Billy is an Astrobiofuturist, exploring biology-inspired solutions to improve the human condition for those of us on earth and those who will travel to the stars. He speaks to multiple generations of inventors, designers, scientists and engineers on designing the future they wish to see.
Previously, Billy was a creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, leading efforts to develop immersive experiences and environments around the world. He is an inventor and holds a Masters degree in Biomimicry from Arizona State University and Bachelors degree in Architecture from Howard University.
Billy sits on the Board of Directors for the Biomimicry Institute, the world’s leading authority on nature’s solutions to design challenges.
What are you currently doing or working on?
In addition to teaching and speaking, I work with companies on experience and product design. At this stage in my career, I choose work that I believe contributes to a more sustainable and inclusive human experience, both on Earth and in space.
What is the most exciting or inspiring thing you’re working on now?
There are a few projects that I’m very excited about, but I can’t talk about them until they’re publicly announced. That’s kind of the nature of the business. It’s important for graduate students to know that – especially in design work – projects can be in development for years before the public knows about them. Using the bigger the scale of the solution, the longer it takes to come out because it takes a long, long time to ideate, iterate, and perfect an idea that’s ready for mass consumption or use.
What sustainability or sustainable design projects are you looking forward to working on?
Ones that ponder and play with the concept of nature (with all of its elements, benefits, and challenges) in interstellar travel.
What books have been most influential to your thinking or work?
“Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach. Leland Melvin’s “Chasing Space.” “Art Instinct” by Denis Dutton and “Sleight of Mind” by Stephen L. Macknik. They’re fueling my own philosophy on how psychology, design and space intersect.
What people have been most influential to your thinking or work?
Two people immediately come to mind: Lanny Smoot and Janine Benyus. Lanny is a mentor who works at Walt Disney Imagineering. He has numerous patents and it’s been such an opportunity to work alongside him and see how he cultivates hyper-creativity to solve real world problems.
Janine’s book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” is what nudged me on to the path that I’m on now, in terms of sustainable design, while I was an architecture student at Howard University. Her work has changed my life and perspective in more ways that I can count.
What have you learned from your students?
This semester, I look forward to learning about the individual worlds my students live in. I want to meet my students where they’re at and support their professional goals wherever they are in their professional journey. In order to do that, I want to understand more about what life looks like in their corner of the world; the challenges, the opportunities, the people who support or resist their aspirations.
What do you teach in the program that you wish everyone would learn?
How to harness the power of storytelling in order to pitch your product or solution successfully. It’s absolutely key in getting your work across the finish line, so a client or decision-maker can buy off on the highest, most inspirational version of your idea. From what to include in a pitch deck to finessing an elevator pitch on an idea, I share everything I’ve learned with my students so they can hit the ground running when they launch their professional careers.
What makes you hopeful?
Seeing how today’s youth are taking hold of the present and fighting for the future they deserve to live in. One that is sustainable, fair, and just. I think every generation, when they have their coming-of-age moment, moves the needle forward. However, there’s something special about this generation. We all can feel it and I think it has everything to do with the urgency of the moment. I just hope we can get out of their way fast enough and be their support system.
If you had a magic wand and could completely solve one sustainability problem, what would it be?
Hands down: Plastic and other non-biodegradable waste in the ocean.
If you could give all students one piece of advice, what would it be?
Think big! When it comes to a goal of yours, think BIG. A common phrase with my peers is this: It’s easy to take a big idea and make it smaller, if it needs to be. It’s ten times harder to take a small idea and scale it larger.
Thank you, Billy!