Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution?

** The article was originally published in Vol. 1 of FIELDS An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Please cite as follows: (A. Iouguina, 2013). Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution? FIELDS – An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Carleton University: Ottawa, ON.

Social innovation or Natural coevolution?

Biological inspiration is transforming many of the ways we think about innovation. Its commercial and theoretical applications are already influencing various industries and academic institutions. Fermanian Business and Economic Institute of Point Loma Nazarene University has devised The Da Vinci Index, which measures research and industrial activities inspired by solutions found in nature. The Index is compiled based on the number of patents issued, scholarly articles published, the number of grants issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA, and the value of those grants for any given period. The reading of 1052 in the third quarter of 2012 relative to the 100 Index level of 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past 12 years (Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, 2012).

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Social innovation implies a paradigm change

Innovation is essential for society, because it is the principal mechanism by which societies create and sustain competitive advantage. According to various sources, social innovation implies a paradigm change, or, in other words, it challenges an assembly of beliefs – possessed by an individual, a group or a civilization – that defend as certain and makes them set against the acceptance of other possibilities.

“Social innovations are changes in the cultural, normative or regulative structures [or classes] of the society which enhance its collective power resources and improve its economic and social performance” (Heiscala, 2007). For Heiscala, ‘Social innovation’ means ‘change in at least one of the following three social structures: cultural, normative and regulative.

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Illustrated guide to biopolymers: structural elements of biological systems

This is my favourite leisure activity: pulling together information I find of natural materials, processes, systems and trying to understand them by using visual tools. Because, you know, as designers, we learn visually. Or so the urban legend goes. One of the most popular things I hear design students say is how complicated and out of reach they think biology is.

There is a common misconception that once you have chosen the path of designer, a path of science is closed for you once and for all.

I would love nothing more than to dispute this myth. Let’s start with materials.

  • Break the overwhelming list of natural polymers into manageable sections. Draw associations with these materials and their generalized properties.

Author: Alëna Konyk. General sources and properties of some natural polymers. Inspired by (Ratner, Hoffman, Schoen, & Lemons, 2004).

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BBC – 3.1: How to Read Scientific Papers

Time to be resilient. Time to evolve, adapt, and attune to changes in my schedule. I have officially started my MDes degree, and am now faced with a rubber raft, being shipwrecked in the ocean of new information, as the brutal blinking cursor is beating down on me like the sun.

It is best to take the raft of least resistance and raise the stakes. Instead of summarizing the entire research and concept in one post, I am now spending more time at each design phase and extracting what might be relevant and useful to other designers, who would like to practice biomimicry as much as I would. Let’s start from the beginning. Discovering and Identifying a challenge, or – as we like to call it – opportunity. Here is a Design Spiral developed by Biomimicry Institute that summarizes the process of Biology to Design and Challenge to Biology:

Solution-based and Problem-based approaches. © Biomimicry Institute

By designer for designers: how to decipher and make sense of scientific writing

The first step, regardless of your choice of approach, will always lead to scientific papers. Understanding them is the key to a deep inspiration.

Sure, the term ‘discover’ could also mean that you put on your detective cap and I get my giant magnifying glass and we go see if we can find some clues. But this will likely still lead you to more questions that can only be answered by experienced scientists. Very few start-up designers have a luxury of having a biologist at the table. Scientific papers is the next best thing. Right now, I am taking my time with papers from medical fields and seeing if I can find correlation of challenges with biological systems. That means, a lot of science-related writings that can be extremely overwhelming to someone with an industrial design background.

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BBC-2: Of Cocoons, Bulletproof vests, and American Dagger Moths

To understand what is going on in this post, take 5 minutes to read this one. It’s an introduction to the concept of Biomimicry Biweekly Challenge, hence a mysterious abbreviation BBC in the title. I also wonder how many people ended up on this page by simply looking for the latest news from British Broadcasting Corporation.

The very hungry caterpillar

Once upon a time, an American Dagger Moth was spotted in my apartment, attempting to lodge itself between the hardcover books for shelter. About a month ago I caught a squirrel red-handed stomping all over my herbs. It was frequenting my 6th floor balcony with a mouthful of peanuts, lunching in oregano flowerpot, scattering husks all over the floor, and escaping by vertical wall Mission Impossible style.

Ever since then, I stopped wondering about random animals showing up in my apartment. This gorgeous caterpillar seemed agitated and worried, looking for a place to start pupating among The philosophy of Zen books. The agitation was passed on to me as I began scouring for books and websites to read up on the habits of dagger moths – here is what a came up with:

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iSite Basics: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About iSite* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Identify a spot that feels curious to you. You might use this same spot day after day or migrate around. It’s up to you. Once you are there, get settled and spend at least 20-30 minutes observing.

What relationships do you see? How about patterns? Describe or sketch them. What are some adaptations you see as a response to wind/predation/rain/decay/etc? Rather than asking “what is this organism doing?” ask “how does this behaviour fit the environment, and what will the organism do next”? 

These two paragraphs were taken right out of Biomimicry Resource Handbook. iSite was an excellent exercise that every Costa Rica workshop participant enjoyed throughout the week. It teaches how to be humble, how to quiet our cleverness, how to listen to the life shaping the environment.

iSite: David and Goliath

This sketch was drawn on the 4th day of the workshop during the intertidal zone visit. I sat on the rock for at least 30 minutes, observing a tiny crab gathering all its might to lift a gargantuan carcass of Goliath for who-knows what kind of purpose. A Halloween costume, perhaps? It was exhilarating to observe his fidgety self, patterns on the rocks adorned with barnacles, smell the air filled with salt and iodine, and hear the sound of waves crashing upon the crab whenever he would dare to approach the Goliath. Perseverance was rewarded by victory.

However, you do not have to go to Costa Rica to practice iSite – Tim wrote an excellent post about learning to observe without knowing what you observe right here, in your backyard. I do it all the time.

I never try to identify the species I draw. All the notes are added at home, when I have the need to dig deeper into the functions and behaviour of my teaching organism. Sometimes, it is incredibly hard – especially, when you are tempted to draw someone as common as a loon.

The way to do is to be

The other day, Vincenzo took me out for a bella giornata of fishing and a river-side picnic. If you picture a typical fly-fishing layman – standing thigh-deep in a streaming Ottawa River, rubber boots overflowing with water and sunburnt nose the colour of a boiled crayfish – you would picture me. This experience, however, reminded me of that 30 minute iSite, observing a tiny crab struggling against the waves to reel in an unyielding mass of a potential dinner.

Vincenzo knew exactly how to weave a loop of line in the air, how to settle the fly on the surface of the water, and how long to wait before mending the line. He was in tune with the environment. And while I was struggling to keep more water from streaming into my already waterborne socks, he was one with the experience.

iSite is quite similar to fly-fishing, I find. As long as there is just the mind (Which organism should I pick for inspiration?) and body (which sense do I tune into?) in the process, there is always a seesaw of power. But as soon as there is a more unifying goal – you become a spectator of a great theatrical performance, orchestrated by nature.

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RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections?

I have a tendency to use my bed as a great place for lengthy lights-out conversations, especially when it is 39°C outside, and the only effective way to fall asleep is by sprawling on a window ledge in a precarious position. And I’m glad nights like these exist. I’m also glad I have a husband, who continuously stimulates my mind and questions my ramblings.

A while back, I wrote a post about how optimize rather than maximize strategy in nature should be an essential part of Life’s Principles Circle. However, after reading Tim McGee’s thoughts on Resilience vs. Efficiency, my train of thought slightly modified its path and headed toward the crossroads.

Form follows function is one of those elegant phrases, which fell victim to overuse by designers and engineers. Optimize rather than maximize is also not as straightforward of a phrase as I thought at first. Seems, elegant phrases always have a danger of being misinterpreted for the lack of appropriate context.

Tim gave an excellent example of the importance of context in nature:

The most plentiful protein on earth RuBisCo, is not overly ‘efficient’ at capturing CO2, but does an effective job given the context. In fact some genetic engineers are trying to figure out how to increase the efficiency of RuBisCo, and I wonder if as a result it would lower the resilience of the photosynthetic system as whole?

So, RuBisCo is:

  1. The most abundant protein on earth (40-60% of plant leaf protein content)
  2. The only link between inorganic and organic carbon (turns over more than trillion tons of carbon dioxide each year)
  3. One of the most painfully slowest enzymes known

Does that mean, that if genetic engineers find a way to speed up RuBisCo, they may find a way to increase plant production? Eradicate famine?

Now, here’s a question that I would like to ask:

Why is it, that nature – over millions of years of intensive selection process – failed to increase the rate of carbon fixation to improve efficiency? Did it just find an answer at random through mutation – and that answer may be far from the best possible – but the mutations required to find better solutions were so unlikely, so out of range, that it got stuck optimizing RuBisCo rather then finding a more efficient solution?

Also, if genetic engineers truly wish to improve the rate of plant production, doesn’t it make sense to look for a completely separate solution? The chances of RuBisCo being improved are very slim – nature was all R&D about it over a much greater period of time.

This is where the conversation with my husband comes in

Myk is a game programmer, interested in memory allocation and optimization in games. He basically wants games to run faster, so you don’t have to be subjected to a sight of patchy Elf Paladin (while he is busy loading himself), when all you want is to get a new quest and be on your way.

The conversation I had with him at 2 a.m. was about the difference between memory allocation in offline games – where the environment is extremely predictable and static – and memory allocation in internet browsers  – where the environment is unpredictable and dynamic. Think, scripted scenario in Doom vs. what-the-hell-did-i-click-to-end-up-here scenario on internet.

I thought it was a perfect example of optimization vs. resilience in the world of computer science. Web browsers employ a much slower, dispersed (but much less vulnerable to disruption) memory allocation algorithms, whereas game designers always strive for a much more compact, efficient solution, which also is more prone to disruption.

Unlikely comparison? Not so much, when it comes to optimization algorithms. In Doom, you are pretty much predetermined to end up in the web of this adorable brainy spider. In contrast, you really never know where you'll end up in the forest of google interwebs. Funny, how today I started reading an article about tar sands of Alberta and ended up reading about William Windsor the Royal Goat and his daily diet. If you're interested in connection, it went like this: Tar sands – Tar percentage in cigarrettes – Daily acceptable amount of tar in human diet – Royal goat and his ration of two cigarettes per day, which he eats.

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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

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