Decoding Design

Q&A: How biomimicry succeeds (and fails), according to Chris Garvin, Terrapin Bright Green

Q&A: How biomimicry succeeds (and fails), according to Chris Garvin, Terrapin Bright Green

Posting in Architecture

Biomimicry offers compelling and efficient strategies to help solve urgent design challenges. But it's a field that could also use improvement, says architect and consultant Chris Garvin.

One of the most talked-about design strategies today is biomimicry, or looking to nature for effective models to help solve challenges in the built environment. But like any concept, biomimicry may have challenges of its own.

One champion of biomimetic design is Chris Garvin, a senior associate at Cook+Fox Architects and a partner in New York-based consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, which has advised such clients as the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Starwood Hotels on sustainability strategies that involve biomimetic design and whole-systems thinking. As a trusted advisor on the benefits of biomimicry, Garvin, who serves on the Board of Directors for the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and on the Advisory Board for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, is also honest about how the field can be improved in general.

He took the time to answer questions on what types of biomimetic concepts succeed, where current biomimicry efforts might fall short or fail, and how designers, biologists, entrepreneurs, and entire cities could more efficiently apply biomimicry approaches in the near future.

Here is our exchange.

Is there a danger of over-simplifying the concept of biomimicry--as in, "well, if it works in nature, it's sure to work in the human world?"

Yes, I think so. Mankind hasn't gotten close to replicating anything close to the simple complexity of nature. We most often see forms from nature being mimicked. For example, the bullet train mimics the dive of a kingfisher, a model of concept car mimics the shape of a box fish. Mirasol’s display technology [from Qualcomm] mimics the nanostructure of a butterfly's wing. But rarely do we see a form that manages to use one function to achieve myriad results, as we often find in nature.

Rarely do we see a product made with a material that is non-toxic, recyclable, and manufactured at room temperature, under low pressure. If anything, the tendency has been to oversimplify how nature works. We often find that biomimetic innovators benefit from multiple positive outcomes stemming from greater efficiency, reduced toxicity, and the like, but not to the scale of most organisms in nature.

I would posit that the incremental approach is holding us back, and that we need more scientists and entrepreneurs to break the innovation barrier to use biomimicry in a more comprehensive and holistic manner.

How would you suggest that they accomplish this?

Fortunately, there are brilliant scientists working in biology who discover amazing things about nature every day. I believe we have to think beyond the traditional biology analogies and to connect the amazing and multifunctional processes in nature to everything we make.

We also need better tools to get out-of-the-box research and innovation out of the lab and into our lives. Unfortunately, biologists don't have a long track record of engaging venture capitalists. But this must change, because too many wildly innovative technologies are sitting on shelves waiting to be scaled up.

We also have to realize that biomimetic products must perform better, and yield better economic returns, than traditional technologies in order to be successful. However, we're finding that many successful biomimetic products have already scaled this hurdle. Superior function is within reach. InterfaceFLOR's i2 carpet line is a great example. By mimicking the "organized chaos" of a forest floor in their carpet tile designs, InterfaceFLOR has created products that last longer, have reduced first costs and involve no expensive storage. They are also much easier to install and replace (something that the customer can do alone).

There are obviously also urgent real-world hurdles in terms of policy, politics, infrastructure and funding issues. If you had to name the one biggest challenge that faces biomimicry projects in New York City today, what would that be, and why?

One of the biggest challenges to any new way of thinking is that societies are reticent to change their mindset. This holds true for biomimicry projects in New York City. For example, one of the biggest hurdles to changing New York City’s combined sewer overflow problem is simply that the system is interwoven very deeply into the organizational fabric of the city. Let's take a look at the problem.

A major issue for New York City is wastewater conveyance and treatment, due to our combined sewer system. Every time it rains, as little as 1/8" in some neighborhoods, partially treated sewage is released into the rivers. Not only is this a major health and quality of life issue for the city, but it's also a Federal EPA compliance issue. Climate change and rising sea levels exacerbates the challenge and forces us to adapt to protect this system. On the other hand, if we fundamentally rethought our wastewater treatment system, we could find creative uses for what we now consider to be waste.

In nature, there is no waste. Everything that is left behind by one organism becomes a resource for another. Nature also tends to look for distributed ways to manage flows over large areas, whereas human engineering throughout the 20th century has focused on capturing and conveying "wastes" to distant "dirty" facilities for treatment at great expense. There were many good reasons for this methodology, but in this day and age, we have better options.

Re-engineering the distribution of wastewater in a more biomimetic and localized way could potentially convert human sewage from what we now consider a waste into a viable source of fuel and industrial resources. Instead of lumping rainwater runoff, residential sewage and industrial wastewater into one “wastewater” category, we should be thinking of our waste as a potential fuel.

Closed-loop resource systems are inherently biomimetic, and could provide a far cheaper way for us to fuel our city's businesses and infrastructure. If we expand this wastewater concept further, we could be engineering biomimetic, industrial ecosystems that use materials such as sewage effluent, food waste, and landscape refuse to create clean energy, CNG [compressed natural gas], commodity chemicals, high-grade fertilizer, and other products that could be sold to neighboring manufacturers, farmers, and residents, and infrastructural authorities.

A system shaped by industrial ecology would move the city as an "organism" toward greater energy independence and security. It would also create regional jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (especially those that are transportation-related), and keep dollars circulating within the local economy (a critical function for long-term regional stability).

Rethinking the combined sewer overflow system could yield a plethora of sustainable, long-term benefits for New York City. It's simply a matter of embracing a very different way of thinking.

Are these issues that other largest cities face as well...and how would you suggest that research done here be transferred to other cities?

Every large city and region faces these same issues at some level. Each one will have a slightly different system, but the industrial symbiotic concept will benefit them all. We can see versions, or pieces, of this idea in many cities including Kalundborg, Denmark, which has one of the more well-established industrial ecosystems in the world.

The best way for research to travel from one area to another is for the academic community to have an open dialogue with industry. The less segmentation between different players in biomimetic innovation, the better off we are.

Related on SmartPlanet:

How nature can solve our engineering--and life--challenges

Five designs 'mentored and inspired' by nature's genius

How to design scalable and sustainable humanitarian products

Image: Terrapin Bright Green


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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure