Part 3: Measuring environmental sustainability and an adaptive program to jumpstart the use of biomimicry experts
Future research should be able to compare a company’s nature-inspired product to a similar product on the market that was not created with biomimicry. Both products in each comparison must belong to the same industry, serve the same function in their particular market, and provide similar end uses.
In order to present real-world information on how certain products are being manufactured, confidentiality will have to be maintained—companies will be referred to as C1, C2, etc. The product information that will be implemented in the metrics below will have to be gathered from companies willing to take part in the analysis. If some companies fail to provide enough information about a product, thus leading to some quantifiable metrics being left blank, then this should be noted.
The metrics and framework for measuring how environmentally sustainable a product is can be adapted directly from work by Shuaib et al (2014). In a recent research analysis on evaluating the sustainability of manufactured products, Shuaib demonstrates a metrics-based framework for showing a product’s sustainability index (Shuaib et al., 2014). In the paper, a product’s sustainability index is measured through analysis of the main subindexes economy, environment, and society. For the purposes of focusing on biomimicry’s inherent ability to make environmentally sustainable designs, paying attention to and measuring solely the subindex “environment” will be appropriate. We can see this subindex below (Table 1), taken directly from Shuaib’s original Product Sustainability Index (ProdSI). The various clusters, subclusters, and individual metrics associated with environment are shown.
In order to use the most appropriate weighting for each set of products, the companies should be asked to rank each cluster and sub-cluster based on their perceived level of importance. If companies fail to supply their preferred weighting, than equal weighting should be assigned throughout, as this is considered by Shuaib to be a simple and transparent weighting method (Shuaib et al., 2014).
The metrics provided by companies should be normalized on a continuous scale from 0-10, where 0 represents the worse case, and 10 shows the best. Since, as Shuaib points out, the normalization of each metric is case specific, and depends on the unit of measure and whether the individual metric is positively or negatively correlated with the overall product sustainability, reference points and benchmarks should be established to normalize the different units of measurement (Shuaib et al., 2014). An example of how this may be done is seen in Shuaib’s case-study example in equation 5, on page 499 (Shuaib et al., 2014).
Once all of the metrics for each product can be normalized to individual numbers on a 0-10 scale, they should be added into the environment subindex table (Table 1). From there, each subcluster would be multiplied by their appropriate weights, and summed together to form the main cluster’s metric. For example, the metrics in the subclusters “Product Material Content,” “Material Utilization,” and “Regulations and Certification” would be summed together to form the metric for cluster “Material Use and Efficiency.” Examples of this can be seen in Figure 3 of Shuaib’s case-study (Shuaib et al., 2014). After this, in the same method, each cluster should be summed together to form the final product’s environmental subindex score. This final number should show how environmentally sustainable the biomimicry product and its non-biomimicry competitor are.
Research that uses methods like the framework described above to quantify how environmentally sustainable a biomimicry-inspired product is will certainly give biomimicry a boost in the academia world. However, there is already enough information out there (hopefully this report’s questionnaires add a significant amount) that confirms biomimicry to be an innovative tool for all design firms, and one in which usually leads to more environmentally sustainable products. It is for this reason that we can already start to devise a program that helps biomimicry experts connect with and work for design firms across the country.
An adaptive academia-to-industry program
A program can be created in the future that aims to connect biomimicry graduates and fellows with firms looking to increase their arsenal of design tools. Since biomimicry is still a relatively new field, and there are limited biomimicry “experts” out there, the most cost-effective and realistic way for firms to utilize biomimicry is through the use of biomimicry graduate students.
Just as René and Daphne’s work suggests (see bottom of Part 2), biomimicry PhD students can be successfully injected into a design firm to help them work on a real world project. However, René’s circumstance was special, because the professor who approached him and his team was from a local school—The University of Akron, which is just outside of Cleveland where René works. The trust René had for this professor was most likely already strong, and when combined with the “help your neighbor” ideology, it was enough for him to accept Daphne, the PhD biomimicrist into their firm to work on a project. Also, because The University of Akron is a major local school, partnering with them on projects such as this would allow any local business to gain one of the most important aspects of public relations: creating a face-to-face community relationship (Crabtree, 2011). One of the most effective ways a business can get involved with their community and establish relationships and credibility is through the sponsorship of educational programs (Crabtree, 2011). This isn’t to say that René allowed Daphne to work on a real world project just to make a beneficial relationship with the University of Akron. However, what might this knowledge teach us about how to incentivize other design firms across the country into working with their local school’s biomimicry department? How might an adaptive academia-to-industry program better connect multiple biomimicry degree-offering universities across the country to these firms?
An academia-industry program that aims to spread new ways of thinking through the use of biomimicry experts as resources to design firms can be loosely based and designed using the “adaptive management” principles that sustainable engineers have developed (Allenby, 2012). Adaptive management is generally defined as an iterative process of decision making in the face of uncertainty, with structure in place to reduce uncertainty over time via learning about the system through monitoring (Holling, 1978). It is important to note here that adaptive management is most popularly used for managing resources and complex regional ecosystems. However, many of the principles that it abides by can be applicable to other forms of management as well. In his book, The Theory and Practice of Sustainable Engineering, Braden Allenby recognizes that the adaptive management process should be based upon six major principles (Allenby, 2012). Among these principles, three stand out as being particularly useful when developing an academia-to-industry biomimicry student program.
The first principle, taken from Allenby, is to make sure there are “flexible, adaptive policies, not rigid, locked-in ones” (Allenby, 2012). When creating a program that connects multiple universities across the country and their biomimicry graduate students together, it will be important to give them accounts to each University’s webpage, as well as grant the students equal access to all design firms connected to the program—not just the firms located nearest their own school. This makes it more flexible for not only the students, but the firms as well, who may be interested in acquiring a student from a school across the country, and not from the one in their own backyard. Also, in order to maintain system flexibility, students from outside biomimicry departments, but with knowledge in similar fields (biology, biotechnology, etc.), should be able to enter the program through a separate application.
Another principle will prove helpful for both the universities and firms involved, and that is to design management “for learning, not simply for economic or social product” (Allenby, 2012). Obviously, since this would be an academia-led program, it should incorporate learning aspects that could benefit future curricula, programs, and students for the schools involved. The graduate students, when working on a real-life project with their selected design firm, could be required to write up bi-weekly essays, that would document their thoughts and the types of knowledge they’re learning. When the project is finished, the graduate student would be required to fill out a questionnaire that, among other things, would be used to inform future improvements to the program (this is one type of system monitoring that can help reduce uncertainty). The firms that choose to participate in the program will understand that this isn’t an economic endeavor (at least initially). Gaining a biomimicry expert for 3-4 months to collaborate with on a design project will give the firm and its designers a new “tool” to work with, which will hopefully educate and inspire them to hire a biomimicry expert (possibly their student) after the project is finished. The design firms connected to the program could be asked to fill out questionnaires as well, in order to adapt future processes to their liking.
Allenby (2012) describes a very important adaptive management principle that ties into the two listed above: “Monitoring designed as a part of active interventions to achieve understanding and to identify appropriate response.” Designing a program based around a new field such as biomimicry will require a lot of careful monitoring. Since the use of biomimicry in creating products usually involves new techniques and brand new technology like 3D printing, research and studies done on the topic are limited. This is why monitoring of the entire program, through the use of outside sources, as well as inside (students and firms completing questionnaires), would be necessary. Professors located at each university, but not participating in the biomimicry program, who have backgrounds related to sustainable product design, environmental sustainability, or sustainable engineering, should be used as outside monitoring sources. These outside sources should review the biomimicry graduate students’ questionnaires as well as the firms’, in order for the program to gain an unbiased view of how well it is functioning. From there, the outside sources from each university should convene in order to recommend appropriate responses that will curb uncertainty in the future and keep the program’s goal on track: to encourage the use of biomimicry experts in firms in order to facilitate the growth of innovative products that are also environmentally sustainable.
A future report could flesh-out this academia-to-industry program in greater detail. For now, it is helpful to see how this multi-university plan can use principles learned from literature on adaptive management to its advantage. As Allenby (2012) points out, management of systems requires adapting “not just to scientific data and understanding, but also to shifting political, economic, and cultural patterns,…and changes in the system resulting from technology changes.” The development of this program itself would be a larger institutional adaptation: universities, now acknowledging that firms work quicker than organizations to push ideas into the market, would for the first time be encouraging students to look for work in a specific sector due to their potential in bringing new environmentally sustainable products to light, thus shifting firms’ cultural patterns to actually promote these products.
The field of biomimicry seems to be growing at an exponential rate. In an interview with Jay Harman, author of The Shark’s Paintbrush, he says, “projections are that, by 2025, biomimicry could represent $1 trillion of gross domestic product, including $300 billion of U.S. GDP” (Green Money, 2013). The companies and the answers their respondents gave in this report’s questionnaires should prove the enormous potential of biomimicry and its remarkable ability to create environmentally sustainable products. If it wasn’t a powerful tool for shaping the way firm’s think about their designs, then why would companies like Ford Motors be investing in it? Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader for plastics and sustainability research, recently said that the gecko could inspire a host of adhesive innovations for global applications at Ford (Ford, 2015). Carol Kordich, global sustainable fabric strategies and development at Ford, said, “As we look to further our commitment to reducing our environmental footprint, taking a holistic, biomimetic approach makes sense because nature has efficiencies in design and uses minimal resources.” As Carol’s reasoning suggests, biomimicry indeed makes sense. But, how quickly will leaders like Ford inspire other firms to follow suit and apply biomimicry to their product designs?
Further research that quantitatively shows how much more environmentally sustainable biomimicry products are compared to those that weren’t inspired by nature will be necessary for the field to take off completely. However, this isn’t to say that universities should wait until this happens to start encouraging the use of their biomimicry graduates in firms. As lessons from these questionnaires and companies like Ford Motors suggest, biomimicry looks to already be a pretty reliable tool for enhancing the environmental sustainability of products. This means that an adaptive academia-to-industry program may already be implemented across universities, provided that it is carefully monitored, with program structure being adjusted as new information on biomimicry is released. Managing biomimicry graduate students as a “specialist” resource tool for firms to broaden their design thinking will facilitate the growth of more environmentally sustainable products, which, being “firm friendly” due to cost-savings from conservation of energy and materials, will transition traditional firm culture into a state that trusts and accepts the use of biomimcry.
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