Part 1: Why firms should tap into nature’s design palette and what this process may look like
For-profit firms across the globe are embracing new environments, which require greater corporate social responsibility and adaptation to evolving societal pressures that encourage environmentally sound practices. However, firms, particularly in the developed world, still have grounded business models that encourage profit maximization above all else (Lorne, 2011). Because of this, changing the way firms operate, and making them realize that designing for the environment actually increases profits, will be a complex—even “wicked”—process.
It is possible to get firms to embrace environmental sustainability—which is defined here as optimizing a product’s materials and resources, with greater energy efficiency and reductions in wastes and emissions throughout its life cycle. They can use this to their strategic and economic advantage, especially through tools like industrial ecology. Allenby and Graedel (2010), in their book Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Engineering, define this concept as “the means by which humanity can deliberately approach and maintain sustainability, given continued economic, cultural, and technological evolution.” Industrial ecology uses applied tools, such as life-cycle analysis, to guide firms to cost-effective methods of operation that will render their product(s) more environmentally benign and, in the process, be financially beneficial to the company (Allenby & Graedel, 2010).
One way firms can become incentivized is by showing them the power of Design for Environment and Sustainability (DfES). The main goal of DfES, according to Allenby and Graedel, is to “use less of everything—materials, energy, water—and to emit less—discards, by-products, and so on” (Allenby & Graedel, 2010). All of these actions would save the firm money, thus increasing profits in the end. The question is how can companies create products that are both environmentally sustainable and successful in the market? A part of the answer lies in a concept that Allenby and Graedel (2010) briefly touch on: mimicking nature.
Biomimicry, a field of science first coined by Janine Benyus in her pioneering book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, will be defined here as copying and re-creating designs, functionalities, or mechanisms observed from the natural world in order to benefit from their effectiveness, and/or their efficient use of materials, resources, and energy (Benyus, 1997). The idea is sound: throughout nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolution (research and development), it has evolved and perfected designs in different environments that have ensured their survival. It is important to note that not all of nature’s designs are worth copying. Jay Harman, author of The Shark’s Paintbrush and biomimic visionary, makes it clear in his book that biomimicry is “design that asks the right questions in order to understand the mechanisms in nature’s cornucopia of solutions, then uses that to remedy problems—without creating new ones” (Harman, 2014). Within this same train of thought, you could tweak the definition so that it’s more appealing towards traditional firms. How about, biomimcry is design that finds solutions in nature in order to conserve materials and create savings? Introducing biomimicry in this manner to a company will make it easier to incorporate environmental sustainability. When discussing ways to implement industrial ecology and sustainability into a firm, Allenby and Graedel (2010) point out that, “the least threatening method of introducing new techniques, tools, and systems, such as design teams that include specialists from many disciplines, should be identified and used.” Biomimicry can be this unthreatening method to introduce new environmentally sustainable design techniques to a company’s team.
Many firms today are unaware of the enormous potential biomimicry experts can bring to their products’ designs. A biomimicry expert is defined here as a person who either holds a graduate-level degree in biomimicry, or who has had relevant career experience using the techniques of biomimicry. If a firm uses principles of biomimicry, then the designed end products will be environmentally sustainable—they will optimize use of materials and resources better, have greater energy efficiency, and show a reduction in wastes and emissions. This report aims to show how biomimicry can be used in firms to create more environmentally sustainable products and open doors to new ways of thinking.
In order to get a better understanding of how biomimicry is currently being used by firms, questionnaires were given to three different companies that have had varying levels of experience using biomimicry. Systems diagrams help analyze the processes involved when a firm uses biomimicry to create a new product. The connections shown between actors and their different goals in these diagrams helped inspire the specific questions that were laid out in the company questionnaires.
Part 2 of this report discusses the thorough responses given by the three company contacts. In Part 3, we will see how one could measure a biomimicry product’s environmental sustainability in future research, using a method taken from a metrics-based framework that evaluates the life cycle sustainability of manufactured products (Shuaib et. al, 2014). Near the end of Part 3, this report will present a plan that can be used to develop an academia-to-industry program for biomimicry graduate students and firms in the future.
With this systems diagram (Fig. 1), we see the greater system that this report’s selected system lies within. This larger system shows how certain biomimicrists could be injected into design firms, and what the end result may look like if they are (environmentally sustainable products). Because the purpose here is to show how design firms using biomimicry create more environmentally sustainable products than firms that fail to use it, the standard firm’s process is included in the larger boundary for comparison. The two main forces that will drive biomimicry experts into design firms are: willing and interested students, and universities that give biomimicry students opportunities to work in the design industry. These forces would be covered more in-depth in a follow up report that would describe how a cross-university program could be implemented to allow biomimicry students a chance to work in design firms. Towards the end of this report, we will see what this adaptive academia-to-industry program might look like and how it could be properly managed.
Within the selected boundary above (Fig. 2), the one this report will focus on, we see the basic processes of a firm using a biomimicry expert and outputting an environmentally sustainable product. This system’s main actor, existing in the largest scale, is the design firm. The main goal of the design firm is to produce a marketable product, which, in turn, will lead to profit maximization. An environmentally sustainable product is usually not something that the firm is concerned with up front, but if it comes as a nice after-effect, then it’s welcomed. The second actors in this system are the professional designers, existing within the design firm. Their main goal is to create the product that their design firm wants, which will lead to getting paid on time. So, the design firm and the professional designers they’ve hired roughly share the same goal. The last actor involved, the biomimcry expert, holds a slightly different role from the professional designers—their main objective is to contribute innovative, environmentally sustainable ideas, that will hopefully lead to a design that uses less materials, is energy efficient, and is less damaging to the environment. If the biomimicrist is successful, then their end goal can be achieved—the design firm produces a marketable, environmentally sustainable product. Let’s take a look at the complex processes at play in order for this final output, or goal, to be possible.
Collaboration between the firm’s designers and biomimicrists (shown in Fig. 2 as the double arrow connecting these two actors) may at first seem like an obvious, simple flow of back-and-forth communication. But, given that biomimicrists are still very new to the design world, and probably lack a lot of training that traditional designers must go through, the outcome from this collaboration will be unpredictable. There could be a limited number of cases where biomimicry actually contributed to a product’s final design because of a communication barrier that exists between designers and biomimicry experts. If the flow of nature-inspired ideas is translated properly by the biomimicrist, it can have a huge impact on how the rest of the designers think and finally create the final product. In this case, collaboration between biomimicrist and designers could be measured by the number of times employees on a design team mention keywords related to the biomimicrist’s ideas in e-mail exchanges. Certain keywords that would only appear in e-mails related to the biomimicry idea (e.g. spider silk) could be chosen and searched for during the time-period where the biomimicry expert was working at the firm. A higher frequency in use of the word(s) should mean there was a lot of collaboration amongst the biomimicrist and designers, whereas the opposite should hold true if there was a low frequency in use.
Another part of this system that is highly unpredictable involves the many actors in the firm, who have different, sometimes opposing objectives. For instance, managers may insist that a product be designed and ready to hit the marketplace within a short timeframe that isn’t possible for the biomimicrist’s design. In order for a firm to actually start manufacturing a nature-inspired product, it must first have complete trust that it will satisfy its profit goals and other targets. This is why trust is an important flow in the system; if a firm trusts the biomimicry expert and his or her ideas, the probability that they will create an environmentally sustainable product increases greatly. This trust may be much more difficult to gain for a biomimicry expert when compared to a professional designer. The designer may have years of experience working with teams that have successfully created a marketable product, whereas the biomimicrist may be fresh out of graduate school, with limited professional experience under his or her belt. Trust can be measured through questionnaires or surveys given to designers and employees in the firm who have worked with the biomimicry expert(s). A questionnaire could be given to the employees before working with the biomimicrist, and also afterwards. If a product is successful, at least in a prototype phase, than the second “trust surveys” (with questions that have a 1-10 rating system) should have higher scores than those from the initial surveys. We will see an example of this in Part 2, in a questionnaire conducted for this report.
Finally, if the designers are highly collaborative with the biomimicrist, and the firm trusts that the nature-inspired design will be profitable, an environmentally sustainable product will be produced. This leads to a manufacturing process that includes, but is not limited to, efficient energy use (passive and renewable), using non-toxic materials and chemicals, and non-hazardous wastes. During the product’s life-cycle, it should be less energy intensive (when compared to similar products), and shouldn’t off-gas harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). At the end of the product’s life, it should be fully recyclable, or break down into technical and/or biodegradable nutrients. It is important to note that even if a firm’s end product only incorporates some of these environmentally sustainable features, it should still be considered a win. For if the firm had never used the biomimicry expert to begin with, they wouldn’t have any actors working for them that took on the role of creating an environmentally sustainable design, and thus would most likely have produced a damaging product, like the bottom of Fig. 1 suggests.
The systems diagrams above (Fig. 1 & 2) give insight into the processes involved when creating a biomimcry-inspired product. Analyzing the traditional roles of actors within a firm, and how they relate to a biomimcry expert’s role, led to the creation of some interesting questions for each company’s questionnaire. In Part 2, we will see which companies were interviewed, how they have used biomimicry, and finally, review their responses from the questionnaires.
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