Thursday, June 19, 2014

What if Business Was BioInspired? (from the Sustainable Brands Conference)

I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego last week as a member of the press. It's always exciting to see big name corporations embracing sustainability, but this year I felt like a tipping point is in the works. Many big names are now trying to go beyond sustainability, and into regeneration. Could ecosystems thinking become a reality? Here is an article I wrote for Triple Pundit on my take. More to come!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inhabitat - Design Will Save the World!

If you're wondering why I've been quiet lately, it's because I've got a new gig writing a regular feature for Inhabitat! In case you're not familiar with them, is a hyper-cool sustainable design website with the motto "Design Will Save the World." What's not to love about that? I pitched them the idea for a new column, The Biomimicry Manual, and they gave me the green light! The idea is to showcase "geewhiz green gadgets" from Mother Nature, getting biomimicry thinking out into the mainstream design community. I'd like it to be a household word and way of thinking, making it more approachable and comfortable to non-biologists. Whenever anyone does anything, they will hopefully start asking themselves, "how would Nature do this?" first.

And of course, I LOVE writing them. They are so much fun. And I will never run out of crazy beasts to write about. I've written on the aye-aye and echolocation, hagfish and spandex, the bombardier beetle and fuel injection, the pompeii worm and pollution clean-up, and many more. You can check out all my features here

Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Global Biomimicry Conference

In June, I had the great pleasure of participating in the 7th Annual Biomimicry Education Summit, and the first ever Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference, hosted together by the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Over 350 dedicated, talented, and far-thinking teachers, designers, architects, biologists, industrialists, and policy-makers from across the globe came together to ask "How can humans create conditions conducive to Life?" Not just sustainable economies, cities, and manufacturing, but a regenerative way of life that creates biodiversity instead of destroying it.

Over the course of three intense and exciting days, three major themes emerged:

  • How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced? 
  • How would nature design the materials we use to build them? 
  • And how would nature redesign our whole economy to encourage such regeneration? 
And lucky me, I was asked by Triple Pundit to cover these themes for their readers. Check out my five part series here! Number three (on 3D printers) is my favorite.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Domesticated 3D Printers?

The incredibly accomplished Neri Oxman's from MIT's Media Lab presented on the future of 3D printing at the Biomimicry Conference. This stuff is pretty revolutionary and exciting to me, especially since I really didn't know much about 3D printing. It's a game-changer for sure.

But Oxman pointed out that 3D printing technology is just in its infancy. Right now, it has three serious limitations. First, our materials are primarily non-structural, toxic, and non-degradable plastic resins. No bueno. More sick people and sick environments. Second, the size of the printing "frame," or gantry, limits the size of the object. Third, the printers accrete horizontal layers, one at a time, on top of each other. But of course, that's not how living tissues build themselves.

So, Oxman's team at Mediated Matter invented a freeform 3D printer. It might be the world's first, but they found it too primitive to execute their artistic vision. In the end, they used domesticated silkworms as living 3D printers, a brilliant workaround. The worms "printed" the beautiful Silk Pavilion now hanging in the MIT Media Lab lobby, with "smart" variations in density and patchiness responding to light and substrate. In essence, each silkworm served as an all-in-one biocomputer, programmed by DNA, and freeform printer. 

And what about the material in the printer? What could be more eco-friendly than printing with biodegradable silk, produced on-site, simply by feeding the silkworms plant material? We can imagine neighborhood "Maker" shops, creating objects to order with domesticated printers, not unlike a herd of goats or a yogurt 'culture' of microorganisms. Every family might have a carefully tended tank of silkworms or spiders or mushroom mycelium or vines, each bred to execute the simple rules we require for our objects.

It's certainly a compelling sci-fi concept, and food for thought. This idea is 'bio-utilization,' using other species to make our things. Many feel that "Making" (with biomimicry) should instead be a process of learning from other makers. In Janine Benyus' words, "It's time for humans to start making our own materials." 

Where and why we want to draw the line on that is a conversation that needs to take place, both within the biomimicry community as well as outside of it. Of course, we depend on domesticated species of all kinds, not just goats and yeast, but the crops we eat and the fibers we wear, the wood we build with, honeybees and silkworms, and even our pets. And nature does it too. Leaf-cutter ants have spent millions of years domesticating a certain fungus, and other ants tend aphids that they have selected for cow-like qualities like moving slowly, being docile, and eating a lot. Domestication is really just a kind of symbiosis. We modify each other. The entire web of life is like that. Is there a difference? I guess we are taking away the other species freedom to choose their own mate and chart their own evolutionary course. But hey. Nobody said life had to be fair now, did they?

There is also the question of how could we feed all those Makers? That's a big question for another day.

In any case, it is incredible to consider the diversity and clean beauty of form and function in natural materials. Can we learn from them, and make our materials "smarter?" Oxman suggested we could print variable-density concrete to provide structure where it is needed and conserve material where it is not, just like bone. And if we could scan and print freeform, could we not print objects perfectly designed by the space itself to fit? Just like living things grow and change to fit their environment? Or, what if we could print with carbon nanotubules, making a 4D printer? This material would change through time, responding to light, heat, force, or humidity to create a "smart" object that adjusts to the environment automatically. Or maybe we can cultivate self-assembling underwater structures from CO2, just like the corals do today? There are so many possibilities, it truly boggles the mind.

For now, the most important thing may be the fact that this is actually going to happen. 3D printing is coming soon to a town near you. It represents a radical opportunity for us to rethink our whole way of life, and we have to do it right. As Janine Benyus said at the end of Oxman's talk, (and I paraphrase) "let's make sure these printers aren't "tiny volcanoes on our desks," creating a new environmentally unsustainable hazard. Let's make sure that we develop and use locally abundant and benign feedstocks," preferably from the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans. Let's make things the way Nature does, digesting our 'products' at the end of their life and feeding them back into the "printer" to make more conditions conducive to life.

You can read more at part 3 of my 5 part series on the 2013 Global Biomimicry Conference!

Nature's Little 3D Printers

Day Two of the Biomimicry Conference continued this theme with an exciting futuristic presentation by one of Fast Company's 100 Most creative People, MIT Media Lab Director Neri Oxman. Oxman is on the forefront of the 3D Printing revolution, looking to create "smart" materials that act as natural ones do. In Nature, said Oxman, bones thicken in response to force, leaves grow toward light, and trees branches are shaped by wind. Why not a wrist splint that adapts to where you feel pain? Why not a lounge chair that shapes to your body and adjusts to your weight? Nature uses a stripped down palette of materials, which can dramatically change their properties with simple structural adjustments. Skin on your face, for instance, is not the same as that on the soles of your feet. What about printing with fiber optics to make light-production intrinsic to an object? Making a pair of glasses as a single object with variable transparency, rather than a separate frame and lenses made from different materials.

But Oxman's team at Mediated Matter found themselves frustrated by the primitive state of our current 3D printing technology. Then, they asked "How would nature design a 3D printer?" and decided to study the "simple rules" used by domestic silk worms to determine where and how to 'print' their silk.

The silkworms act as living 3D printers. The team constructed a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome scaffolding, and released 6500 Bombina moryx silkworms. The worms "printed" the beautiful Silk Pavilion now hanging in the MIT Media Lab lobby, with "smart" variations in density and patchiness responding to light and substrate. In essence, the silkworm is a combined biocomputer and freeform printer, programmed by its DNA, and printing with biodegradable silk, produced on-site by simply feeding the silkworms plant material.

What does the future hold for this exciting idea? The printing material could be changed through genetic engineering (spiderwebs?) or the "simple rules" themselves (make it differently). Realistically though, that's a hell of a lot of silkworms for a structure about as big as an igloo. Which most likely makes this an art object and a teachable moment, rather than a scalable technology. What can we learn from these and other "living printers," like spiders, mushrooms, or corals? Imagine "growing" elements of your home, lighting, or furniture. Imagine downloading blueprints, possibly genetic, from the internet, and uploading them into printing robots that act like silkworms or other creatures? 

Of course, visions of a radically different manufacturing future make people a little nervous. What could be the unintended consequences? Genetic engineering in particular puts many people on red alert, and the domestication of other species can be seen as a violation of their sovereignty. What right do we have to breed silkworms to be flightless moths acting as our slaves? To take away their mate choice? These are questions worth considering as we think about what kind of future we would like to have. What would nature do? 

Janine Benyus stood up to offer her belief that biomimicry in material science should be a "process of learning from other fabricators. If you're wearing cotton, a plant made it for you. If you're wearing wool, a sheep made it for you. It's time for humans to start making our own materials." 

To read more, look for my article on Triple Pundit, part 3 of a 5 part series about the Conference!

Lessons from the Ostrich Egg

I've been sharing my experiences at the recent Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference in Boston, where a heady mix of dreamers and doers came together to talk about how to build our future the way nature would do it.

We asked ourselves "How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced?" and then, the more nitty-gritty question, "How would nature design the materials we use to build them?"

Tom McKeag, co-editor of the beautifully-designed and bio-inspired digital magazine, Zygote Quarterly, talked about the elegant simplicity of the ostrich egg. The egg has contradictory design requirements. It has to be strong enough to survive intact, but break apart for hatching. It has to be easily turned by the parent, but not roll away. It has to let waste gases out, but keep fluids in. All these contradictions are opportunities for innovation, he said.

Nature solves problems like these with "smart" low-cost structural arrangements of a handful of polymers, rather than creating a new polymer or plastic for every problem, or "plugging in" an energy-intensive answer. The sea cucumber, for example, instantly goes from soft to rigid, just by changing the orientation of tiny cellulose "whiskers" in its jelly. Nature uses very few materials, locally sourced, recycled, and recyclable. Simply genius.

Generous Cities

On the conference's second day, we asked "How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced?" In other words, how do we create 'Generous Cities,' places where buildings actually regenerate and improve our environment, like other richly productive ecosystems?

Complex living systems like coral reefs and rain forests have been around for millions of years, shaped by natural selection into collaborative webs that are much more than the sum of their parts. With careful thought, we can engineer analogous ecosystems in our urban cores.

Can our cities become carbon sinks, absorbing atmospheric CO2 the same way coral reefs do? Can they collect energy from the sun, wind, water, and heat of the earth, the way our fellow Earthlings do? Can our buildings provide food and habitat for ourselves and other species (and not just cockroaches, pigeons, and rats)?

It's an inspirational vision whose time has come. Forward-thinking architects like Thomas Knittel of HOK, and humble city planners like Thad Pawlowski from the NYC Planning Department are actually implementing this way of thinking in their daily work.

After Pawlowski described the city's efforts to find effective ways to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, Janine Benyus took the mic and said "If you want to know how to rebuild, go to the Shoreline. Ask what survived there, and why. Look for the survivors and replicate their strategies."

You can read more in Part 2 of my 5 part Triple Pundit series!