Each month during the academic year, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
You’re currently doing engineering and design work at Biomimicry 3.8. What was the path that landed you there?
My background is in mechanical engineering, or technically engineering mechanics, which is the slightly nerdier version, if you can believe such a thing exists
What I always wanted to do was design consulting. I got into the product design consulting world, and spent the first 14 years of my career in a product development firm out of Philadelphia called Bressler group, and they’re kind of one of the bigger firms on the east coast.
For the first 10 years there, I got to do all aspects of product design. We did medical devices, consumer electronics, industrial equipment — it was really kind of all over the board. I loved that it was always something new, and always something interesting. We got to work with great people and great companies, and solve some cool problems in a wide range of industries.
The interesting thing about being a consultant is that you’re very much a generalist. So we are experts in the process of knowing a little bit about everything, and then pulling that together to solve certain problems.
There was no biomimicry or sustainability focus to our work at that time. But as we got further and further along, and that company grew, we got more involved in more of the front end innovation and also the logistics and supply chain of the things we were designing. This allowed us more visibility into the problems we were solving and the solutions we were creating. Because of this, I started to discover that we were creating as many problems as we were solving in terms of resource inefficiency, waste in the supply chain, and end of life issues. The circular economy was just beginning to get discussed.
This was around 2006 and 2007. So I really dove into sustainable product design as a kind of a personal focus and passion project of mine for another four or five years. We did some interesting projects, but I was frustrated by the slow uptake in our clients in pursuing that kind of thing. So I pivoted to biomimicry.
I live in Montana and I got introduced to Janine Benyus through a mutual acquaintance, and I just sort of fell in love with everything about it. I love the outdoors. I love nature. And the fact that you could combine sustainability and design and love of nature into one discipline was like a slam dunk for me. So I did the master’s program at ASU and I did the biomimicry professional program as well, and graduated in 2018.
Since then, for the last three years, I’ve been working with Biomimicry 3.8. And so I lead design projects, specifically product design, and also a lot of our work in the built environment. It’s architecture, landscape architecture, and master planning, but there are some really interesting intersections between the built environment — like a factory — and the design of the thing that you make in that factory, and how they’re tied together and making them both both performs sustainably as a system.So it’s kind of a mix of built environment and product design.
I’m a new student in the MASD program and have a background in business. Do I need to be an engineer to work in biomimicry?
Good question. Absolutely not. One of the things that is both great — and also sometimes a challenge — about biomimicry is that there’s literally no human being on earth who has all the skill sets to do it by themselves. It’s so fundamentally multidisciplinary, that you need engineers, yes, and you need biologists and you need designers. But even beyond that, you need subject matter experts in whatever problems you’re trying to solve. So there is no discipline that doesn’t apply.
People who make biomimicry a career need to be well versed in a few disciplines and to play the role of a connector and a translator between disciplines. And so the common thread in biomimicry is knowing a little bit about a few of those different things so you can help tie the pieces together.
Business is a spectacular entry point because we can have the greatest solutions in the world, but if they don’t meet a business need and can’t be communicated in that way, then nothing happens with them. If you want to approach problems from the business side, there’s tremendous potential to solve real big problems there. We need those people. We need that language.
I’m an apparel designer, and I’m not in a role that really drives innovation in the company. How can I use biomimicry as a tool within the constraints of building apparel?
That’s a common problem. One of the great things is you can do biomimicry at a lot of different levels with lots of different scales of effort. There’s no reason you can’t think about every problem you solve through the lens of biomimicry at your own personal level. And that’s clearly the place to start. Because you need those examples in your industry, preferably in your company, preferably in your team of you know. Sometimes for the right people, you can sell them on the idea of biomimicry without having an example, but depending on the corporate culture that may or may not be possible. So examples are really useful.
Innovation is a huge leverage point, because people either fundamentally care about sustainability or they don’t, and you’re probably not going to change that. But everyone says they care about innovation, and biomimicry is an innovation methodology. They don’t have to care about sustainability — that piece can come along for the ride. They don’t have to share the ethos, necessarily. If they care about innovation, then that’s a good gateway drug to biomimicry more broadly.
What else can you share about integrating biomimicry into corporate cultures?
One body of work to look at is that by a woman named Leith Sharp at Harvard. She has done a lot of work on mapping successful projects, and not successful projects, at lots of different companies and looking within this kind of a corporate structure to figure out how really cool really big innovative things happen, and where they crash and burn. This idea of mapping a given corporate culture or a given team, and understanding where your leverage points are, can demonstrate impact, where to change things, where to not change things, and what roadblocks to look for. Having that kind of big systems view of what makes innovation and what makes projects succeed or not succeed, is really helpful. She’s got some cool stuff on that.
One thing I’ve seen over the years is that when people completely fall in love with biomimicry, they want everyone else to fall in love with it. That tends to backfire. The idea that comes out of the biomimicry process needs to be good enough to stand alone. It shouldn’t require the story of where it came from. Start with showing your really cool idea. The story can come after the fact. But the level of innovation has to stand alone. It can’t rest on the fact that it’s biomimetic.
Companies are very invested in their processes, how they do things. So it’s important to not talk about biomimicry as if it’s some new process — companies don’t want new processes. Biomimicry is not a new process that has to stand alone. In fact, it’s most useful we find when we figure out where it integrates into whatever their existing process is. It’s super easy to plug biomimicry into various steps in conventional design thinking methodologies, or whatever process they use. When biomimicry is in support of whatever existing process people are already committed to, that’s much easier to sell. It’s a lens and information added to an existing process. It’s not some brand new process you have to change to.
What are you working on now that really excites you?
The big thrust in the built environment for us right now is what we call Project Positive. It’s a positive performance methodology which, really big picture, says that if you’re going to go in and develop a building, a landscape, a city, you can define what sustainability looks like for that project by considering how an ecosystem in that place would have functioned. You look at reference habitats for a certain place, and you say, for example, before we put this factory here, it would have been, 50%, Savanna and 50%, Oak woodland, and that ecosystem would sequester so much carbon, it would attenuate so much noise, it would filter so much water, it would create so much oxygen. Then we basically put together a suite of what are called ecosystem services, and then those become benchmarks for the new facility.
So it’s not fundamentally bad to build a factory, but in addition to making stuff, it should do all of the other things that that place has done, could do, or should do, you could argue. Then we solve for how to do that using biomimicry. How do you make a factory that functions like a forest? was the name of our first project with Interface. That was five or six years ago, and was the kickoff for that.
What they were really learning gets back to some of the other stuff about how you integrate with corporate priorities, and how you fit into existing processes, and how you reinforce the values and directions of businesses going in already. It became clear that we needed the perspective of a lot of different businesses, because what was working for Interface was going to work for them, but it wasn’t necessarily going to work for somebody else. So we put this thing together called Project Positive, which is a collaborative. I think there’s seven or eight members right now. The CIO Interface was a founding member. Our two most active clients in the space right now are Microsoft and Ford. Google is also a member.
Interface gets a lot of their plastic from a company called Aquafill. They’re a member, local plastic packaging supplier, And so what these companies do is they all come in to this collaborative and they all are doing pilot projects in positive performance, whether it’s a car factory for Ford, or a data center for Microsoft or supply chain for Google, like they all have their own places, they’re applying it. But then they come back together.
It’s a pre-competitive information sharing kind of thing. Because it’s not about the technology, it’s not about the solution. It’s not about sharing what they learned or what they’re doing. But it’s about like, we all want positive performance to happen. And so here’s how we’re learning about how to make it happen. Like, here’s how we got buy-in at the VP level here is how we are doing communication internally to get support, here is what’s resonating with our engineers, here’s where we’re getting pushback and how we overcame it.
I think this is just really inspiring, both because the projects themselves are cool, but also this idea that these companies would come together as part of a collaborative and compare notes about advancing that work. I think it is maybe the most exciting thing that we’re doing at the moment, built environment wise.
Startups represent a real opportunity for creating and establishing some of those frameworks, but when you’re so small, you don’t have as much control over your supply chain. You’re renting, you’re not owning property. What insights do you have for those kinds of spaces?
Even smaller organizations have their impact, and you can have influence there. But they also tend to exist in and nested within broader systems. Iif the system you’re talking about is your supply chain, and it’s so much bigger than you are that you can’t touch it, then then you can’t touch it. But there are industry associations, trade associations, industry conferences, and B-Corps. We’re a B-Corp and we go to the B Corp conferences. That’s a great place to sync up with other similarly sized organizations, and they pull resources together to address exactly this kind of issue.
At the last one, they had a whole climate change group and one of the subgroups was all of these companies that were working on sustainable packaging. They all had exactly the problem you described. They all knew what they needed was a new polymer, but none of them are big enough or have the resources to make a new polymer. So they pooled their resources and did a pre-competitive agreement, even though they were competitors. They all needed this thing and competed on products, but they didn’t need to compete on packaging — they needed to collaborate on packaging. Together, they innovated a new flavor of a more sustainable polymer that they all now use. So finding those groups where you’re maybe not big enough, but you share interests with larger groups within your industry, or with some common shared value system, like the B-Corp community, can be a helpful way to overcome that.
What other constraints have you run into and how have you addressed those?
The other constraint you run up against is the fact that there’s no time to do this. That comes up all the time because people set up timelines assuming that there’s no truly novel innovation going on, or no biomimicry going on. The key idea here is to identify issues that are outside of the critical path or issues that your company faces over and over again. So those cosmetics companies, it was the material for the package was a side thing. It wasn’t going to delay the launch of a new product, for example, it wasn’t going to screw up their business plan.
Another way to think about that is that in the built environment, we go, and we do a lot of biological research into these places. And, again, if that was in the critical path, it would be a problem. But what these companies will do is they’ll say, okay, 75% of the facilities we own worldwide are in temperate broadleaf forest, so let’s do a bunch of research and learning about what it means to fit in ecologically and socially in a temperate broadleaf forest – it will apply to all of our projects. It’s not going to get inserted into the critical path of a project, but we’re going to do a bunch of learning on the side that we can apply in the future.
What other biomimicry application are you excited about?
Everybody talks about a circular economy, and everybody says we want to be circular with our energy and our resources, our materials. Everybody says that, but then when it comes to solving that problem, almost everybody just looks at the material side in a circular way. From an energy side, they just look at reducing their energy use. But the opportunity to think circularly about energy I think is really, really exciting. And that’s one piece of what we’re doing with Microsoft.
For example, a datacenter is millions of computers in a building the size of the biggest building I can think of — like a Walmart Supercenter — consuming an unfathomable amount of energy. In Microsoft’s case, all of that energy is all renewable to begin with — it came from solar panels and wind farms. That’s a good place to start, but that is fundamentally less bad, not positive. It’s not regenerative, it’s not doing anything new or useful, it’s just basically taking impact to zero.
Collectively, we all know that impact has to go to the other side of zero if we’re gonna fix all of our problems.
The interesting thing about computers is they don’t actually consume electricity, they don’t consume energy, they transform energy into heat. 99% of the power that goes into a data center comes out as heat. So if you can find something productive to do with that heat that offsets what would have been done with fossil fuels, then you have essentially taken initially renewable energy, you have powered state of the art technology with it, and then you have opposite fossil fuel with it. Then you can think about that sort of cascading down, so it’s almost like recycling with energy.
Can you talk a little bit about your process, how you approach projects?
It depends on how biomimicry has been applied, and there are a lot of different ways to apply it. The original form, or the more conventional form, is function based. It’s solving a specific function. I’m sure in your biomimicry classes you’ve talked about how function is the magic translation between biology and engineering and design. You can’t ask a biologist how to design a better car bumper, because nature doesn’t do car bumpers, but you can ask a biologist how to manage impact. And then you can see what you can learn from that. We usually go broader and start with system thinking. We want to match or exceed the ecosystem functions. If it’s a product, rather than a built environment project, we look at specific functions and then the entire life cycle.
Do you have advice for our students?
Don’t get discouraged. Find your leverage points. You’re doing really important work and the world needs you.