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Bill Hsiung

Biomimicry Specialist, Biomimicry Design LLC

TEDCRED 200+

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How do you envision "Biomimicry" will change our future?

With more and more people talking about biomimicry; more and more projects and products embrace "Nature inspired design". Could we, humans, really incorporate the ideas of biomimicry into every single aspect of our daily life? Could we change our life styles radically to sustainable ones and finally living in harmony with nature?

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    Feb 15 2011: I firmly believe that nature represents the single biggest repository of "un-tapped" intellectual property in the known universe. It's only because we are so surrounded by life, things like grass, cows, cats, dogs, and trees that we somehow miss the wonder of these living machines. As I write this an amaryllis on my desk is slowly converting water, stored sugar, and ethereal photons into a brilliantly constructed colorful collector.

    One approach in bio-mimicry is to apply the amaryllises' flower synthesis principles to satellites, by studying how the leaves are folded within the pod, and then replicating this process using synthetic materials, cams, winches, and other mechanisms. This approach (with a particular emphasis on the science of folding) has been replicated with great success in creating efficient solar payloads.

    But even more powerful than biomimicry, is bio-adaption. Taking the whole of an existing living system and re-adopting it to a new purpose. In the satellite example with a "bio-adapted" design the solar sails would not just unfurl, but actually be built, molecule by molecule by the stem of the ship. Of course this is what we think of mechanistic nanotechnology. Scientists consider this "tough", but in fact its happening in the world around you, in your own body, all the time.

    At Ecovative we us the concept of bio-adaption with mycelium. We take a living organism, which demonstrates an incredibly complex metabolic process to convert waste lignin into a chitinous polymer, and use the entire body of the organism, as a glue! We arn't just mimicking what happens in nature, we are directly leveraging the billions of years of evolution, genome acquisition, and other processes which resulted in a finely tuned living polymer. There are many examples of living systems that do incredible things like this, its just a matter of changing your perspective on what life is. Its not "Magic" just sufficiently advanced technology. We should use it as such!
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    Feb 18 2011: Peter Head at Arup thinks that biomimicry will be the main tool that helps us make the transition from the industrial age to the ecological age of mankind. I think in many ways biomimicry represents the conclusion of a shifting mindset that has moved from thinking that we can dominate nature, then simply trying to preserve bits if nature and now a realisation that our best chance of a healthy and abundant future lies in reaching a reconciliation with nature in which are able to retain some of the brilliant things we have developed and completely rethink the things we have developed that have proved to be poorly adapted to the long term
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      Feb 24 2011: I think your comment emphasises the need for preservation of our ecosystems, and nowhere is this more so than in Madagascar. There was a BBC documentary on it the other day and Sir Richard Attenborough said something quite poignant about the country being an unrepeatable experiment where plants and animals have been evolving in isolation for over 60 million years. He concluded by saying how tragic it would be if we lost it before we even understood it.
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        Feb 24 2011: Agreed. There are many valid moral arguments for preserving biodiversity but for those of a sceptical or anthropocentric view I find it can be more persuasive to look at nature as a phenomenal source-book of solutions for future medecines, technologies, materials, etc.
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          Feb 26 2011: Regarding my earlier comment about the Eden Project…


          My understanding is that most embodied energy assessments are undertaken from cradle to gate (as is the case with the ICE inventory of Carbon) and only assess the impact of embodied energy up to the manufacturing stage. A more holistic approach would consider the impact of the materials from cradle to grave, whereby consideration is given to transportation distances and how the material is finally disposed of.

          I understand that ETFE is mainly manufactured in China and Germany. If this was the case for the Eden Project then clearly transportation would significantly increase the embodied energy; whilst it also remains unclear how the material would be disposed of at the end of its life, and the wider environmental implications of this.

          Saying that, I do think its an interesting material and would like to learn more.

          Thanks
  • Mar 9 2011: There are examples throughout human history of societies that approached life in a fundamentally harmonious way. Some still exist today. This is not just a technological question, it's also an important philosophical one. Biomimicry offers this generation of solution-seekers many exciting opportunities -- some are discussed here. But unless we wrestle with questions that threaten our self-conception along the way, the goal of reaching harmony with nature -- or rather understanding ourselves as part of nature may prove difficult. And without a new (or perhaps old) narrative about the purpose of human life on the tips of each tongue, biomimicry may not realize it's full potential, and neither might we. Make new systems but live by old values. Biomimicry is meme.
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    Feb 17 2011: "Could we, humans, really incorporate the ideas of biomimicry into every single aspect of our daily life? Could we change our life styles radically to sustainable ones and finally living in harmony with nature?" - Bill, sure we could and should as biomimicry is the most wonderful form of design and engineering on the face of this planet. But I'm pretty sure you realize the utopian nature of your question, and how this sad fallen world with its geo-political struggles, fights and utter ignorance (including willing ignorance) will NEVER get to that green harmonious world we so wish for. There will always be Glenn Becks out there destroying this world like cancer and rallying the opposition to anything progressive in every form. So hopefully that's motivation enough to push biomimicry and sustainability in design stronger yet.
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    Feb 11 2011: I hope so, Bill! And the talks you reference above definitely pave the way. (I particularly love the moment in Janine Benyus's 2009 talk when she asks, with wonder: "Can you imagine designing Spring?")

    I'm particularly heartened by the work in material science -- like Eben Bayer's extraordinary innovations with mushroom-based, eco-friendly, plastic-replacing packaging material. We humans are suckers for efficiency. We are just not going to give up time-saving conveniences like take-out containers and mail-ordered packages, unless we're forced. So we're going to need to innovate our way forward -- and quickly --by developing sustainable materials that neutralize this consumption. Bio-degradable innovations like Eben's are perfect examples. Now if only they'd be adopted more widely!
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      Feb 11 2011: June, I totally agree with you!

      However, at least one company's attempt to switch to eco-friendly packaging material got backfired.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuhWtnujroQ
      http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2010/10/04/sunchips-buries-noisy-green-packaging-now

      I wonder if this kind of problems would make other companies afraid to innovate toward eco-friendly solutions?
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        Feb 15 2011: Bill,

        The key in the adoption of green technologies is that they actually have to be BETTER than existing synthetics. This means in performance, and usually price. This is a tall order, but biological solutions, when properly designed, can and should be able to meet this metric. If they do, they become highly scale-able. We must demand environmentally responsible solutions that don't make compromises. Its hard, but worth it!
        • Feb 18 2011: They can and will be better in both, but the process is most likely to resemble the overcoming what's now commonly described as the Innovator's Dilemma (but was described at least 30 and perhaps even 40 years prior to that term gaining currency); that is find a niche where the existing level of performance and price can win and then improve the new technology until it's price/performance pushes past the old technologies in larger and larger application areas.
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    Mar 1 2011: I feel that will be the only way out for mankind form the ecological mess, created by us so far to the bigger ecosystem of the world. Biomimicry could be a good answer to challenges like rapidly evaporating energy source , shrinking bio-diversity, destruction of food chain, global warming. Wish mankind can embrace Biomimicry based technology sustainbly and profitably soon. The truth is that in our todays world of profit driven market economy, nothing will succeed if it can't ensure profit at the end regardless whatever benefit it offers.
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    Feb 25 2011: Practicing Biomimicry helps us better understand the materials, procesess, functions of life on our bountiful planet. Knowing this will impact our future greatly. We never really had the chance before to understand the nitty gritty bits of what causes our planet to run and now we do. In the Ecological Age breakthrough discoveries will take place which will revolutionize the way in which we solve problems. Problems will be solved through the mastery of biology, chemistry and physics. We have come a very long way since Aristotle the father of all sciences and we made discoveries which support the world we live in today and most likey will continue to do so in our future and also on other worlds.

    I envision space crafts like Manta Reys gently floating above us, bubble domes like Eden Project and Biosphere 2 covering the many cannals, including the great giant canyon Valles Marineris of Mars. Craters of the Moon will also include such autonomous colonies and mimicing the ecosystem will be a thing likely to be taken for granted by future colonisers. We will above all learn how to fix our home planet, and rain forests will be regrown to their original capacity and the oceans will be inhabited by humans. Colonising the Moon Europa will require a simulation under our water to better understand the constraints of the environment of Europa. Although this sounds like Sci-Fi it is extremely probable as this planet will be unable to sustain all of us in such great numbers with all our unique dreams to fulfill. This is why we will be forced to leap out into space and biomimicry will be a wonder tool worth bringing along.
  • Feb 24 2011: I'm just constantly amazed by the hope that biomimicry brings to those who discover it. There's really very little doom & gloom involved: it's simply reminding people there are technologies and processes already in place and we just need to notice them. Similarly, I find biomimicry so inspiring because I feel it is the perfect blend of granola earthiness and high-tech innovation. The Earth Mother meets engineer, if you will...
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    Feb 24 2011: It is so easy to look at the beauty of nature and figure out its ways but in my opinion it is an extremely difficult challenge to see and understand a way in it for us and know 'how?' to adapt nature's ideas to solve our human problems. We live at a different scale and our problems are various and it is in the hands of those creative brains such as bio-artists and bio-engineers to observe solutions in nature, observe problems in our world and somehow synthesise the two into a solution appropriate. Unfortunatly that is commonly a time-consuming and expensive process. Leonardo Da Vinci dedicted the majority of his life to it and became an expert in this field and he did change the world! His ideas were mostly sustainable and constructed from renuable materials. (Peraps that is where we ought to begin - i know Theo Jansen has.) Time passed and the industrial man turned many of his ideas into either a destructive machine or a cynical mechanism of greed, consuming habitats and organisms - and this is because with new oportunities come new expenses and someone must pay: in our case and also in the case of the Moai people from the Easter Islands the ecosystem paid with its blood and so did the civilization. As a young creative i caution those artists who design using biomimicry to think of the impacts of their new technologies as they may impact the ecosystems just as much as those modern industrial machines of greed. The future does not depend as much on us learning from and adapting nature to our needs but learning to coexist with it and living side by side with it in moral codependance. But under no means exploiting its secret ideas and power just to make us live in greater and greater comforts and it being reduced to complete dust. The future with Biomimicry is a game of survival for all life and not a playground of earthy delights.
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    • Feb 22 2011: I think you are being harder on the human race than we deserve. Until relatively recently, simple survival has been difficult enough and for a large portion of the population of earth survival still is a challenge.

      We are making progress, it takes time to adjust and shift an entire collective conscious of humanity to a new way of thinking and acting. Environmentally conscious culture is spreading and I think we are doing as well as can be expected for an imperfect and largely ignorant species.
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    Mar 1 2011: I'd suggest taking time to read the writings of Victor Papanek. Start with "Design for the Real World" and then try "The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture." Both can be found online.
  • Feb 24 2011: A really important aspect of applying biomimicry is to look to nature and natural processes for means and standards to apply to measuring the success of our biomimetic efforts. Janine Benyus calls this "nature as measure". How well are our nature inspired solutions/technologies fitting in with the worlds ecosystems? How closely to they resemble closed loop systems? I am really inspired by achievements in biomimetic farming eg. "do nothing" farming in japan. I'm an MFA student currently thinking about exploring biomimicry as it relates to Industrial Design for my thesis. Currently seeking input on this. Should biomimicry be applied by industrial designers? Are there specific problems more suited to biomimetic solutions? How will biomimicry effect use scenarios?
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    Feb 18 2011: I'd like to see some examples that would be considered sustainable from an energy/carbon footprint standpoint as well as having environmental stewardship/ecosystem restoration value. I don't consider something like the following to fit those criteria but suspect this may be the type of application we can expect to see much more of. Moreover, let's make sure we aren't talking about something to take the place of day to day experiences in nature...

    A nano air vehicle/hummingbird? http://www.avinc.com/nano
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    Feb 18 2011: What science but study of nature! It is vital as this will also help us not to be sustainable in our development and growth but it will also make us sensitive about preserving the nature.
  • Feb 18 2011: I think it is human kinds tool of consciousness that has given us the ability to transcend the constraints of nature and live in balance with ecosystems. Our awareness and knowledge about the rules of our environment have given us our best advantage to the future.
    Michael I am excited for the change into the ecological era! The paradigm shift can have far greater reaching affects, like you said it sets off a positive chain.
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      Feb 18 2011: Katie, I am a bit confused, can you clarify for me? When you say human consciousness has given us the ability to transcend the contraints of nature and live in balance with ecosystems, are you inferring that this is how humans typically operate? That we currently live in balance with ecosystems?
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    Feb 18 2011: living in harmony with nature? Nature has never lived in harmony with any of its components. It has always promoted one species over another in a ruthless war of attrition. It only appears to be sustainable during relatively short periods (in an evolutionary sense) It may be that the dinosaur felt it was living in a sustainable way with the earth but the climate changed, competitors survived better etc. (you know the drill)The philosophical stance that life on earth can be sustainable is misplaced and is simply saying that we will have to continually react as the rest of the planet, and for that matter the universe, continues on its path to entropy. Really we should be accepting that change is continual. Let us have endeavour and engage with change....after all it is only natural
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      Feb 18 2011: Joseph, I think before entering honest debate on some of these points, clarity is needed on definition of terms. Sustainability can't be assumed to mean the same to us all, it has been co-opted by too many groups. So what is your definition of sustainability? What is harmony?

      With these clarifications I look forward to future discussion.
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        Feb 24 2011: You both make two very interesting points. I find the ambiguity that surrounds 'sustainability' means that many companies/ crafty marketing people will use the term under false pretence. Yes, it could be argued that its ambiguity actually provides a platform for healthy debate, which ensures that key conflicts and contradictions are exposed and addressed. However in my experience, it is mainly used to 'greenwash' projects/ products.

        In terms of biomimicary in building design, I'd rather start thinking about using nature rather than replicating it. There are too many examples where biomimicary is being promoted yet the materials being used have relatively high embodied energy (eden project for example); therefore undermining the buildings environmental street cred.
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          Feb 24 2011: I am a little surprised by your comment about the eden project. The ETFE membrane had roughly 1% of the embodied energy of a glass solution and the lightness of the enclosure led to huge savings in steel weight. Steel is indeed a higher embodied energy material than, say, wood but wood simply would not work structurally on a building of that scale.
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    Feb 11 2011: I think/ know biomimicry has been an important aspect of design and architecture since the Gothic period.
    I don't find anything new in it conceptually whatsoever. That does not mean its unimportant-- in fact its the opposite;
    Its most important.
  • Feb 11 2011: Yes, we could but I think biomimicry is just the begining not the end. The next thing after biomimicry will be the true design.
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    Feb 11 2011: I think Kurzweil said this Machines will have more biological part and biological things will have more and more mechanic parts. So this is the trend we cannot avoid.