They were very close to celebrating their 85th birthdays, but never got a chance to. They did, however, get a chance to become fathers of biologically inspired design movements and bring such terms as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomimetics’ into existence.
In fact, the term ‘bionics’ (biology + technics) describing the process of “copying, imitating, and learning from biology” was conceived by Jack Steele in as early as 1960 prior to the infamous Bionics Symposium.
United States Air Force, Wright Air Development Division 1961 (Kline 2009)
Steven Vogel in his book “Cats’ Paws and Catapults” defined bionics as being mostly concerned with systems design:
… [bionics] is based on living systems. The word ‘systems’ came naturally to those, mostly engineers, initially involved; neural systems and physiological controls formed biological parallels to human technology’s cybernetics and systems theory
Daniel Wahl took a radically different approach to the evaluation of the term, describing it from the perspective of ‘nature-culture relationships’ and indicating the deficiency of “salutogenic design approach that increases human, societal, and ecological health synergistically”. One of the most interesting quotes by Wahl examines the place of ‘bionics’ within the biologically inspired design:
Unfortunately the focus [of bionic-centred conferences] was so exclusively on technological innovation that it almost actively tried to discourage ecological concerns and the issue of sustainability.
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).
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:
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.
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:
How many 8th grade students does it take to change a lightbulb? None, they will use LEDs instead.
No? Nothing? Alright, I tried. The point is, children are extremely creative, intelligent, innovative, and most of all – knowledgeable about current technologies. We have become a nation of superb retail shoppers. But who is raising the planet’s future product developers?
Children of today have great skills of using products – their bedrooms are full of the latest toys from iPod to Razor Skateboard, but I don’t think much of it could be dismantled and then reassembled into anything functional. Children of today, just like children of any generation, crave active involvement in the meat of their toy. They want to use their eyes, hands, brains in the service of innovation, even if it is confined to their bedroom laboratory with a bent paperclip as the only tool available.
I witnessed this craving firsthand, when I taught a course at Carleton University SID department this May to 8th and 9th grade students with the help of my friend and colleague Corey McMahon. In this hands-on course titled Re-Making Your World: From Garbage to Goods! students got a taste of what it was like to design a new product from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Or, as nature likes to call it, upcycle.
Relaxing on a sculpture near Mckenzie Building after final presentations. Photo: A kind anonymous passer-by.
Where there is a challenge, there is always an opportunity.
Since the downturn of Lota’s economy that began in 1997 with the closure of its coal mines, Lota has become one of the poorest cities in Chile. To top off the already shaky situation, Lota has been hit by a massive earthquake – magnitude 8.8 – in February, 2010. Disaster came as a wake-up call to the municipal government that has begun to devise a plan for the refocusing of Lota’s economy from a mining town with an unclear future to a culture and heritage rich community with great vision.
Lota is a city with an abundance of natural resources and closely knit communities. What a great soil for economic growth! It is only a matter of bringing out these treasures of Lota and presenting the local stakeholders with the tools that can help facilitate the economic development in the area.
Lota is a city with abundance of closely knit communities