a table from representatives of many disciplines. There were some interesting discussions around the word “shape”, and what this term means in different professions. A debate around the term “recycle” was an expected one. Yes, nature truly recycles, but do we? Can we equate our understanding of “recycling”  to its phenomenon in “nature”?

I was particularly interested in the Be resource efficient  on 2011 version of Life’s Principles vs. Optimize rather than maximize on the old 2009 version, which I would like to discuss.

Top: Life's Principles version 2011 and Bottom: Life's Principles version 2009. Diagrams: Biomimicry Guild/Group

Can Optimize rather than maximize be compared to Be resource efficient?

Optimize rather than maximize

I had an interesting discussion with Michelle Fehler and Rob about this over lunch at the Botanical Gardens of Cleveland.

As Mr. Hoagland pointed out in his book Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, to optimize means to achieve just the right amount – a value in the middle range between too much and too little. Too much or too little sugar in the blood will kill. Everyone needs calcium and iron, but too much is toxic. At the level of the organism, optimizing is an intricate dance involving many interesting parts and values. Something that might make the antlers of a deer stronger, like a higher mineral content, might also make them heavier or unable to grow quickly enough. A peacock’s tail can only grow so large in relation to body size before it impedes the bird’s ability to get around.

Michelle gave an excellent example of information overload in the world of advertising. A term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock, is found all too often in the world of contemporary media.  I bet, when Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, he could never even imagine the effect of a medium in the world we live in today, compared to the year Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was published in. In some parts of the world, people are underexposed, having lack of information to base their decisions on. In other countries, advertisement is maximized to the point that it becomes addictive, in that more leads to even more with no spring-back mechanism to keep it in check.

If nature can control maximization by, let’s say, making a peacock with a humongous tail more cumbersome and less versatile when escaping from predators (killing off the gene slowly, but surely); our industrial systems thrive on and encourage such addiction. So, if a peacock would suddenly grow a gigantic tail by guzzling steroids at a nearby gym and felt too heavy and unbalanced during walks, he would probably get a sports car (big enough for his tail) and have no problem procreating.

Be resource efficient

This strategy speaks to me as an industrial designer. Instead of attempting to maximize production at every single node of industrial systems, we have to optimize productive capacities of these systems. In nature, as the costs of maximization rise, the species self-corrects. In industrial systems, as the cost of oil rises … well, companies churn out more gasoline cars.

I would vote for bringing back Optimize rather than maximize and placing it in Evolve to survive strategy. Too much information has almost no chance of a long-term survival in a consumer’s mind, but just enough helps us make associative connections and ultimately – informed decisions.


6 thoughts on “Life’s Principles: Optimization vs. Resource Efficiency

  1. Pingback: RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections? | Biology to Design

  2. Interesting analysis! Though I have not yet analysed the new Life Principles circle in detail, some changes to me do not seem to be improvements. I also ‘miss’ optimize rather than maximize’. Of course being resource efficient is a strategy you can find in nature, because it takes time and energy to build stuff. Eco-efficiency is a well-known ecodesign paradigm. What I learned from Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle, is that it is actually effectiveness you are looking for. Efficiency is one way to achieve this, but not the only one. Optimizing is far more important than minimizing (or maximizing). As a designer (and researcher) I am very much interested in the effectiveness strategy, as it is ‘unknown territory’ and seems to offer additional options to develop sustainable product-systems.

  3. Ingrid, absolutely! Tim McGee gave me an excellent example of Rubisco being inefficient but extremely effective, on which I expanded in this post:

    Besides, all of the bullets pertaining to the operating condition are: use multi-functional design, use low-energy processes, recycle all materials, fit form to function. To me, these are perfect examples of optimization and effectiveness, whether it’s energy or material flow. Efficient design survives perfectly in static laboratory conditions. Effective design is built for constantly changing, dynamic system. It’s easy to guess, which one of these are more resilient : )

    Finally, it’s a pleasure to connect with such forward-looking researcher from Delft University such as yourself! I was very inspired by Francine Houben’s lecture on architecture in Netherlands and especially the design of Delft University Library, which I absolutely have to visit in the future!

    • Dear Alëna,
      Thanks for your reply 🙂 and the link to TimMcGee, very interesting! Seems weird the word efficient is there in the circle instead of effective..
      Please let me know when you visit Delft, would like to meet! Do you also have a website, where I can see some of your work?

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