Shawn Parr: Got An Innovation Challenge? Nature’s Probably Got The Answer

Shawn Parr: Got An Innovation Challenge? Nature’s Probably Got The Answer

Studying biological principles will help inspire and draw analogies that can be applied to human-centered innovation.

Shawn Parr, Bulldog Drummond
  • 23 june 2012

Nature is the perfect inspiration for truly disruptive innovation. It is where we can find examples of both exquisitely simple, and complex, designs anywhere we turn. The banana doesn’t need packaging or protection; it has a clear system to show when it’s ready to eat. The regimentation and collaboration of the ant community, and their intuitive knowledge of how to work together is another example of nature’s perfection. When we think about where inspiration will come from to develop sustainable systems and solutions for our greatest issues there’s no better place to look than what’s just past the tip of our nose: nature.

We are living in one of the most turbulent and transitional times in history. There is a convergence of events happening on many fronts, and there are significant opportunities for change. We are seeing tremendous advances in all areas of science. We are realizing the implications of our poor stewardship of the earth’s natural resources. We are seeing the effects of deficit spending and the global economic downturn. We are beginning to understand the need for transformational change in how we live our lives. This all points to changing the way we think and exploring interdisciplinary thinking where people with deep expertise in different domains work together to solve significant challenges. But the big question is, how does this happen? How do business, government, and academia find proven models or muses that deliver new inspiration and stimulus that help drive new solutions to significant challenges?

Bioinspiration, also known as biomimicry, is an interdisciplinary process in which biological principles are studied to help inspire and draw analogies that can be applied to human-centered innovation.

Looking to nature for innovation is not a new concept–Leonardo Da Vinci studied birds and bats to design his flying machines. However, the systematic application of adaptations to human design and engineering challenges is relatively new. With today’s advancements in fields such as nanotechnology, we can now study nature on an incredibly small scale. As Paul Saffo, the noted futurist, says, “Every 30 years or so, one science discipline plays a transformative role in creative technology that shapes our lives.” We are now entering the age of biology.

With many of our manmade systems broken or in need or reinvention (education, food, health, transportation, and government, to name a few), systems in nature have faced and overcome many of the same challenges these systems face today. The 30 million species that inhabit the earth represent a reservoir of inspiration for solving challenges that are environmentally sustainable. Every species has unique characteristics that enable their survival. Learning from analogous solutions in nature presents tremendous opportunities to address diverse industry challenges. As demand for natural resources continues to increase, so does the growing cost to companies, consumers, and the environment. To survive and thrive in the next century we must learn to design new products, systems, and processes that are more efficient and environmentally sustainable; nature offers us a rich source of inspiration for these designs.

By studying the dynamics of a functioning ecosystem, we can form analogies to address problems such as waste, inefficiency, and a lack of synergy between system components.

Working closely with San Diego Zoo’s Global Center for Bioinspiration, we’ve learned that looking to nature and its systems can be more revealing and inspiring than looking at existing human-designed systems. With a 95-year history of innovation aligned with nature and leadership in bioinspiration education and awareness, the Zoo’s leadership team strongly believes that bioinspiration will contribute to a more sustainable world. As stewards of the world’s largest collection of plants and animals, they are playing a critical role in the acceleration and market adoption of bioinspired innovation. They are developing a center for the discovery and development of biomimicry-based technologies for commercialization and have a consulting model in development to work with corporations around biosinspired design-thinking.

There are many examples of bioinspiration being integrated within major companies today. For example, AdidasNikeP&G, and IDEO incorporate bioinspiration from a design process and innovation perspective into product development. There are a growing amount of bioinspired products in the marketplace today:

IBM’s neurosynaptic computer chip mimics human brain function. Using algorithms and silicon circuitry, the chip functions like neurons and synapses in the brain. In addition to replicating mechanical functions of brain cells, the chip also learns through experience, as humans do.

Speedo’s ‘Fastskin’ line of swimsuits are based on sharks. This special suit mimics the natural skin of a shark, hence the nickname “shark suit.” It simulates the movement and water shedding qualities of sharks.

Yves Saint Laurent drew on the metallic characteristics of insects such as beetles, butterflies, and flies to help develop cosmetics. Diatoms, the type of silica that causes the sheen on insects, is mimicked in these cosmetics to produce beautiful light-catching colors and shades.

Other examples include Qualcomm’s Mirasol displayLotusan exterior coating paint, and Sharklet’s antibacterial micro-texture technology. Products inspired by nature can address global issues facing society such as energy, conservation of natural resources, and the advancing of process and materials that are more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Bioinspiration offers the means to achieve both environmental and economic goals. While the field is just emerging, in 15 years biomimicry could represent $300 billion annually of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 dollars. It could provide another $50 billion to help mitigate the depletion of various natural resources and reduce CO2 pollution. Biomimicry could account for 1.6 million U.S. jobs by 2025. And globally, biomimicry could represent about $1 trillion of GDP in 15 years.

So if you’ve got a design challenge that you can’t seem to solve, look to nature–it’s probably got the answer.

Read more: Biomimicry, The Nature Of Innovation

Shawn Parr is the The Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, IDEO, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

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