1. Uncomfortable reading list: Biologically Inspired Design

You are probably wondering what I have been doing for the past four months. And I’d better be doing something productive, otherwise I have no excuse for relinquishing my mania for writing. Well, I’ve been reading. A lot. And designing. A lot. I will do another entry on the latter, because I can’t wait to share the former: all the books and articles I have found extremely useful in my biologically inspired design endeavours. Why, you ask?

Because there is such concept as comfort reading when you don’t want to read anything challenging or too full of ideas. Well, my list is the opposite of that. It’s the kind of literature that energizes, excites, makes you highly uncomfortable, causes you to down a bottle Nyquil at night just to fall asleep, and continuously generates opposing ideas in your mind. And you will never look at comfort reading again. If you’d like to give uncomfortable reading a try, proceed further.

As a side note, I am omitting my reviews of books by Janine Benyus, Joseph Bar-Cohen, Michael Braungart and William McDonough and would like to focus on the lesser known literature. Chances are, if you are reading this list, you are deep into biomimicry, biomimetics, and nature inspired design already.

Author: Alëna Konyk, 2010

Grassi, W., and M. Collins. “Leonardo da Vinci.” In Nature and Design, edited by M. Collins, M. A. Atherton and J. A. Bryant. London: WIT Press.

This article must be introduced within the context of the book series that rests on the parallels between human design and nature. Collins (as the main editor of the series) considers biology and engineering as disciplines that could have an advantageous dialogue.

Leonardo da Vinci, according to Grassi and Collins, is a personification of duality between the detached nature of a scientist and the mind-set of technologist.  The authors present a systematic analysis of Leonardo’s life and his broad polytechnic achievements in the disciplines of art, engineering, and natural sciences. More importantly, they illustrate Leonardo’s holistic worldview based on the universal application of nature’s laws to “machines … man … architecture … the macrocosm”.

This article retains objectivity throughout by use of relevant quotes pertaining to Leonardo’s achievements, philosophies, and personality traits. Treated as a case study, it proved very useful to me in the search of a bridge between the disciplines of biology and design. Also, the list of references provides great pasture for further research into the mind of a man who mastered the practice of biologically inspired design.

Lewens, Tim. Organisms and Artifacts: Design in nature and elsewhere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Lewens completed his PhD thesis at the Department of HPS, Cambridge University in 2001. He became a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge and now serves as a governor at Exeter School. In 2009, he was elected a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

In this book, Tim Lewens addresses a question of teleological terminology within a discipline of biology and introduces the term the artifact model: the approach that treats the organic world as though it were designed. He concludes throughout the book that such thinking model is often useful in ascribing the meaning and proper functions to living organisms, yet needs to be used with caution.

This book is highly beneficial to any designer interested in biology, because it focuses on the design terminology in biology discipline. Moreover, the author addresses in detail similarities and differences between biological evolution and technological progress. Tim Lewens takes a critical approach to the enthusiasm around the evolutionary model of technological change to explain the intentional creation of artifacts and ponders the debate around myriad forms of design by nature.

McHarg, Ian L. Design with Nature. Garden City, NY: John Wiley &Sons, 1992.

Ian McHarg was the founder of and a professor emeritus in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He is known as the father of ecological planning and has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including The National Medal of Art in 1990.

Design with Nature is a pioneering work (originally published in 1969) that includes ecologically, socially, and ethically oriented theories and methodologies for design within the limits of biosphere. The premise of the text is that humans are a part of the natural world and thus should design to fit into the environment. McHarg states that form does not follow function, but rather, the two emerge together. If the form does not fit the ecology of which it is a part, the result is a project that will collapse under the weight of its incompatibility with its surroundings. McHarg proves this point with several examples of how the natural setting is capable of influencing the outcome. The book concludes with a study of a city to identify correlations between health and environment. The finding revealed a correlation between crowding, social pressure, and pathology.

This excellent book presents an insightful and practical approach to biologically inspired design and creates several questions for the reader. Firstly, how can design act as an interdisciplinary integrator and extend beyond the practice of simply being informed by natural sciences? Secondly, what is McHarg’s recommendation in regards to bridging the gap between nature and culture, stated in the article Biophilia vs. Technophilia by David Stairs?

Stairs, David. Biophilia and Technophilia: Examining the Nature/Culture Split in Design Theory. Design Issues 13, no. 3 (1997): 37-44.

David Stairs (MFA in Communication Design) is a graphic design coordinator at the Central Michigan University, an editor for an online community called Design-Altruism-Project, and an executive director for Designers Without Borders.

An article gives an introduction to The Biophilia Hypothesis and questions the possibility of “ecotechnological equilibrium”.  Stairs challenges Herbert Simon’s scientific approach to design theory, stating: “Such either/or hypotheses, so prevalent in an era of information theory, are disturbing”. This article is valuable in an abundance of opposing viewpoints: technophilic (as in the case of Victor Margolin’s “product milieu”), biophilic (Edward Wilson’s “biocentric world”), and balance (Ezio Manzini’s “ecotechnological equilibrium”). Stairs also mentions Victor Papanek’s case for indigenous people, “the best designers in the world” for their practice of handicraft technology that enables them to survive in the harshest climate without compromising their link to actuality.

The paper concludes with a compromise between the concepts of “learning about the world” and “doing to the world”. The author presents a concise overview of the struggle between ecological and design worldviews and poses a question of whether the balance between the two is attainable.

Wahl, Daniel C. Bionics vs. biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 87, 289-298.

Daniel Christian Wahl has ten years of experience as a sustainability researcher.  Originally trained as a biologist at the University of Edinburgh (1996), he completed his PhD on whole systems design for sustainability in 2006 at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design (University of Dundee).  Since 2007 he is the academic director of the Findhorn College and a member of Gaia Education.

This paper suggests that bionics and biomimicry represent two distinct approaches to biologically inspired design, mainly due to different conceptions of the relationship between nature and culture.  According to Wahl, the aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process (argued by Benyus in Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature), rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control (covered in Bar-Cohen’s Biomimetics: biologically inspired technologies). Wahl asserts that the transition towards sustainability should be facilitated by design and technology and informed by science, ethics, and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives.

Wahl boldly states that sustainability is the wicked problem of design in the 21st century and urgently requires an adaptation of nature’s lessons to bring about radically different worldviews, value systems, intentions, and life styles.

A clear philosophical distinction between the disciplines of bionics and biomimicry is laid out in this paper, and portions of the text can be used as introductory-level materials for a debate. It could have further benefited from a more in-depth exploration of the two concepts with pertinent case studies.

Wahl, Daniel C. Eco-literacy, ethics, and aesthetics in natural design: The artificial as an expression of appropriate participation in natural process. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee.

This article offers a unique approach to design that promotes aesthetic of health (“salutogenesis”), based on ecological literacy. Wahl shuns the dyadic model of artificial vs. natural and introduces the concept of triad, bridged by ecological ethics and aesthetics of participation that also considers cultural, social, and economic values. The author introduces the term “Natural Design Movement” that brings together the diverse fields of design activity and confronts the reader with the important question of ethical basis for design. Wahl asserts design as an interdisciplinary facilitator, quotes Ranulph Glanville: “science is a special branch of design and not design a special branch of science.” and reminds of Herbert Simon’s definition of design as “the science of the artificial”.

The author goes on to juxtapose biocentric and anthropocentric worldviews in the context of ecological ethics and states that awareness breeds a sense of responsibility in a designer. He concludes with the general analysis of relevant literature and avoids calling Natural Design a new field of specialization. Rather, Wahl believes that it is a unity of all the currents of 21st century design, “which are contributing to the transformation of human society towards sustainable practices”.

This article is a great collection of philosophical views in the field of sustainable design over the last fifty years. It unravels the participatory worldview mentioned in Bionics vs. Biomimicry article and presents the topic within a historical context. Wahl’s analysis has triggered my own struggles with the discipline of biomimicry, such as the integration of culture within the Life’s Principle Circle and the role of competition in natural systems and its translation to engineered systems.

Wilson, Jamal O., and David Rosen. “The effects of biological examples in idea generation.” Design Studies 31 (2010): 169-186.

Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design brings together a group of interdisciplinary biologists, engineers and physical scientists who seek to facilitate research and education for innovative products and techniques based on biologically inspired design solutions. The participants of CBID believe that science and technology are increasingly hitting the limits of approaches based on traditional disciplines, and biology may serve as an untapped resource for design methodology, with concept testing having occurred over millions of years of evolution.

Wilson and Rosen introduce the principle of local and distant analogies as tools for idea generation, asserting the advantage of innovative component in the former. They also cite other literature where the number of distant analogies used in the design process, was positively correlated with the novelty of the resulting design. The concept sets the stage for a study conducted with mechanical engineers in evaluating the hypothesis of novelty and variety of designs following the presentation of examples from the world of biology. The authors proceed to prove the alternative hypothesis through qualitative research with results indicating the existing correlation.

The article is a good resource of research methodology in the field of biologically inspired design.

Next up: the reviews of

  1. Cats’ Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel
  2. Invention and Evolution by Michael French
  3. Biologic by David Wann
  4. Design in Nature: Learning from trees by Claus Mattheck
  5. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
  6. More articles!

4 thoughts on “1. Uncomfortable reading list: Biologically Inspired Design

  1. I like your blog and this article. I’m currently doing research on Biomimicry and innovation in design and am actually gonna use some of the articles you mentioned. I already knew about “Wilson, Jamal O., and David Rosen. “The effects of biological examples in idea generation.”. The reference about local vs distant analogy was greatly helpful in my analysis. I’ll keep following your posts.

    • Pleasure to know this has been helpful! I’m always curious to know about the research that’s happening in the field of biologically informed disciplines. Here is a more extensive list of articles and books to check out!

      Aliseda, A. (2006). Abductive Reasoning: Logical Investigations into Discovery and Explanation. Springer.

      Bar-Cohen, Y. (2006). Biomimetics – Using Nature to Inspire Human Innovation. Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, 1-12.

      Bernard, E. E., & Kare, M. R. (Eds.). (1962). Biological Prototypes and Synthetic Systems: Proceedings of the Second Annual Bionics Symposium. New York: Plenum Press, Inc.

      Birkeland, J. (2002). Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Integrated Eco-logical Solutions. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

      Bonser, R. H., & Vincent, J. F. (2007). Technology trajectories, innovation, and the growth of biomimetics. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part C: Journal of Mechanical Engineering Science, 221, 1177-1180.

      Capra, F. (2010). Ecology and Community. Center for Ecoliteracy. Retrieved February 2012, from http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/ecology-and-community
      Carpenter, H. G. (1933). Mimicry. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

      Cross, N. (2006). Designerly Ways of Knowing. London: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.

      Dahl, D. W., & Moreau, P. (2002). The Influence and Value of Analogical Thinking During New Product Ideation. Journal of Marketing Research, 47-60.

      Dario, P., Sandini, G., & Aebischer, P. (Eds.). (1991). Robots and Biological Systems: Towards a New Bionics? Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Workshop on Robots and Biological Systems. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

      DeKay, M. (2011). Integral Sustainable Design: Transformative Perspectives. London and Washington, DC: Earthscan.

      Duane, P. T. (1998). Shaping the Sierra: Nature, Culture, and Conflict in the Changing West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

      Edmonds, E. (1994). Support for Collaborative Design: Agents and Emergence. Communications of the ACM 37, 41-47.

      Fermanian Business & Economic Institute. (2012). The Da Vinci Index & Biomimicry. Retrieved from Point Loma Nazarene University: http://www.pointloma.edu/sites/default/files/filemanager/Fermanian_Business__Economic_Institute/Da_Vinci_Index_2012_Q3_final.pdf

      Geselowitz, D. B. (1998). In Memoriam: Otto H. Schmitt. Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 26(5), 739-740.

      Gray, C. H. (1995). An Interview with Jack E. Steele. In The Cyborg Handbook (pp. 61-69). New York & London: Routledge.

      Gray, D. E. (2004). Doing Research in the Real World. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Ltd.

      Harkness, J. M. (2001). A lifetime of connections – Otto Herbert Schmitt, 1913–1998. Phys. Perspect.

      Heinley, D. R. (1963). The Role of Biology in Instrumentation Industry. American Institute of Biological Sciences Bulletin, 35-37.

      Jack Todd, N., & Todd, J. (1984). Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

      Jantsch, E. (1980). The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. New York: Pergamon Press.

      Josephson, J. R., & Josephson, S. G. (1994). Abductive Inference: Computation, Philosophy, Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      Kline, R. (2009). Where are the Cyborgs in Cybernetics? Social Studies of Science, 39(3), 331-362.

      Laszlo, E. (1972). The Systems View of the World: The Natural Philosophy of New Developments in the Sciences. New York: George Braziller.

      Martin, R. (2009). The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

      Mayr, E. (2004). What makes biology unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
      MBDC. (2013).

      Miller, J. G. (1978). Living Systems. New York: McGraw Hill.

      Mlade, J. (2005). Bio-inspired Design: Applying Nature’s Genius to Buildings. Colorado State University.

      Müller, A. (2007). A Brief History of the BCL: Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory. In A. Müller, & K. Müller (Eds.), An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL), 1958-1976 (pp. 279-302). Vienna: Edition Echoraum.

      Nachtigall, W. (1997). Vorbild Natur: Bionik-Design für Funktionelles Gestalten. Berlin: Springer Verlag.

      National Academy of Sciences. (2009). A New Biology for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

      Patterson, R. (2009). Otto Schmitt’s Contributions to Basic and Applied Biomedical Engineering and to the Profession. Conference Proceedings: Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.

      Schmitt, O. H. (1938). Cathode Ray Oscillograph for the Investigation of Nerve Action Potentials. Journal of Scientific Instruments.

      Schmitt, O. H. (1969). Some interesting and useful biomimetic transforms. Third International Biophysics Congress of the International Union for Pure and Applied Biophysics, (p. 297). Cambridge.

      Speck, T., & Speck, O. (2008). Process Sequences in Biomimetic Research. In C. A. Brebbia (Ed.), Fourth International Conference on Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering (pp. 3-11). Boston: WIT Press.

      Stake, R. E. (1994). Case Studies. In N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. CA: Sage Publications.

      Todd, J., & Jack Todd, N. (1993). From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

      Van der Ryn, S., & Cowan, S. (1996). Ecological Design. Island Press.

      Vincent, J. F. (2009). Biomimetics — a review. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part H: Journal of Engineering in Medicine, (pp. 919-939).

      Vincent, J. F., Bogatyreva, O. A., Bogatyrev, N. R., Bowyer, A., & Pahl, A.-K. (2006). Biomimetics: Its Practice and Theory. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 3(9), 471-482.

      Wahl, D. C. (2006). Bionics vs. Biomimicry: From Control of Nature to Sustainable Participation in Nature. In C. A. Brebbia (Ed.), Design and Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering (Vol. 87). WIT Press.

      Wehrspann, P. (2011). Biology as a Muse: Exploring the Nature of Biological Information and its Effect on Inspiration for Industrial Designers.

      Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics, or Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

      Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics, or Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

      Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. USA.

      Yin, R. K. (2003). Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

      Happy reading!

      • One last comment, funny thing is, as fascinated I am by future technologies/strategies toward sustainability from biomimicry to 3D printing, to synthetic biology as indicated on my blog, you were right to name this list an uncomfortable reading list. Daniel Wahl’s article, Bionics vs. biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature, while very helpful for my thesis, turned out to make me question a little more the whole of synthetic biology.
        I don’t necessarily believe in the need to create new living entities like Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg project (first post on my blog), but I find SynBio interesting when looking at protocells to design products that can regenerate themselves like Shamees Aden’s footwear concept.
        Synthetic biology in many ways fall in the category that Wahl first mentioned: the mindset of control, manipulation and prediction. Tinkering with synthetic living creatures brings a slew of issues, mostly ethical. There’s much more I wanna say, but don’t want to rant on your page, just a thought I had after reading Wahl’s article. It made me question this iisue from another angle I guess.
        But I’d be interested of knowing what is your though on that.

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