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Biomimicry Database Prototype Online
Jeremy Faludi, 15 Sep 05

thumbnail.jpgBiomimicry is one of the techniques many are using to redesign the world as a greener place. The main problem with it, though, is that engineers, designers, and other builders don’t know much biology, so they don’t have a big grab-bag of ideas to pull from. Even when they have heard of some nifty phenomenon, they often still don't know who to call to get the expert details required for imitating it. Rocky Mountain Institute and the Biomimicry Guild are trying to change that, by creating a biomimicry database.

Although we try to refrain from talking about our own work here, Jamais encouraged me to give some of the details of the project. I think it's interesting not just for biomimicry, but for anyone that wants to share knowledge across jargon barriers. (More about this at the end.)

The biomimicry database is currently just a proof-of-concept prototype. But the concept is a tool to pull knowledge across discipline boundaries, in order to facilitate the design of biomimetic buildings and products. The database will be a place where designers, architects, and engineers can find biological information, biomimetic design and engineering information, chemical and materials information, and experts. It will also be a place where researchers from diverse fields can collaborate despite being in far-removed institutions or disciplines. It will be a moderated wiki, and will have collaboration features, to leverage the expertise of its users.

This is not the first online database of biomimicry. The University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies has had a database online for a couple years now. However, theirs is mainly intended as a tool for their own research in categorizing biological invention strategies in the TRIZ framework, and the learning curve for outsiders is extremely steep. The RMI / Biomimicry Guild database, on the other hand, is aimed at builders and biologists everywhere.

The alpha-prototype being released is not a finished product; many features are not fully functional, bugs still exist, and only data on some topics is present. However, the prototype functions well enough to be used, and has enough data on dozens of subjects to spark many new ideas for designers, architects, and engineers. Registered users can also contribute content to the database (though the data entry interface isn't user-friendly yet), and like all wikis, the more people who contribute to the system, the more useful it will be.

The Biomimicry Database contains information about organisms, products, academic citations, researchers and other experts, and the concepts distilled out of all these sources. In addition to searching by keyword, users can also browse through category schemes, and when a record is selected it automatically pops up in these schemes--thus, finding one record by keyword can lead to finding a whole category of records which are related but do not share keywords. Perhaps most notably, the database does not attempt to decree one universal ontology to categorize all information, like many "folksonomies" or tag systems do; it recognizes that different users will prefer different schemes, and in fact users can create their own category schemes. This will allow users to not just find information, but organize it, and even help researchers expose gaps in existing knowledge. The database also provides a forum for discussion between researchers, architects, students, and others interested in improving the built word through inspiration from the natural world. Every record in the database has a space for comments, which could develop into a mini discussion board for each topic, or a blog for each person who has a page on the site. The user-created category schemes can also be used to organize research teams.

When planning the tool, we went through the process of trying to design something biomimetic, and discovered it wasn't just a bucket of ideas we needed--we needed a way of finding the right people, something that was a "matchmaking" tool as well as a knowledge source. We wanted to make something with the best aspects of Wikipedia, a relational database, and ThinkCycle. We may or may not have succeeded, but we've at least created a new kind of tool. As mentioned above, I think it could be good for things outside of biomimicry as well. The structure is generalizeable to anyplace that people from different disciplines want to share knowledge: programmers and hardware geeks, politicians and conservationists, etc. The way the Browse feature hooks in automatically with search allows you to do sort of a Newton's Method iterative search; keywords are a horizontal search, Browse is a vertical search, and together they help you spiral in on what you're looking for.

Another thing we learned while designing the tool is how hard it is to organize information in a way that everyone will understand or agree on. In the end we decided it can't be done without forcing users to learn your system, and no system is perfect. We wanted data to self-organize into ontologies by individual links or tags, like a folksonomy, but in the end we made a multiple-separate-ontology system, which I think is more useful because it doesn't average away specific insights--you can find or create an organization scheme that's highly tailored to your needs, and if you need to translate from your viewpoint to another person's, you can just select an item in your scheme and click over to their scheme to see where the item shows up there. (Heck, Yahoo should have an engine like this to make its web-categorizations better.)

There is no release date for the full version yet. One purpose of the prototype is to serve as a poster-child for funding the full version's creation, especially if an active community of users springs up around it. It should also serve to enliven the small field of biomimicry, and expose areas where more research and knowledge-transfer are needed.

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Comments

I am curious if anyone here has read Cats' Paws and Catapults, by Steven Vogel. It is about the engineering-biology crossover-- and Vogel comes from the biology side.

In his opinion, biomimicry is more than it's cracked up to be, or at least different from how engineers imagine it will be.

It's been a few years since I read the book, so my perspective may be different now, but at the time I recall enjoying it and finding Vogel's points convincing (I wrote a short review ). I'd be interested to hear other views.


Posted by: Kim Allen on 17 Sep 05

Yes, Cats' Paws and Catapults is one of the better books on biomimicry for engineering. Some day I'll write a little biomimicry primer article which I'll put a good reading list in. ...when I get around to it..


Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 17 Sep 05

"Although we try to refrain from talking about our own work here..."

I'm keen to hear about the other work n stuff you guys do - nothing beats hearing about issues from an insider's perspective. Bring it on.


Posted by: Sun Flower on 18 Sep 05



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