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A Biomimicry Database
Emily Gertz, 30 Oct 04

Rocky Mountain Institute's Alexis Karolides spoke on biomimicry at Parsons School of Design this past Thursday. It was an introductory presentation, perhaps because sustainability is not a consistent preoccupation of student designers and architects in New York City: while on my right, one guy had Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" on his lap, on my left one student was asking another, "So, who is this speaking tonight?"

However familiar the material, it is always a little startling to hear the numbers on how much just building buildings impacts the earth, such as:

- 40% of the world's resources annually go into buildings
- Concrete production alone creates 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions
- 65.2% of total U.S. electrical use is in buildings, leading to 30% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Karolides is working on a prototype of a Biomimicry Database, funded by John Abele's Argosy Foundation. She envisions it ultimately as a "growing, open source, peer reviewed" resource that would link biomimicry concepts to known problems in architecture and building design, along with ready information on who in the public or private sectors is already working on a product or application. It would be a clearinghouse for new scientific discoveries, available for multiple industries to use, promoting more biomimetic successes by making research easily available across disciplines.

It could also create new work opportunities for biologists, in partnership with designers. A compelling idea, when a significant percentage of American biologists cannot find work in their fields.

Conversion to biomimicry in design and industry may improve human attitudes towards saving nature--which of course includes saving ourselves. We're generally a pretty motivated species when we see something in it for us. As Karolides put it, "why kill off your teachers?"

Because we're all about keeping the left hand and the right hand in a state of plausible deniability here, it escaped our notice that the database referred to here is actually being built by our very own Vinay and Jer. As Jer writes:

Vinay and I are the ones building this tool for RMI and the Biomimicry
Guild, and we're very excited about it.  For the geeks in the audience,
this is why it will be exciting:

Originally envisioned simply as a database of biological solutions to
engineering problems, we have expanded it to be:
- a tool that helps people bridge the language gaps of different disciplines (an engineer may be looking for "lubricant", a biologist may have researched "mucous").  It will allow people to search two-dimensionally: not only "horizontally" by keyword, but "vertically" by hierarchical category-scheme.
- a moderated open-source tool, allowing users to submit not only their own data but their own category-schemes, opening up new perspectives on existing knowledge.
- a matchmaking tool where people can find experts in the subjects they need consulting on, and the experts can find a new audience for their consulting.
- a site for discussion and collaboration, not just a bucket of static documents but a forum for discussing the merits of different approaches, or avenues for further research
- a cross-disciplinary clearinghouse of scientific articles, possibly like an electronic journal containing articles that would normally not even be in the same field, much less the same journal.

In the end we hope it combines all the best aspects of a database, a wiki, and a bulletin board.  We're still not certain exactly when it will be released to the general public -- we are still building it -- but it will hopefully be within the next few months, and rest assured that Worldchanging will be one of the first places where the announcement appears.

Sorry for the confusion!

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i hope the database is better than that half-hearted presentation. wow, it was all so... uninspired, horribly designed, poorly delivered, and weak on information.

and then the questions came. instead of tackle them head-on, the panel paralyzed themselves by invoking every aspect of nature and ecology that came to mind. it was just frustrating listening to them meander all over their philosophies on ecology.

one example. a man asked what the actual environmental impact is when biomimetic models are followed. he insinuated that, given the lack of any data whatsoever, that the use of biomimetics to solve design problems could just as likely have a negative effect. (a woman then asked nearly the same question toward the end which again went essentially unanswered)

which got me thinking about one of the most used biomimetic examples: velcro. prior to velcro we used laces, strings, rubber bands, needle and thread, buttons, etc (generally sustainable objects and materials) to fasten things. due to velcro's convenience, it was adopted into mainstream products on a massive scale essentially creating a new market. velcro, while based on a natural design, uses industrial manufacturing processes and it's net environmental impact is likely a harmful one.

Posted by: hijiki on 1 Nov 04

To give you a sraight answer: Biomimicry does not inherently produce green design, and green design is not necessarily biomimetic. So far, most of the biomimetic research has actually been in robotics and software, and have nothing to do with green building. The US Military has more biomimetic inventions than the building world.

However, biomimicry is a _great_ tool for green design, because it:

- shows you performance standards we didn't think were achievable (stronger/lighter, compostable, chemistry in water at room temperature, etc.)
- demonstrates methods & materials you would not have thought of. Helps you break "out of the box", as they say.
- points your thinking in a more holistic, systems-based way, which is necessary for green design
- makes you develop more of a relationship with the natural world, which gives you a better impetus for green design.

So far we've only scratched the surface of using biomimicry as a green design tool. It can be a hard nut to crack. But momentum is gaining, and it's difficult to find a green theorist these days that doesn't mention it as a useful technique.

Posted by: Jer on 1 Nov 04

Hijiki is reporting accurately, alas, that the Q&A left a lot to be desired at the Parsons event.

I opted to report on what seemed positive and "newsy" about the presentation itself--I hadn't heard about this database project before. As I was only tangentially the target audience for the presenation--it was open to the general public but really seemed aimed at the Parsons/New School community--I withheld judgement on the level of information presented. I don't expect a NY design audience to approach these things the way we did when I was in school in Oregon (yet).

The panelists didn't exercise a lot of rigor in keeping the focus of the discussion on biomimicry, or engaging Karolides constructively in the follow-up discussion. I confess that I decided to take off when one of the students started a question with a quote from was starting to verge on a satire of academic abstraction from the "real world."

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 1 Nov 04


Posted by: who on 7 Nov 04



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