Faculty Focus: Exploring Upwards, Downwards and Sideways



Exploring Upwards, Downwards and Sideways: Using a systems lens in design

The seed landed on my table. It was a complete system that contained DNA to start a new tree, a transport mechanism that made use of existing forces, and clear evidence of how it grew. This system had multiple parts or sub-systems, and each had a function. All were interconnected closely.

At a higher level, the seed was a component of a tree, which was part of a grove, which was part of the local biome. Looking lower, each component of the seed was composed of cells, and each cell had smaller elements that transformed and stored both energy and information. Other seeds take advantage of water as transport (coconuts), or birds as transport (cherries). And their strategy is to broadcast widely, with some landing on fertile ground and sprouting, while others returning to the earth they sprang from.

In a similar way, our designs fit into existing systems, are composed of smaller elements, have systems adjacent to them, and use forces in the environment. The way in which our designs do all these things determines their beauty, impact and sustainability. The design also determines how many systems will take up our designs (or adopt the innovation), and how far it will spread.

As biomimics, we study nature to inspire better designs. We focus on something which is at one level of system, and can gain insight by exploring upwards, downwards, and sideways to see how the function of interest is connected. Once we grasp how this function works, how it was generated, and how it connects, we can create a map locating it in the universe. When attempting to transfer these ideas into technology or organizations, the same methods we used to map the inspiration from nature can be used to visualize the situation (and systems) we are intending to change.

One way this can be helpful is considering where the materials and energy for the design come from. Another question is how the materials in our design return to earth systems after the end of useful life.

This process can also help us locate other places in a system where improvements can be made. There might be a reorganization of system components, or a different use of existing forces that has a good effect.

Using a systems view is easy and straight-forward. Stop to look up, down, and sideways. Then sketch what you see, and explore the boundaries and connections.


Image courtesy of Curt McNamara

Original post published on September 7, 2015 by the Biomimicry Institute.

Curt McNamara

Curt McNamara (PEng) is an educator and practicing designer with over 20 years experience. He is a scholar of R. Buckminster Fuller and authored the entry on Fuller in the UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. Curt received the IEEE Millennium Medal in 2000 for his ongoing work in education, is a Biomimicry Education Fellow, and wrote the Systems Chapters in Sustainable Graphic Design (Wiley) and Packaging Sustainability (Wiley). Curt is based in Minnesota.